Wherever you choose to have your manicure or pedicure done, your nail technician will leave you with healthier nails and supple skin. But special kinds of nail technicians go one step further and create intricate patterns and design directly onto your fingers and toes: nail artists.
Becoming a nail artist can be the perfect blend of job flexibility and artistic expression. It’s a challenging career, opening you up to opportunities beyond the salon doors and offering creative individuals a chance to work in a thriving segment of the beauty industry.
What Is a Nail Artist?
Like a sculptor or painter, a nail artist is a master of their craft. But instead of clay, the canvas for these creatives are human nails.
They use their experience and skills as qualified nail technicians to clean, polish and sculpt nails into particular shapes. Then comes the fun part: adding embellishments like gems, glitter, and other colors to make nail art for their clients.
What Do They Do?
As any nail artist must become a qualified nail technician first, the day-to-day responsibilities are similar.
Cleaning, trimming and filing nails is something every nail tech will know how to do, along with polishing and buffing natural nails. Applying and trimming fake nails is also a daily duty when working in this field.
From there, what you do in every shift will look different depending on the type of nail artist you are. If you work on TV or film sets, you’ll likely be stationed in the makeup trailer, applying and removing nail polish depending on what an actor needs for a particular scene.
Medical technicians will see patients throughout the day, dealing with issues impacting their nails. Or you could work as an online artist, sharing your abstract nail art creations for others to replicate.
What’s the Difference between a Nail Artist and Tech?
It’s easy to get confused between the roles of an artist and nail technician, especially when working as one often leads to the other.
A nail tech can be thought of as the stepping stone to a career as a nail artist. Technicians typically see any changes to the nails as a physical enhancement. Strengthening the existing nails or using acrylic fake nails to add length are common areas of concern that technicians address.
Any changes beyond this are the territory of a nail artist, whose enhancements are more creative and about personal expression rather than fixing specific problems.
One easy way to remember the difference is to think of a home decorator (the technician) versus a portrait painter (the artist)—both use paint as their medium, but one is working to solve a problem for their client, while the other is focused solely on creating something beautiful and memorable.
How to Become a Nail Artist
Depending on the particular skill set you want to have, several training and education options are available for would-be nail artists. All artists must first train as nail technicians if you want to work in a formal position within the beauty industry, like a salon or in the entertainment field.
School for Nail Artists and Techs
To become a nail technician, you’ll need to attend a cosmetology school after gaining your high school diploma or GED. You’ll learn the basics of natural nail care, along with any specialist techniques you’re interested in like learning how to apply acrylic paint polishes or attach and shape fake nails.
Most states require you to attend a board-approved program and pass an exam in order to qualify, granting you a license to practice as a nail technician. Some states also ask for additional education. Students in Florida, for instance, must take an HIV/AIDS course, and Illinois technicians must demonstrate proficiency in using nail technology machines.
Nail Artist Courses
While most new nail artists attend programs through a cosmetology school, you have the option of taking a non-traditional course while completing an apprenticeship if this suits your lifestyle better.
As you’re working with real-life clients more frequently than cosmetology students, you’ll rack up your training hours much faster by taking this route. But you’ll still be required to participate in some class-based work, along with instruction under the supervision of your teacher, and take an exam to obtain your license. If your state requires additional training, you’ll also need to complete this.
These courses can take anywhere from three to nine months, depending on how fast you can complete your required training hours and coursework. A course can be more flexible than cosmetology school if you’re working around other personal commitments like raising a family.
Some cosmetology schools offer dedicated courses if you want to dive into nail art straight away. For people interested in starting their own business, some schools also provide business training, along with marketing and accounting classes, to help you set up as an independent or freelance nail artist.
Building Your Career
Working for several years as a nail technician first will give you a solid foundation before moving into the more creative side of nail art. Watch the best nail artists in the world and see what you can learn from them. Practice on your friends and family, or even your own nails, to develop a signature style you can become the go-to artist for in your area.
In the early years of your career, absorb as much information as you can and build your skills in gel nail decorations, acrylics, dips and silk wraps. These will all be essential to master so you can manipulate different materials into intricate patterns and designs as a nail artist.
As a nail technician, you’ll be required to complete a set amount of ongoing learning hours each year to retain your license. Look into beginner nail art classes to get a better understanding if these will count towards your training hours.
Starting a Second Career
Job prospects for nail artists are looking promising. Predictions estimate that careers in the nail care field will grow 22% by 2031, which covers both artists and technicians. Now is an ideal time to consider developing your artistic skills if you’re already a nail technician or thinking about moving into a new career as a nail artist.
You may be ready to dive straight into a cosmetology program and qualify as a nail technician in as little as 16 weeks. But if you’re retraining to launch a second career, a course may be a better option. You won’t become a licensed nail technician as fast, but you’ll be able to fit coursework and in-person training around an existing job.
The typical hourly wage for a nail technician in the US is just under $15 per hour, or $30,480 per year. This can increase if you work in a specialized field like medical nail care, where annual salaries can be over $40,000.
Much like other occupations, your education and experience will determine how much you can charge as a freelancer or what you can expect as an employee.
An artist who specializes in highly detailed nail art designs across a full set of fingernails should be charging more than an artist working on a simple manicure with only one or two fingers featuring a design.
Jobs Beyond the Salon
While working in a spa or salon is usually the first place nail artists learn their craft, they’re not the only places to work in this industry.
Flip through any glossy magazine and you can find models with immaculate nails. And just like the rest of their makeup, they didn’t work on the final product themselves.
A team of hair, makeup and nail art experts are brought onto photography sets to prep the models for their on-camera looks.
Film and TV
Similarly, television and film studios are always looking for nail technicians and artists to join their hair and makeup crews.
Grab the attention of Hollywood bigwigs by posting your nail art designs on social media and network with other talent—it’s not unheard of for up and coming nail artists to be found by agencies via their online portfolios and put on their roster for commercials, TV shows or movies.
It might not seem as glamorous as a salon tech role, but you can make significantly more money by shifting your skills to a clinical setting. You won’t be painting fun details onto a client’s fingers and toes, but you’ll be helping patients feel their best and get their nails into tip-top condition.
Medical nail technicians typically work in fields like podiatry, where you’ll treat stubborn calluses, ingrown toenails and conditions like athlete’s foot. Once you’ve identified and fixed the issue, part of your job will also be educating your patients about preventing these problems from recurring.
Looking your best as you say your final goodbye to loved ones is a growing practice and served by a sub-field known as desairology, or mortuary cosmetology.
Alt text: Painting nails in a clear coat of polish first provides nail artists with a blank canvas to work on.
As a mortuary nail technician, your job is to make the deceased person’s hands look as natural and close to their living self as possible. Training for this role will focus on applying special nail polish or makeup which can be used to cover up injuries or signs of trauma or illness, which the deceased experienced immediately before their death.
One career option for experienced nail artists that doesn’t involve any clients is working as an instructor. If you love to teach and want to share your knowledge and experience, training the next generation of technicians and artists can be a highly rewarding career path.
Check with your local cosmetology school on their requirements for becoming an instructor. Having a strong work history in the field may be enough to get you started, while others may require basic teaching qualifications before assigning you to a class.
Online Beauty Influencer
Artists of all mediums have found success through sharing their work online, and nail artists are no exception. Beauty influencers have flooded online spaces over the last decade, with creators like hair stylists and makeup artists or nail technicians showing off their wild and wonderful creations.
Pick a channel where you think you can thrive as a visual artist—image and video-based platforms like Instagram are ideal for highlighting your finished product, while becoming a YouTuber or TikTok star through nail art tutorials can help you break into seemingly closed-off industries like fashion and entertainment.
Bring Your Artistic Vision to Life on the World’s Smallest Canvases
Wherever you choose to work as a nail artist, hard work and dedication to your creative passions can bring you a long and varied career.
Your artwork may never be displayed on the walls of a gallery. But your creations will be even more personal, adorning the hands and feet of your clients and inspiring others to pick up their shimmery nail polish to give techniques like Aurora nails a go themselves.