I love gradients. It’s such a great way to make an interesting base for other nail art, like stamping or free-hand designs. It’s also a fun look all on its own or topped with a sparkly topper (because what doesn’t look better with Fairy Dust? nothing, that’s what!). Even so, I debated for a while over doing a gradient post. It’s a simple process, and I didn’t want to seem lame. Or like I was all “look at me, I’m so awesome because I can do gradients”. Because … no. That’s totally not my thing. And not my intention at all.
I am not a nail art pro, as you guys know. I’m just a gal who loves nail polish, and who loves trying out different designs and techniques on her nails. Gradients were my gateway into nail art. Seeing beautiful gradients and wanting them on my nails inspired me to step way out of my comfort zone and try something new. It took me a while to work up the courage for it. I felt really intimidated. I worried I would make a complete mess of things. And so, I dithered. I’m a world-class ditherer.
Hence this post! I decided that, if I was intimidated by the idea of jumping in and trying this, there might be other people out there who feel the same way. I’ll tell you a secret: You can’t mess this up! It sounds simple, but it took me a while to figure this out and push myself into trying something new and fun. That’s the great thing about nail art: it’s fun! And if you mess up, it’s easy to wipe it all away and start over. Gradients are fantastic fun because the color combinations are endless. It’s easy to get a little wild and crazy with them, and they are really simple to do.
This was my inspiration for this particular gradient. I got “new” hair! I’ve been dying my hair “crazy” colors for a year or two now, and I love it. I think of it as anime hair — yes! I started out with blues, which I still love. But I decided I was ready for something completely different on Friday. And this is what my stylist came up with! It still has a healthy dose of my beloved blue, as well as some turquoise, some pinks, and some purples. I love it. And I wanted nails that matched.
These are the supplies I used for my gradient. I used American Classics, Gelous for the base. I’m recently obsessed with this base coat. I used it during my Texas trip, and you can see my bottle is already half gone! I used OPI, Alpine Snow as my color base. You can use pretty much any color for this. I often use the lightest color in my gradient, and I seldom use white. For this look, I wanted both colors to look bright on the nail, and white turned out to be the best for that. For the gradient, I used China Glaze, What I Like About Blue and We Got the Beet. I used Out The Door top coat. The Seche Vite bottle that’s full of pink is my liquid latex. I bought a larger tub and decanted it into an empty Seche Vite bottle. At the very end, you can see my cuticle oil, which I use to give my cuticles some love after the manicure is done. I used regular make-up sponges. I buy them in a bag of 40 from Sally’s. Mine are latex-free, but I didn’t get them that way on purpose; it’s just what was in stock when I purchased these. I have my tweezers for removing my liquid latex. And my pointed cotton swabs for part of the clean-up process. I also used a clean-up brush and, of course, acetone-based polish remover, but I forgot to put them into the picture.
First, I applied my base coat. I often use 2 coats of the Gelous because I love how it gives such a smooth base for polish. For this, I knew I would be applying several thin layers of color, so I used 1 coat of Gelous. Then, I applied 1 coat of OPI, Alpine Snow. You can see my application was not perfect in the slightest. And that’s OK. It worked out fine in the end.
Next, I applied liquid latex around my nails and a little way down my finger. You don’t have to go too far down, as the gradient colors pretty much stay right around the nail. You don’t have to use liquid latex. I only recently invested in this. Previously, I would just do my gradients over my naked fingers. It’s a messy process, and doing them without protection makes for a longer clean-up. But it doesn’t affect the actual gradient.
It’s time to paint! Woo Hoo! This part is where I always get so excited. So you know how the make-up sponge is shaped like a little wedge? I like to use the fat end of the sponge for my gradients. It’s just the right width to apply the polish without making a huge mess, and I’ve found it makes it easier for me to line up the stripes of color to fit my nail length. You don’t have to use this end. I’ve used the thinner end, as well as the sides. This is just what I’ve found works the best for me.
To load your sponge, you will use your polish brush and paint the polish onto the sponge. The polish should be in strips or “stripes” across the sponge, and I like to overlap them a little. I used thicker stripes here because I wanted a simple, two-color gradient. And because my nails have gotten a bit longer over the summer. You can apply the stripes of color in any combination you want. Here, I applied them so that the purple and blue were pretty much even in size. But you could use a wider blue stripe or a wider purple. You could even do a thinner blue, thinner purple, thinner blue, etc., for a totally different look. As I said earlier, the possibilities are endless!
Once your sponge is loaded, you apply the polish to your nail. I lay my nails flat on my desk and dab the sponge on top of them. I use an up and down dabbing motion, and I will vary the sponge position ever-so-slightly. A very slight motion (up toward the cuticle, then down toward the free edge) helps to blend the gradient so that you get a softer line where the colors meet. Overlapping your colors a bit on the sponge helps with this, too. But that motion has to be ever-so-small. If you go too far, you will end up with a muddy mess that looks dull and rather gray. I learned this the hard way.
The above picture is how my nails look after applying one coat of the polish from my sponge. I tend to load my sponge, do all four of my fingers with one load, then load it up again. This is why you can see a slight opacity variation from pinky (where I started) to index finger (where I ended up). On my next pass, I will start with my index finger and go in reverse. This helps me keep the opacity looking even. Once my index through pinky are done, I do the thumb on its own. You can see a little “dot” of something on my pinky nail. This is a bit of sponge that flaked off with the color. It’s not a big deal. I used the pointy end of my water marble tool to remove it before I was done. Also, you can see how this makes a bit of a mess around the nail.
Not the greatest picture, but this is a quick shot of my fingers after the second coat of polish. You can still see the white base color peeking through, especially with the purple. But it’s amazing how the opacity kicked way up with just two passes of the sponge. Also, you can see that opacity is a bit more even from index to pinky this time around. That’s because I started the second pass with my index finger and ended with the pinky.
And that’s my dog, Shiner, looking totally cute and chilling in the background. He’s my manicure buddy!
And here we are after about 4 passes of the sponge over my nails. How many times you end up dabbing the sponge over your nails is up to personal preference. It will vary, depending on the polishes you used and the look you want to achieve. I kind of eyeball it every time I do a gradient. I keep on going with my sponge until I have that, “Yep! That’s good!” feeling. This time, it happened at around 4 passes or coats with the sponge because I wanted my purple to pop. It’s a gorgeous color, but not nearly as opaque as the blue. I could have done the sponge over just the purple tips, but, honestly, I was too lazy to do it that way.
Here are my nails minus the liquid latex and before any clean-up. As you can see, there is still quite a bit of detailed clean-up that needs to happen around the cuticles and on the sidewalls. But the liquid latex really helped keep this to a minimum. There is pretty much always going to be clean-up. I’ve seen some gals do gradients where they didn’t have to do anything around the nail when they were done, but I feel like this is pretty rare. I’m not sure I will ever be enough of a pro at applying my latex to prevent any clean-up. I can dream!
After you get done with the gradient, the polish will look kind of bumpy and “textured”. Depending on which polish you use, it won’t necessarily feel textured. For example, my nail tips feel textured because the purple I used has a lot of glitter and dries slightly bumpy. At any rate, your nails won’t look smooth. I remember the first time I did a gradient, this surprised me. But it’s normal, and it’s caused by the texture of the sponge.
Here’s my finished gradient, all cleaned up and with top coat. Top coat covers all sins. Once you apply it, your gradient will smooth out beautifully, leaving a smooth and glassy appearance underneath. I often use a really thick top coat like Seche Vite, but Out the Door was what I had at hand when I did this manicure. It’s not quite as thick, but it gets the job done. I ended up using two coats of my topper because of my purple being quite bumpy. If I was leaving this gradient on its own, I might have gone so far as to do one more coat of Out the Door. But I knew I was going to add something else on top.
And that’s how you do a gradient! It’s one of my favorite nail art techniques because it’s so simple and easy to do. It’s a really pretty look on the nail, but it doesn’t take nearly as long to do as something like a water marble. There’s virtually no limit to the color and texture combinations you can achieve, and I love how versatile these are.
And, just for fun, here’s my completely finished manicure. I ended up putting a stamped design over my gradient in plain white. I’m really happy with how this turned out. I feel like the white highlights the brightness of my gradient. And it matches my hair really well. Mission accomplished. Yay!