A Secret Technique From A Red Carpet Nail Artist

In our glorious age of no beauty rules, you can pretty much have it your way in whichever beauty category you like, from hair colors to piercings to makeup. But having more options does not necessarily make us better at executing them — in fact it often makes things a hell of a lot more confusing.

For instance, you probably have the standard DIY manicure with one color down pat, but want something a little extra — say a shimmer effect or a small detail — and you may think it's time to call in the pros. However, you don’t have to shell out cash for a unique manicure — and honestly, sometimes it's just way more fun to do it yourself anyway, right?

Enter: layering nail polish. The act of applying two polishes may seem like the exact opposite of a secret — we've all coated a basic mani with glitter polish, thankyouverymuch — but there's a lot more to it than that.

Red carpet and editorial nail artists layer lacquers in unexpected ways to create tons of different looks that simply can't be achieved with one bottle. For help on the subject, we consulted Hollywood manicurist Whitney Gibson. She's a celebrity and editorial nail stylist, and is an expert in beyond-average nail art.

For her pro tips on how to layer nail polish (as seen in the glittery, art deco look she created for us here) simply click through our slideshow.
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The Prep

You don’t need to do anything too crazy before trying a layered polish look; prep your nails as you would for any manicure to help keep your polish pristine for as long as possible.

The most important thing? After filing, cuticle care, and moisturizing, make sure there isn’t any old polish or residual oil on your nail beds — that way nothing comes between the polish and the nail.

Gibson does advise to skip the base coat (as long as the first layer isn’t a dark color that could stain) — instead, opt for a nail prep formula, like OPI's.

OPI Chip Skip Manicure Prep Coat, $13.95, available at HSN.
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The Low-Down On Layering

It’s not hard to layer nail polish. According to Gibson, layering is one of the easiest ways to achieve next-level nails. “All it requires is basic nail painting skills and an experimental mindset,” she encourages. “Depending on your desired effect, you may not need any extra nail art tools, or you may want to enlist a striping brush, dotting tool, or fan brush,” she says.

To start, “choose two or more colors that you like together, making sure at least one color has some translucency. If you want to use a more opaque color, put that on as the first coat and add sheer levels over that. From there, the options are infinite!”

Now to go through all the possible combinations of nail polishes you have knocking around in your cabinets to find the best combos; for example, Nars' cult polish in Orgasm (a staple in many polish collections) is slightly sheer, so it will do well over other neutrals, like beige.

Which brings us to our next dilemma…

Nars Nail Polish in Orgasm, $20, available at Sephora.
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The Layer Players

“Your major players are going to be glitters, jellies (semi-translucent colors), and what I like to call shifters (a sheer color with an iridescent effect),” Gibson lays out. “This is also a good excuse to bust out that polish you own that's hard to use because it's streaky or too sheer.”

Basically, any polish that isn't strictly opaque upon first swipe is game to be layered.

Some sheer picks are OPI’s Sheer Tints Color-Tinted Top Coat and YSL La Laque Couture Pop Water Collection. Sinful Colors makes many shimmer formulas that lend iridescence upon layering.

YSL La Laque Couture Pop Water Collection, $28, available at YSL.
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Get Ready For This Jelly

Rather than just throw one shade of polish over another and be disappointed that it doesn’t look the way you’d hoped, Gibson has some cooler ideas in mind.“To do a simple 'jelly sandwich,’ you just do a sheer color, followed by a glitter, followed by the sheer color again. The effect is a softer, muted glitter.” It’s a subtle way to overhaul the glittery nail look.

For a subdued rock-and-roll nail look, try Smith & Cult’s Ghost Edit over Jin Soon’s Soiree, an abstract, silver and black glitter.

Smith & Cult Nailed Lacquer in Ghost Edit, $18, available at Birchbox.
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Mixology 101

If you don’t want to buy a ton of nail polishes that will likely only be used for these Frankenstein nail looks, Gibson suggests adding an opaque color to a half-used bottle of topcoat to create your own jelly polish.

“I love mixing my own colors this way on set — It gives me the versatility to be able to match any color a makeup artist/art director/stylist/celeb can request,” she says. Remember all those polishes you own whose formulas are too streaky or just past their prime? All you need is any topcoat to create your jelly.

Sally Hansen’s Miracle Gel Top Coat extends the wear of any manicure and though it doesn’t say so on the bottle, can be used with any polish for considerable protection and shine.

It's easy: Add a few drops of color to your clear, shake, test on a fingernail, then add more as desired.

Sally Hansen
Miracle Gel Top Coat, $9.99, available at Ulta.
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Non-Basic Bases

Given the number of nude shades dominating the nail color market, you think it’d be easy pickings to find a signature shade that goes with everything. Not so — it’s even more difficult with nudes when you consider how skin tones can contrast. In case you were considering chucking all those “off” nudes however, there may be a purpose for them after all.

“You can layer white under neons to really make them pop,” Gibson suggests; this tip extends to nudes too, especially if you want to create an opaque canvas for color layering. Considering that colors in a bottle always look deeper than when you paint them on, having that nude or white around underneath may be your secret weapon to getting a shade you desire.

Deborah Lippmann’s nail polish in Naked often tops all the “best nudes” lists; with its versatile, semi-sheer texture, it's a perfect primer for all sorts of manicure ideas.

Deborah Lippmann Nail Color in Naked, $18, available at Nordstrom.
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Take A Cue From Your Lipstick

Gibson says you can layer two colors to perfectly match anything, from your shoes to your makeup.

Think about it like mixing lip colors: When you want your reds to be a bit warmer or cooler toned, layering one red over another can help you achieve a more dimensional effect. The same goes for nail polish. If you’re trying to tweak colors this way, it's best to stick with a slightly sheer formula so both colors can co-mingle equally.

“Essie has a lot of great bright colors that are fairly translucent — perfect for that sheer top layer,” says Gibson. Try Essie’s Lacquered Up for a fiery, bright, warm red or A-List for a classic, blue-toned red that will work beautifully over hues you may already own.

Essie Nail Polish in Lacquered Up, $8.50, available at Essie.
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Think Beyond Top Coats

Not all topcoats need to be clear, especially if you’re going for a layered look. “I love Nailing Hollywood polish in Twink. It's this very Barbie-looking pink, but over dark colors it becomes a really cool, shimmery iridescent,” says Gibson.

Floss Gloss 1080 Pearl is really rad for transforming colors," she adds. "It's a super white pearl and it brightens any color and makes it glow.” For a day-to-night pick, Gibson calls out NCLA's Glow. “It’s just what you'd expect: glow in the dark.” Layered on last, it makes any manicure rave-appropriate.

Nailing Hollywood Nail Polish in Twink, $9.99, available at Beauty.com.
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Texture

You can play with texture by using a matte topcoat on the entire nail, or just parts of it (like a French manicure with just the tips left glossy).
This is also where glitter formulas come in handy, since you can layer them over or under other colors to mess with dimension. Using that matte topcoat in between layers helps with this too. “This changes the whole spatial relationship between the glitter and the nail,” Gibson explains. “Zoya has a lot of great chunky glitters,” she recommends. “I love Monet because it's extra twinkly!”

Tip: Make sure your base color is completely dry, then use tape to strategically apply a matte or glitter shade.

Zoya Nail Polish in Monet, $10, available at Zoya.
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Get Creative With Your Layering

It’s likely that those swirly, abstract, nail-art looks you’ve admired just happen to look much more complicated than they actually are. Gibson breaks it down: “You can apply sheers in a painterly manner to get a watercolor effect. I've made tortoise shell nails using sheer layers. I've done clouds this way, too.”

All it takes is a bit of artful polish layering for a cool marble or cloudy-sky effect.“Take your time between coats,” Gibson advises. “Giving each layer a little time to dry can keep the polish from smudging and ward off bubbling.”

For a shortcut, she mentions Formula X’s Infinite Ombre kit, which is made for layering with a set of different colors for a multi-shade look.

Formula X Infinite Ombre Nail Polish Set in Iced Edition, $29.50, available at Sephora.
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