A Comprehensive Guide To Painting Your Nails, Part 2: Tips, Tricks & Techniques For Painting Your Nails

Written by Victoria McMillin


Posted on January 30 2023

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Hey Beauties!

Welcome back to our third installment of our comprehensive guides to preparing and painting your nails for a long lasting manicure! (Read the first two posts here and here.) We did it! We finally made it to the part where we get to paint our nails! After all this preparing, I'm ready, how about you? Here are my best and favorite tips, tricks and techniques for painting your nails and creating a manicure that lasts and looks beautiful. (No salon necessary!)

Application Style: Pressing vs. Floating

There are two main ways to apply nail polish. The first, “pressing” is probably the most intuitive and the way that we typically start out applying nail polish when we begin doing manicures at home. The second, "floating” is a bit more advanced and great for finishing manicures.

Pressing Technique

The “pressing” application is most intuitive because it feels like other things we’ve done. When you write with a pencil, you have to press the pencil to the paper to make a mark. When you paint with a paintbrush, you have to apply pressure to the surface with the paint and brush in order to leave a stroke. You get the idea. Most people apply nail polish in the way that they would apply eyeshadow or lipstick. Apply pressure with the brush to the nail and it leaves a stroke of nail polish on the nail.

The most common method of “pressing” when applying nail polish is a technique I was taught a long time ago when I first started painting my nails. You take your nail polish brush (with nail polish on it) and start about two-thirds down the center of the nail, nearing the cuticle. Press the nail polish brush down onto the nail and gently and slowly push the brush towards the cuticle until there is just a tiny space of nail between the nail polish and the cuticle. Lighten the pressure slightly of the brush to your nail and pull the brush all the way up the nail to complete the stroke. When you go to do the right and left sides of the nail, use the tip of your brush to connect the center stroke to the side stroke (whichever side you are working on) and press the brush onto the nail and pull it all the way up the nail. When using the “pressing” method, your nail polish brush will always keep in contact with your nail.

The “pressing” application style is a great way to get a clean cuticle line and I often use this method for the first coat of nail polish I apply. This tends to create thinner coats, but, depending on the nail polish and the amount of strokes you do, it can sometimes leave the application streaky. If you don’t wait long enough for each layer of nail polish to dry, it can also cause the next layer of nail polish to drag and pull on the previous layer (due to the pressure applied) which just leaves you with a mess!

Floating Technique

Which brings me to the “floating” application method. It’s great for a second coat (or sometimes third coat, depending on your nail polish) to create a super smooth finish, especially with nail polishes known to be streaky. 

When you use the “floating” method of application, you are going to softly lay the nail polish brush on the nail, but you don’t want to actually touch the bristles to the nail. Usually the tip of the nail polish brush is just a little bit away from the cuticle (or if you are floating your second coat, the tip will be at the previously created nail polish line). Gently and slowly pull the brush upwards without pressing on the nail (or pressing very lightly) to create a stroke. When you go to do the right and left side, use the tip of the brush to connect the center stroke starting at the previously created nail polish line to the side stroke while using a very light touch (you are still floating, remember).

Think of the nail polish on the brush acting a bit like a cushion so that the brush doesn’t touch your nail, but is rather just touching the nail polish and the nail polish is touching your nail. This technique gets its name because you are “floating” the brush over the nail instead of applying pressure onto the nail. It can take some practice and a little getting used to, but once you get this technique down, it’s really very helpful in painting your nails!

How To Apply Nail Polish

Ok, you’ve got nice clean and prepped nails (thanks to our previous post), you’ve got your base coat, nail polish and top coat, let’s paint our nails!

Step 1:

On clean, prepped nails, apply 1 coat of your base coat using the “pressing” method. Wait for the base coat to completely dry.

Step 2:

Take your nail polish bottle and gently roll it between your hands to mix it up. If you are using an older bottle of nail polish that has started to separate or the hand rolling technique doesn’t work for the nail polish or the shape of the bottle that you are using, you can shake the bottle to redistribute the pigments. This will cause air bubbles in the nail polish and it is recommended to let the bottle sit a couple of minutes to relieve some of the air bubbles. Got a super difficult polish? We recommend using this test tube mixer. It’s actually for use in a lab, but works great with nail polish bottles!

When your nail polish is ready to go, unscrew the bottle cap and pull out the brush. Wipe one side of the brush off completely on the inside of the nail polish bottle. I wipe the top side (or the side facing outwards) off, since you don’t need nail polish on the top of your brush, only the bottom. At this point, there is still too much nail polish on your brush, so what I do is go about a quarter to one half of the way up the brush (from the tip to about the quarter or halfway point of the bristles) and wipe off the bottom of the brush on the inside of the nail polish bottle. This leaves you with about one to three quarters of the nail polish on the brush. The nail polish that is on the top quarter or so of the underside of the brush will run down to the tip when you go to apply the nail polish. (Please note, you can use this method to get the right amount of base coat and top coat on your brush as well.)

It’s important to get the right amount of nail polish on your brush. Too much nail polish will cause thick coats that don’t dry well and too little nail polish will cause uneven and streaky coats that don’t cover well. You will want to repeat this step every time you need to add more nail polish to your brush (this is usually once per nail for me, but it could be as often as every stroke if you have longer nails).

Step 3:

Now that your nail polish brush is ready, apply your first coat in a thin layer using the “pressing” method. This first layer may look a little streaky, and that’s ok. You want this layer to be thin and fairly even. Some nail polishes (particularly ones that have a high percentage of white pigment in them) tend to be more streaky in application than others. However, if your nail polish has gotten older or is too thick and not applying nicely, I would recommend using a nail polish thinner like this one. Never use nail polish remover or acetone to thin down a nail polish. This will ultimately ruin your nail polish (though the effects may not be immediate). 

After you have finished painting the nail, cap the free edge by running your brush (with very little polish on it) along the free edge of your nail. Some people prefer to do this first before painting the nail so that you don’t have a bump at the end of your nail. If you are doing it after you’ve painted your nail and find that you have a bump along your free edge, just gently smooth it off with your nail polish brush. The key to not having a bump on your free edge when capping them is to have very little nail polish on your brush. After you’ve painted your nail, do not add more paint to your brush, just use the little bit leftover from painting your nail to cap your edge. Or, paint your free edge first and then your nail.

As a side note, I only refresh my nail polish brush with new nail polish once per nail, not once per stroke. So, I paint three strokes on each nail, cap the free edge and them refresh my nail polish brush with more nail polish for the next nail. As mentioned before, if you have longer nails, you may need to add more nail polish to your brush more often.

Let your first layer dry completely before advancing.

Step 4:

For the second layer of nail polish, use the “floating” application method. If your first layer was a little streaky, “floating” the nail polish on the second layer will help cover up the streakiness and create an even coat. Let this layer dry completely.

Step 5:

Apply your top coat. You can use the above method for loading your brush as mentioned. Sometimes I like to go a little heavier with my top coat since it is the last layer and will be providing protection for my manicure. But this is totally a personal preference.

Let your top coat dry completely and voilà! Your manicure is almost done! But, first, a little side note:

How Many Coats Of Nail Polish Do I Really Need?

I get asked this question a lot by people who are new to painting their nails. You only need one layer of a base coat and one layer of a top coat, but how many layers of nail polish do you really need on your nails? The answer is, it depends.

There are many mainstream nail polishes (think OPI, Essie or China Glaze) whose nail polishes are completely opaque in two coats. Two coats of nail polish is pretty standard in the salon and nail polish world and is a good rule of thumb to start out with, however, I think it’s important to note that you could just have one coat of nail polish on your nails or as many as three coats (not counting your base coat and top coat).

With the popularity of handmade and artisan nail polishes, like BLUSH Lacquers, many independent nail polish makers like myself use a wider range of nail polish ingredients that have varying degrees of coverage and visual effects. For example, multichrome shimmers and flakies have long been an ingredient widely used in indie nail polishes, but not often in mainstream nail polishes. To get the best effect with these types of pigments and ingredients, it’s best to keep them in a thinner base so that their effect can easily and strongly be seen. And, if your base is thinner, that often means that you won’t get as much coverage in two coats of nail polish and you’ll often need a third coat to reach full coverage on the nails. 

I find that with many indie nail polishes that three thin coats of nail polish is pretty common to get the best coverage and visual effect of the pigments. Although, I have often gotten away with the above nail polish application method and only used two coats for indie nail polishes as well. It has to do a lot with how you apply the polish and how much coverage you want as well as each individual maker's preference in nail polish making.

In the fashion and celebrity world, it’s been a bit of a trend lately to show your nail line (where the skin meets the underside of the nail) and to not have fully opaque nails. I think indie makers have had a bit of an influence on that and also the jelly nail trend (like this, this, this and this) and maybe even the glazed donut trend (here and here)!

And then there are some nail polishes that we call one coat wonders! That means that they are completely opaque in just one coat. And if an opaque nail is what you are going for and you get that achieved in just one coat, why do a second? Again it’s up to personal preference. If a nail polish looks great in just one coat, I usually leave it that way. But, if I have the time and want to add another layer of durability, sometimes I do a second layer even with one coat wonders. Check out one of our best-selling and favorite one coat wonders here!

After The Nail Polish Dries

After your manicure has fully dried, you are going to want to moisturize your cuticles. You can do this with a cuticle oil, cuticle balm or even a hand moisturizer (though the first two options will give you the best results). Keeping your hands, nails and cuticles moisturized will not only keep them soft, supple and looking great, but will also help if you experience a lot of nail peeling or breaks. Remember to apply cuticle oils and balms liberally and often (multiple times a day if you can) to keep your hands in the best shape!

Keeping The Manicure Going

So we’ve done the best possible routine that we could do to create a great and long lasting manicure, but sometimes we still need a little help. (I’m a “we”.) If you are someone who is pretty rough with your hands (and the cold, dry winter weather isn’t doing us any favors either!) then even with the best possible nail care routine you may still experience chips or nail wear. I’ve got a few more tips to help you out with that!

Moisturize, Moisturize and Moisturize again!

I know I sound like a broken record, but it really does help. Keep cuticle oils and balms on your bedside table, at your desk, in your bathroom and by the kitchen sink. Any time you wash your hands, moisturize your nails and cuticles. When I started really getting on a moisturizing schedule with our cuticle oils and cuticle balms, I noticed such a difference in my nails and cuticles. We’re nearing the halfway point of winter and I have yet to have my nails peel and usually they start peeling at the first burst of cold winter wind! I still occasionally get a few nail breaks, but they are few and far between and the ones I do get are much smaller and not so drastic (I also attribute part of this to changing from an oval/round nail shape to a square one. Read more about nail shapes and shaping here).

Reapply Your Top Coat

Every 1-2 days refresh your manicure with a fresh layer of top coat. This will help to strengthen your manicure and will add a fresh shine to it as well.

Add A Topper

If you have minimal wear, but want to change your mani and freshen it up, why not try adding a topper? You get a little glitter, a little sparkle and you can cover up any blemishes from your underlying manicure while still getting a few extra days out of it. Don’t forget to finish with another layer of top coat.

Fill In The Gaps!

Did you get a small paint chip off of a fingernail or two? Or maybe just some wear along the top edge? Take your bottle of nail polish and gently fill in the missing spots or re-cap your nail polish. Top with a layer of top coat and you’re good to go!

Re-Do The Problem Nails

Maybe you had one or two nails just really go off the rails this week and they look like they’ve been through a train wreck, but the rest of manicure is looking pretty good. If this is the case, and you don’t want to re-do your whole manicure or you are not ready to change your nail polish color yet, remove the nail polish off of those one or two nails and re-do them completely without re-do your whole manicure. You can use these clips to hold the remover and pad to your finger so you don’t have to worry about accidentally removing nail polish from your good looking fingers. Also, Zoya Remove+ is our favorite nail polish remover. It's highly effective without being drying or harsh on your nails and fingers.

When Should You Change Your Nail Polish?

The easy answer is when you feel like it. Or when you’re bored of your current manicure. However, at a certain point, it does become necessary to change your manicure. Even if you could manage to get your manicure to last for three or four weeks, the paint job might look great, but you are going to have substantial nail growth at the cuticle line and that part isn’t going to look great. In my opinion, your top wear time for an at home manicure should be no more than two weeks and one week is really preferable, especially if you plan on keeping a nice nail care routine.

What do you think of these comprehensive guides we've put together? Did they help you create a beautiful and long lasting manicure? Do you want to see more posts like this? Comment below to let us know!

Read more of our 'Comprehensive Guide' series here:
A Comprehensive Guide To Preparing Your Nails For A Long Lasting Manicure
 Comprehensive Guide To Painting Your Nails, Part 1: All About Base Coats, Top Coats And Nail Polish



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