Have you noticed I like to do gradients yet?
Gradient Guide 1: Terminology1.1. The Basics
- Gradient: Two or more nail polish colours that blend into each other on one nail.
- Ombre: A gradation of colours from one nail to the next that increases in brightness/darkness and where all colours are part of the same family - no blending. The Swatchaholic does a good job at differentiating between gradient vs. ombre.
- Sponge: Generally a small, triangular or rectangular make-up sponge that is commonly used to apply foundation make-up to the face. The sponge is used to apply the nail polish colours to the nail and to facilitate the blending effect. You can generally find these in drug or beauty stores.
- Stuff to protect skin: In the past I used tape and 100% pure acetone and a small eyeliner or concealer brush to carefully clean the polish off around the cuticle. THAT'S SO 2014. Watch my video review of 6 different products that may (or may not) make it super easy to just peel off that gradient mess!!
|Note: Image credits identified in photos that are not my own.|
- Nail vinyls: Nail art guides made out of vinyl that come in sheets and varying thicknesses and designs including single chevron, chevron (zig-zag), stars, straights, and so on. Generally used as stencils that are removed after layering polish overtop, but some can be used as decals and remain on the nail like a sticker. I've gotten get most of mine from Twinkled T!
- See a growing repertoire of nail art I've done with various nail vinyls here.
- Striping tape: Generally refers to different colours of tape that are 0.5mm wide and comes in large roll's. They can be used as stencils/guides or cut into pieces and used as decals to be left on the nail. I mostly use them to create unique effects for elaborate gradients listed below. You can get them for cheap off Amazon. They are a lot cheaper than nail vinyls and I find the quality the same, so best to buy a pack of striping tape rather than straight nail vinyls if you want the skinny lines you see a lot in striping nail art.
- French manicure tip guides: Standard sheets of straight vinyl with a slight curve used for DIY french manicures. I occasionally use them for tips or scaled gradients. You can find them at your local beauty store - many brands manufacture them, including Sally Hansen.
- Hole reinforcements: Stickers meant to be used to repair ripped holes in hole-punched paper, but can be used as nail stencils/guides. The curve is a lot sharper and narrow than french manicure tip guides, so it depends on what kind of look you're going for. These can be purchased at your local office supply store.
Why can't I just use tape? Why do I need all this fancy shit?!
- NO. Don't do that. Some will argue that scotch tape is all you need and will save you money, but I completely disagree. Every time I've used scotch tape, it either ripped up my base polish or let the second layer of polish bleed through the tape. Either way, fugly shit happens.
- High quality nail vinyls and striping tape are manufactured specifically to an ideal level of tackiness, do not leave sticky residue behind, and are thick enough with a non-porous surface and core to prevent polish bleeding. Even hole reinforcements are not ideal to use because they are are just as overly tacky as scotch tape.
|Select nail vinyls, striping tape, and french manicure tip guides|
- Round gradient (A): A gradient that fades inwards in a circular manner. This is also referred to as a 'circular gradient' or as a 'radial gradient'. The first time I saw this was on @banicured_'s Instagram page, but it is unclear where the idea first originated.
- Corner gradient (B): Same idea as a round gradient, but the concentration of the nucleus of the gradient if you will is in one of the four corners of the nail. Someone probably came up with this by accident.
- Gradient with other stuff on top of it: This may seem silly, but a gradient with anything on top of it that is not another gradient is still just a gradient. Even the trippy black striped nail over the neon corner gradient below is still just one gradient (exhibit C).
- Returning gradient (D): A gradient that begins on one end of the nail with colour X and returns to colour X by the other end of the nail. I've seen this type of gradient referred to as a 'middle gradient' elsewhere. French blogger Didoline demonstrates how she squishes the sponge smaller while sponging on the nail so that all the colours fit on the nail.
- Reciprocal gradient (E, F, G): A gradient one way and then a subsequent layer of a gradient going the opposite direction using striping tape or nail vinyls between layers. It doesn't matter what combination of colours you use; each gradient could be completely different in colour scheme (F). It also doesn't matter what shape of tape you use or what direction the lines are going in (G). I've seen the traditional straight lines as well as triangles or chevrons used. I believe the 'reciprocal gradient' term was coined by My Simple Little Pleasures. It is sometimes referred to elsewhere as a 'reverse gradient', but I find this term less specific as it gets confounded with other nail art techniques.
- Scaled gradient (H, I): Two distinct adjacent gradients on one nail that are divided by using tape or nail vinyls, one layer after the previous. Can be separated by straight tape or various shaped nail vinyls. The finished effect ressembles reptile scales, hence the name. Can involve two or three colours in each gradient, so long as the colours are close in dominant hue. This idea was, to my knowledge, invented by lil 'ol me in 2014. See all the SG's I've done here.
- See a growing number of scaled gradient mani's I've done here.
- Interlocked reciprocal gradient (A): A variation of the reciprocal gradient but splicing the area of secondary gradient layer down the middle of the nail by staggering the striping tape. The finished effect creates an interlocked look down the middle of the fold between gradients. This idea was, to my knowledge, invented by me in 2014. Not my fav creation ever.
- Returning reciprocal gradient (B): A combination of the returning gradient and the reciprocal gradient. The final effect is quite trippy. Like the reciprocal gradient, it can involve any shape of nail vinyl or tape. I have not seen anyone do this before, but I'm not totally sure I came up with it.
- Triple scaled gradient (C, D): Same concept as the scaled gradient but instead of two distinct adjacent gradients on one nail, the nail is divided into three sections. This involves an additional layer of polish and another coat of quick dry top coat, more waiting time, and requires that less space be used for each gradient. Idea first introduced in this post in 2014.
- Reciprocal scaled gradient (E): Say what now?! This mani has not yet been published, and the concept is still hard for me to wrap my head around. Essentially a merger of the scaled gradient and the reciprocal gradient. Note that there is another way to achieve this same look that does involve doing a scaled gradient at all. I found this out later. Info to come!
- Quadruple scaled gradient (F): Alas, a quadruple scaled gradient! I changed things around a bit and tried out doing different colour gradient scales. This mani has yet to be published. Stay tuned!
Gradient Guide 2: Tips and Tricks
2.1. General Helpful Hints
- Take the right tools to battle: Use a make-up sponge that doesn't disintegrate and shed tiny bits of sponge on your nail as you repeatedly sponge on the polish. It really sucks when that happens, because if you don't pick them out, your mani is bumpy, and if you do try and pick them out, you either fail at retrieving the sponge offspring or you ruin the surface of your mani and now it's fugly. Thus far I am most satisfied with make-up sponges I picked up at Loblaws (grocery store in Canada) of all places, and they are Joe Fresh brand which is Loblaws' home brand. This part is essentially just trial and error with different sponges until you find one that works for you.
- Blend it just enough: Blending the gradient just right is probably something people struggle with the most. Truth be told I'm not even that good at it because I'm too concerned with doing crazy mind boggling designs to worry about the seamless fade of my gradient. I gently work the sponge modestly up and down to create a subtle fade. Some have recommended dampening the sponge for a more seamless fade, but I have personally not tried this. Others pre-blend the polishes on a piece or paper or plastic with a toothpick or brush beforehand and then pick up the colours with the sponge.
- Use a fresh sponge: If you're doing a scaled gradient, reciprocal gradient, or otherwise where there's going to be some drying time in between, don't resuse the same sponge. After a sponge has been left with nail polish in it for some time it dries out and will no longer pick up freshly applied nail polish the same way. There's the option of cutting your sponges in half to produce a fresh edge, or you can just flip it over and use the clean side to get the best use out of your sponges before you toss them away.
- Know your bases: Depending on what colour palette you're working with, you may need a specific base coat. Use just one thin coat of white polish if you're doing a neon or bright-coloured mani. I say only one thin coat because there's going to be so many layers of polish on your nail, so you want to try to minimize this where you can. If you're doing a darker-toned mani, choose the lightest colour in your palette as your base and apply just one thin coat.
- Pick a compatible colour palette: Don't pick nail polish colours that are too contrasted or opposite of each other on the colour wheel or else the blending may not go so smoothly. For any of the elaborate or mind bender gradients, you should choose colours that are creme or opaque enough that each colour could layer over any other colour in your chosen palette. Generally this isn't a problem if you're working with cremes or metallics and the colours aren't too polarized (i.e., if you were working with black and white, layering white over black won't come out so good - I tried, and failed).
- Top coat that shit: When executing any of the elaborate or mind bender gradients, using a good quick-dry top coat between lawyers is key. I have used Seche Vite and it was great at curing the polish quick, but there were fugly shrinkage issues. I now exclusively use HK Girl Glisten & Glow quick-dry glossy top coat, which is the best top coat I've ever used. You can get G&G topcoat from their website or from Nailpolishcanada.com if you're in Canada, eh. Even with a great quick dry top coat I still recommend waiting 20-30 minutes between gradient layers to ensure that the tape/nail vinyl does not pull off all your hard work. You can take that time to surf some nail porn.
|Glisten & Glow HK Girl quickdry glossy topcoat|
NOTE: There's other talented nail artists out there who've offered tips on doing gradients and the use of striping tape, such as the reciprocal gradient, so I'm not going to reinvent the wheel there. However, the scaled gradient is a new technique and for that reason here's some tips I've lived and learned to tell:
2.2. How to Conquer the Scaled Gradient
Simple scaled gradient: Single chevron nail vinyls, two gradients
Advanced quadruple scaled gradient: Straight nail vinyls, four gradients
Super-advanced reciprocal scaled gradient: Striping tape, curved vinyl, four gradients
Step-by-step (generalized to apply to most scaled gradient designs):
- Apply polish base coat: This is usually the lightest colour you are using in your selected gradient colour scheme, or often just white polish if you are using neons or bright colours.
- Sponge on first gradient on lower end of nail: Using a makeup foundation sponge (see photos at beginning of this page), sponge on a gradient using all the colours in your gradient spectrum including the lightest colour that may have been used as the base (this most often involved gradienting 2 colours, but can include 3 or 4 if you're feeling ambitious) at the BASE of the nail, nearing the cuticle. Let the darkest colour in your gradient end up closest to the cuticle and the lightest towards the middle of the nail. Don't worry about extending the gradient to the tip of the nail, remember to just focus on the one 'scale' that you are creating. If you are doing a simple double scaled gradient (two adjacent gradients), then make sure you have coverage over half your nail. If you are doing a triple, ensure coverage over a third of the nail, and so on. Repeat thin sponge layers until desired opacity is achieved.
- Apply quick dry top coat and let dry: I always use HK Girl quick dry top coat by Glisten & Glow because it is my #1 quickest drying top coat, fully cured in about 10-15min and ready for nail vinyls without risking ripping up the polish. Seche Vite dries nearly equally as fast, but it has caused me polish 'shrinkage', and so I do not recommend it - see here and here.
- Stick on nail vinyl as gradient divider: Once base layer is fully dry, affix your nail vinyl shape of choice to your nail - where you place it will depend on whether you're going for a traditional (double) scaled gradient or a triple. Affix tape (I use green painter's tape) to the nail vinyl to cover the half (or third) of the first base gradient. Refer to the videos above for placement ideas.
- Sponge on second gradient: Use a fresh section of a makeup sponge to sponge on the same colour and direction gradient as the first layer gradient. Be sure to cover the rest of the nail if this is the last gradient for that nail. Repeat thin sponge layers until desired opacity is achieved.
- Clean up: Remove tape and nail vinyl immediately but carefully after step 5. Do not let polish dry before peeling off the tape. Use 100% acetone and an angled eyeliner brush to clean up around your cuticles.
- Top coat and go show off: Use your fav top coat to finish it all off and go watch peoples jaws drop when you tell them you did your nails yourself and NOPE it ain't airbrushed!
General tips & tricks:
- Don't overdo the number of gradient scales: In some cases, doing three gradients per nail or more may just end up blending together in a fugly mess. In some cases it may be better to stick to just two-scaled gradients per nail:
- If you have shorter nails,
- If when you typically do gradients the transition range between colours on each side is quite wide (this happens if you prefer to sponge up and down a lot), or
- If you're trying the scaled gradient technique for the time.
- Don't overdo the number of polish colours: A general rule is that if you're doing a triple-scale gradient, it's best to stick to just a two colour gradient. If you're doing a two-scale gradient, you can potentially manage up to four colours in each gradient depending on your nail length.
- Use the right top coat: HK Girl by Glisten & Glow quick-dry glossy top coat is the only top coat that I use for scaled gradients because it is the best at quick drying and fully sealing the base layer, with NO polish peeling when you take off the nail vinyls.
- Mark your scales: If you're doing a triple scaled gradient, it might be helpful to mark your skin beside the nail with a pen to indicate where you're going to place your nail vinyls/tape in order to divide the nail into three equal parts. You can see how I did this in the video tutorial on this post.
Have any questions or additional tips and tricks you've found work for you? I'd love to hear from you, so let me know by commenting below!
If you do a scaled gradient mani and are on social media, remember to hashtag it with #scaledgradient for a chance to be featured on my page!