Nail Art: Linear Water Marble Tutorial

I love water marbling. It’s a bold, beautiful look on the nail, and you can get a variety of designs and finished looks easily, by varying the colors and patterns you use. Because of this, water marbling quickly became one of my favorite types of nail art, and one of my favorite types of manicure to put on my nails. I’ve thought about making a marbling tutorial post for a while, but I felt more than a little intimidated at the idea of putting something like this up on my blog. I’m an introvert (hence why I have an old-fashioned blog, as opposed to a YouTube channel), and I don’t consider myself a nail art expert in any way, shape, or form. My own insecurities kept me thinking that no one would be interested in this, or that I had no business telling anyone how to create any type of nail art. But the idea of doing this post wouldn’t let go of my brain. Which brings me here, nattering away like a nervous nellie. Hey, at the very least, it will be fun, right? And maybe someone can learn from my hard-earned mistakes.

I was drawn to the idea of water marbling from the very first time I saw pictures of it on the interwebs. The patterns … the colors … just everything about it drew me right in. It took a while before I had the courage to try this out on my own nails. I’m not always an adventurous soul, and the whole thing looked so complex and complicated. Before trying to put any sort of design onto my own nails, I watched a LOT of YouTube videos. In particular, both My Simple Little Pleasures ( and Sloppy Swatches ( are favorite channels. My Simple Little Pleasures is a water marble goddess! She does the most amazing color combinations and patterns. I could pretty much watch her videos all day long, and she has a sizable water marble playlist. Sloppy Swatches has a water marble feature every week. Although they don’t exactly post “tutorials”, I found both of these channels extremely helpful with learning how to draw different patterns and how to figure out which polishes will work together and with water. Once I felt ready to give things a try with actual water (as opposed to watching other people do it), I spent quite a while practicing with different colors and brands in water. This helped me figure out what I like to use as far as type of water, types of polish, and type of container for my water. I made a lot of little test strips (putting the patterns out onto strips of white paper) to practice drawing different patterns.

I won’t lie. My first on-the-nails attempt was pretty rough and raw, and yours might be, too. And you know what? That’s okay!! Water marble is one of those things that takes a lot of practice. The process, itself, is fairly simple. But there are a lot of variables. It takes practice to figure out how to balance all of it and get a manicure you love onto your nails. I learn something new every time I do this.


GATHER SUPPLIES: My first step in a water marble is always to gather my supplies. When you are in the midst of trying to get your design onto your nails, you want everything close by and within easy reach. I learned this the hard way. I won’t bore you with tales of all the times I spilled my water or knocked over a full polish bottle while struggling to reach some of my tools. Let’s just say it has happened more than once, and that it wasn’t pretty. Yeah …

In general, you will need room temperature water, a small container to hold your water, nail polish, a tool for drawing your design, a paper towel or napkin to clean your marbling tool, and something to clean the used polish from the top of the water. You should also use something to protect your fingers from excess polish, because this is a messy process. There will be polish everywhere!

This is what I use: Room temperature bottled water. This is nothing fancy. It’s a smaller bottle of water that we buy in bulk for our daughter to take to school. (It’s not terribly eco-friendly, but we do recycle all the bottles. And often refill them. Just putting that out there.) I have seen tutorials where people use regular tap water, and it worked great for them. I have also seen tutorials where people used filtered water out of a Britta-type filtering system. Any of these things work great. You just have to figure out what is most accessible for you, and what works best.

Nail Polish. For this manicure, I used OPI, The I’s Have It and two China Glaze polishes: Up All Night and Meet Me at the Mirage.

Little, metal cup. Mine is an espresso cup that I purchased at Crate & Barrel for about $2. I have tried out a variety of containers, and this is the one I like the best. You do NOT have to use something like this! A lot of people use little disposable cups. Really, any small container will do, although you want something that doesn’t have a wide opening. If your container is too wide, you will have trouble anchoring your polish in order to draw your design.

Water Marble Tool. I got this from Bundle Monster through Amazon. I think it was somewhere around $7. This is a recent acquisition for me, and I LOVE it. I keep my nails on the short side, and this tool has a fine point that allows me to draw much smaller lines/patterns. You don’t need a special tool. You can use a toothpick, an orange stick, or a small dotting tool.

Q-tips. I use these to clear away the excess/used polish after I have dipped my nails into the water. You can use pretty much anything to gather the excess polish. Orange sticks work well, too.

Scotch Tape. (not pictured) I use tape on my finger and around my nail to protect my finger from the excess polish. You can also use masking tape. I have seen people use Vaseline or cuticle oil around the nail, but these methods have not worked for me. A lot of people use a latex barrier. As much as I water marble, I think I need to invest in this, but I haven’t done it yet.

Tweezers. I use these to remove the tape from around my fingers after dipping them. I also have a small plate handy to hold the Q-tips after I clean off the water, as well as the tape after I remove it.


PREPARE YOUR NAILS: Marbling starts out like a normal manicure. Put down your favorite base coat on your clean, dry nails. Let the base coat dry. Then put one to two coats of whatever color you want to use as the base color of your manicure. For this manicure, I decided to use China Glaze, Meet Me at the Mirage for the base color. I usually like to use a color from my water marble, but a lot of people use plain white or plain black as a base. I typically like to use only one coat of whatever color I want for the base, but I will use two coats if there are too many streaks or low spots with one. I used one coat for this manicure.

Once your base color is dry, apply whatever form of protection you are using for the skin on your fingers and around your nails. As I mentioned above, I currently use Scotch tape. I apply one piece of tape just below my cuticle and wrap it around my finger. I apply a second piece of tape along the sides of my finger. I take the second piece of tape as close as I can to one side of my nail (without actually touching the nail), wrap it around the tip of my finger underneath the free edge of my nail, and then bring it back down the other edge of the nail. There will be tape overhang on the back of your finger. You can just push all of that down. The tape mostly sticks to itself.


BUILD YOUR BULLS-EYE: Once your nails are all prepared and you have your skin protection in place, it’s time to hit the polish! This is the exciting part, because it’s where all the fun starts happening. Fill your container with water, making sure you don’t get too close to the top so that you don’t slosh water out over the sides when you dip your nails. Have each polish you want to use nearby, so that you can reach them easily. Make sure the cap is open on each polish. Then, apply polish to the surface of the water, one drop at a time. There’s no set order for how you apply the polish drops. Drop them in whatever order you find the most pleasing. For my design, I did: 1 drop of OPI, The I’s Have It (light blue), 1 drop of China Glaze, Up All Night (dark blue), 1 drop of Meet Me at the Mirage (rosy copper). I repeated this order until I had the number of rings I wanted in the water. I could have done even more drops because all of these polishes spread really well. They were still spreading when I stopped and took this picture, but I didn’t want the center of the bull’s-eye to be too heavy with polish. I have made that mistake before, and it made my final design look muddled.

Continue to drop polish into the cup, drop-by drop, until one of two things happens: 1. You have the number of rings you want for your design or 2. The polish stops spreading. Generally, the more rings of polish you have, the more detail and motion you will have in your final design. But, if you continue to drop polish until it stops spreading, you might end up with the center of your bull’s-eye getting too full and heavy with polish. This is something you kind of have to eye-ball as you are doing it.

You have to drop your polish fairly close to the water. I like to have my brush right above the water’s surface, just shy of touching. If you touch the water with your polish brush, it generally won’t mess up your design or bull’s-eye. Sometimes, if you have a polish that won’t spread, touching the brush to the water’s surface for a second or two will help it along. Don’t leave your brush far away when you drop your polish! If the brush is too high above the water’s surface, your drop of polish will break the surface and sink to the bottom of the container.

Choosing polishes for marbling takes a bit of trial and error. I have marbled with each of these colors before, so I knew they would all work. Generally, you want to try polish with a thinner formula, as the thinner formula gives it the best chance of spreading out in the water. With that said, I have several polishes that are medium or thick formulas, and they work great for marbling. If you have a polish that spreads slowly, you can help the spread along by pairing it with an aggressive spreader. Dropping in a polish that spreads faster kind of pushes the slower polish along. It’s often nice to stay within one polish brand for a marble, as you already know those polishes will have a similar chemical make-up. And so, if they spread fairly well in the water, you already know they should work together. But it’s not necessary. In particular, I have had good luck using OPI and China Glaze together. If I marble with Zoya, I generally stick with only Zoya in the design. Marbling uses up a LOT of polish! So if you have a polish you are particularly attached to, my advice would be to not try it in a marble. I have several brands and bottles of polish that I would never use in a marble, just because they are too precious to me.


DRAW YOUR DESIGN: Now that you have built up your bull’s-eye, it’s time to draw your design. For this marble, I decided to do a linear design. Petal shapes tend to be my favorite, but I recently started doing manicures with a more linear design to them. I found I really like the look of it on my nails.

To make this pattern in the water, I start by taking my marbling tool and placing it at one side/edge of the center ring. I pull the tool gently from this edge toward the outer rings of polish. I then repeat this with the other side of the center ring. Once this is done, you will have something similar to the above picture, where the center ring seems to be spread out toward the edges of your container, but “bulges” a little in the middle. The size of your middle “bulge” will vary depending on how much polish you dropped into your bull’s-eye. Try not to take your marbling tool all the way to the side of your container. The outer rings of polish will generally be dry by the time you start drawing your design. In the picture above you can see that I was only able to go to the second ring from the edge because my first light blue ring was already dry. If I had pulled into that dry ring, I would have pulled up all the polish in my cup, ruining my design. I was able to go all the way to the second ring because Up All Night doesn’t dry particularly fast. Usually, I have to start/stop my design at the third or fourth ring of polish.


After you make your initial, side-to-side stroke, take your marbling tool and draw gently from the top of the bull’s-eye to the bottom, then back up again from the bottom to the top. Repeat this all the way across the bull’s-eye. As you can see from my picture, my second ring of polish had dried by now, so I had to start and stop my up and down design at the third ring. You can make your up and down strokes as close together or as far apart as you like. The closer together they are, the smaller your lines will be on the nail. Generally, this will give you more detail. I tend to keep my nails short, so I usually put my strokes closer together. I like a lot of motion in my final look.

Be sure to keep your strokes gentle and smooth so that you don’t snag your polish or pull up the design. You will want to clean off your marbling tool in between strokes, or every two strokes. It depends on how much polish is gathering on your tool. If you continue to drag through the design with a lot of excess polish around your tool, it will muddy your colors. You also have to work fairly quickly so that your polish doesn’t dry out on you. If you wait too long between strokes, the polish will dry up, and the whole design will come right out of the container.

DIP YOUR NAILS: I’m a terrible nail blogger, because I didn’t manage to get a picture of this particular step. It was too hard to dip my nail and take pictures at the same time. But here’s how you do it …

Once you are done drawing in your design, take a quick look at it. Pick out a section you think is the most interesting or fun. There is no right or wrong to this. Pick whatever part of the design appeals to you the most. Once you have that part of the design in mind, lay your nail right onto it, and continue through the polish and beneath the water. You might have to rotate your container so that the part of the design you want is positioned in a way to allow you easy access for dipping your nail. I dip one nail at a time, but you don’t have to do it that way. If your container allows it and you like more than one spot in your design, you can dip multiple nails at one time.

After you dip your nail, there will still be polish on the water’s surface, all around your finger. Keep your dipped nail under the water. Be sure you don’t bump it against the bottom or side of your container. (Been there, done that … ruined a whole manicure. Rawr.) If necessary, blow on the water’s surface for a few seconds to dry the rest of the polish. When the excess polish is dry, take your Q-tip (or whatever clean-up tool you want to use) and use it to gather up all the polish left on the water. Make sure the water’s surface is clean before you take out your dipped nail.

Once the water is clean, remove the nail you dipped. I generally turn my finger over so that I can see my nail coming out of the water. And I remove my nail at a slight angle. If I have bubbles at the cuticle line or edges of my nail, I slide my finger back under the water so that those bubbles will come off beneath the water’s surface. I found that this keeps them from popping and showing the base color too much.


TAKE OFF THE TAPE: Remember when I said that water marbling is super messy? Well, here is photographic proof! This is what your fingers will look like when you first take them out of the water. There will be polish everywhere. It will be all down your fingers on both sides. It will look like a huge, yucky mess. And that’s OK!! It’s completely normal for it to look like this. Remember you are dipping your nail and finger into water covered with nail polish. So, of course, it is going to get on your fingers as well as your nails.

All of my protective tape is still on my fingers in the above picture. I usually take the tape off right after dipping each nail, but I left it on this time so that I could get a picture of the process in all its glory.  See how I suffer for you? (Not really. But it sounds good, right?)

At this point, I use my tweezers to pull off the tape. Sometimes, I take each piece off separately: second piece from around the tip of my finger first, then the first piece. Sometimes, I take the tape off all as one piece. There isn’t necessarily a right or wrong way to do this. It’s just whatever works for you. However you do it, be gentle when you remove your protective barrier, whether it’s tape or latex. The polish on your nails isn’t dry yet, and you can still dent or smudge your design if you are too rough.


CLEAN UP: Once you have all the tape (or latex) off of your fingers, you can start to see the design on your nails a bit better. Most of the mess comes off with the tape, but you will still be left with some clean-up around your nails and at the cuticle line. I’m not sure if this is because I can’t get as close in with the tape, and this is one of the reasons I would like to try a latex barrier in the near future.

At this point, you do clean-up like you would with a normal manicure. I use little, pointed cotton swabs dipped in polish remover to clean up right around my nails and along the cuticle line. They are great for detail work, and I like them better than a brush. But a brush dipped in polish remover/acetone works great, too. For the bigger “blobs” of polish left behind under the tape, I use Q-tips, as they have larger heads.


APPLY TOP COAT: Once you are all done with your clean-up, apply your favorite top coat, and you are done! I love Seche Vite, although I don’t love how it tends to get thick and gloopy on me. Because of that, I have been experimenting with different quick-dry top coats. I love my nails slick and glossy, like they are covered with glass. This is just a personal preference. For this manicure, I used Poshe Super Fast-Drying Top Coat. I also like INM Out the Door.

And now you’re done!!

Overall, I was happy with how this manicure turned out. I had a couple of bubbles on my middle nail. They look huge in this picture because it’s very close up, but they are barely noticeable in real life. I thought it was interesting that I ended up with a very silvery-looking blue on my ring finger nail. I think this was because my light blue spread out quite a bit more with that particular dip, and this is how it looks over a base of the rosy copper. One of the things I love about water marbling is that you never really know what you’re going to get. No matter how many times you test polish combinations and designs, you are still likely to end up with something unexpected (and unexpectedly awesome!) in the end.




4 thoughts on “Nail Art: Linear Water Marble Tutorial

  1. Great post!! Lots of fabulous tips here. So great that you emphasize the importance of testing (would have loved to see some of your test strips!) Maybe do a part 2 sometime!

    Although, I have to laugh that you said you aren’t on YouTube because you’re an introvert. I can’t think of a much more introverted thing to do, to spend hours talking to a camera alone, and then many more hours painstakingly editing it together. YouTube is filled with introverts! Now, not wanting to have your picture taken, that’s another thing all together 😉


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