Stepping Up Your Polish Game

And by “polish,” I mean for the nails, as opposed to tips on picking up Polish people. That is a WHOLE other article.

A few weeks ago, I put together a basic polishing post. Now that we have all had time to master the art of the basic manicure or pedicure, let’s step it up a bit. Just a little bit, I promise. But first, a few things that must be laid out and dealt with.

If you can’t draw on paper, you can’t draw on your nails, either.

This one was hard for me to accept, folks. Try as I might, my lack of artistic talent meant those adorable Hello Kitty nails weren’t going to happen, and the sooner I made peace with that, the better. However! All hope is not lost on the nail art front, my darlings. There are plenty of adorable things you can do to jump on the nail art bandwagon without a lick of talent.

Unless you have a steady hand, most of those fancy “nail art” polishes with the little skinny brushes are not your friend.

I have those polishes in nearly every color they come in, convinced that my dream to use them without looking like I did my nails while 4-wheeling in the jungle will magically come true. Alas, it has not. That’s not to say they aren’t fun to play with, but the reality of your manicure will likely never match the idea in your head or the Pinterest tutorial that lied to you about how simple it was.

Speaking of Pinterest, it is a liar, liar, pants on fire.

I love Pinterest. I confirm all preconceived stereotypes about a woman hunched over her iPad furiously pinning all the amazing projects I am going to create, all the organizational binders I am going to use, and all the nail art I am going to wow the world with. Look folks, there is a reason there are entire blogs devoted to the horrific realities of Pinterest projects. Some people are exceptionally talented, and I truly believe they think their tutorials are super simple and easy to duplicate. Unfortunately for us mere mortals, this is rarely the case. Let’s try to keep it simple here, everybody. Let’s stop aiming for the stars and having our confidence dashed when we just. Can’t. Get. The. Damn. Leopard. Print. Nail. Art. To. Look. The. Same. ARRGGHHH!! Yes, awesome leopard print nails are my Everest, everyone. One of these days, it is going to work out for me. One of these days.

Now that we have gotten those out of the way, let’s move on to some simple, super cute, super easy tips and tricks, shall we?

Polka Dots

Polka dots are just plain awesome. I feel a bit too twee to wear them, clothing-wise, but I will rock that shit on my nails in a heartbeat. There is an endless number of color combinations to try, and they are really, really easy if you know the tricks. First of all, avoid the aforementioned skinny brush polish. Trying to get a uniform amount onto that brush will only result in heartbreak and a huge dollop of paint where a teeny little dot was supposed to go. The best tools for dots are toothpicks and plastic forks. Toothpicks are best if you are looking to do random designs; forks help keep the dots more uniform. Observe–

photo of Kym's hand using a plastic fork to put green polka dots on dark nails

Photo of Kym's thumb with dark brown painted nail with a row of 4 green dots

photo of kym's hand using a fork to put green polka dots on a dark brown painted finger nail

photo of kym's thumb painted dark brown with green polka dots

Voilà! Please excuse the random color combination, but I am doing my nails at work again, and I only have green polish here for some reason. Just get a piece of paper out and dollop some polish on it to dip your fork into, then place the first tine in the lower corner of your nail and rock the fork forward. Repeat until you have the number of dots you’re going for. The fork is awesome for keeping the lines straight (well, straightish; perfection is overrated), and keeping a toothpick handy to touch up dots that may not be as solid is a good idea.


As with polka dots, the nail art polishes require a really, really steady hand to get a straight line. I am incapable of doing it, so I cheat. For stripes you will need tape. A number of tutorials will tell you that scotch tape works great. It does not. You can try it, but I will almost guarantee you will be disappointed. Masking tape works well; blue painter’s tape works the best. I will be using masking tape for these photos because Walgreen’s wanted $7.99 for the blue tape, which is just ridiculous, and I am not made out of money (although I did grab a bottle of Wet and Wild “On A Trip” polish because I was over the green). The blue tape is expensive, but I have found that the roll you can get at the dollar store works perfectly fine for nails, though I do not recommend it if you are actually painting something of more substance.

Tear off a strip about two inches long, then cut that strip, length-wise, into skinny strips. I have found that you need to cut them really thin, thinner than you would think. I usually cut mine about a millimeter wide, and keep them long; we don’t want them to fit the nail, we want the tape to be longer on both ends.

photo of masking tape strips on a hot pink background

Place the tape on your fingernails in whatever design you want– horizontal stripes, vertical, sunburst, be creative!

photo of Kym's fingernail painted dark brown with masking tape stripes on it on a pink background

Press the tape down firmly, making sure it is securely on your nail. Pay particular attention to the edges of the nail; press it down nice and good. Once your tape is applied, paint your first coat. If you are using a good polish, you might only need one, but I like to do two, just to be on the safe side. Apply your second coat almost immediately; you don’t want the polish to dry before you remove the tape.

photo of Kym's fingernail with tape on it and purple polish covering the tape

Once the second coat is applied, immediately take the tape off carefully. Grab one of the long tails at the bottom and peel upwards. Repeat until they are all off. If the polish dries, you run more of a risk of part of the polish coming with the tape, so time is of the essence here.

Photo of Kym's nail painted with brown and purple stripes on a pink background

Tada! Stripes! So easy, y’all, I swear. It is fun to play around with the tape, too, making funky little designs on different nails.

Fancy Top Coats

The easiest way to get more artsy with your nails without any discernible talent is to try one of the many topcoats available these days. I am still fond of the Crackle topcoat, even though the fervor has died down around them. I like to paint my nails with a bunch of different base coats and then top them off with one color crackle. You can find the Sally Hansen brand on sale at drugstores pretty easily, and OPI and China Glaze have a number of options.

four nails painted with blue glitter, silver, magenta and pink glitter with black crackle topcoat
image courtesy of

Another AWESOME topcoat is Spotted by OPI. It was only released in France, I believe, with the Spiderman collection, But somehow my awesome, bad-ass little sister acquired a bottle for me for my birthday, so it’s possible. It is the shit.

photo of a hand with nails painted blue, green, yellow, orange and pink with the black OPI Spotted top coat
image via

And last, but certainly not least, is the matte topcoat. Urban Decay at Wal-Mart has one, as does Orly, OPI, Essie, and China Glaze. It is cool to use this to do stripes or other designs; it doesn’t really work for polka dots, though. This picture sums up my love for the matte topcoat and my leopard nail obsession in one fell swoop–

photo of hand holding China Glaze Matte Topcoat with black fingernails and a leopard print design done with the matte finish
image via

One day, leopard mani, you will be MINE!!!

Happy polishing, everyone! If you keep an eye out, there may just be something coming up very shortly that would allow you to use these tips for something fun and perhaps competitive…

14 replies on “Stepping Up Your Polish Game”

Those leopard print nails are stunning!

Are there any tips at all for covering your cuticles/the skin around the nail with something that makes it easier to get nail polish off from the areas where you didn’t intend for it to go? Trying to touch up with remover and cotton buds doesn’t quite give me the neat-edged finish as seen above.

(My only plan likely to work right now is to get BF, who has much better fine motor control, to paint my nails for me.)

I think there’s a product called Liquid Palisade that’s kind of like liquid rubber – you line your nails with it and peel it off quickly. It has a little tip so you can be more precise with it.

I use an angled eyeshadow brush dipped in remover and use the edge of that to clean up. It’s a bit more precise than cotton buds and doesn’t leave little cottony threads all over my nails.

I can’t believe it never occurred to me to use a plastic fork to do polka dots. I’d been using a bobby pin this whole time.

And I don’t know why but I ABHOR matte. If I can’t hail a cab in the middle of the night with my manicure then I have failed at life!

So before any of the arty stuff happens, how do you get your nails in polishing shape?

My fingernails are all different shapes (none of this long oval crap, they’re kinda seashell-shaped without any uniformity toward the white) and too broad to do the ‘three stroke’ technique. And they’re ridgey, and tend towards spreading at the top. What is this BS. I want to have pretty hands!

Hmmm. If you’re not too attached to any length, you could trim them down and try to make square tips? I tried that after giving up on nice ovals (most of my nails have straight-across quicks and tend to grow into square-tips, despite my efforts). It felt a bit weird at first for the nails with round quicks, to have these odd-feeling protruding bits, but I got used to them after a few days. And then, if your nails spread at the end, you could use a file to make them more squarish. This blog ( has a LOT of posts about filing and trying to fix up wonky nails.

If you have broad nails, you might be able to use a slightly thicker coat that won’t dry as quickly, so you can fix up any gaps when applying. Some polishes do have wider brushes – I’ve noticed OPI tend to, and I think some of the Rimmel polishes do too.

Hmm, about the ridges, I think some brands do ridge-filling base coats (maybe Orly? probably plenty of others). Maybe try buffing them every so often to see if you can smooth the ridges out a bit?

I hope some of that helps! I’m not an expert at all, but I’ve tried to deal with some of the same problems you have and am slowly getting better. :D

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