Nail painting has come a long way since its early days in the Bronze Age when henna was used as a dye not just for the nails, but also the skin and hair. Moving away from the narratives of social class—hues such as red were once reserved for the queens in ancient Egypt, while red, gold, silver and black were designated royal colours in ancient China—the practice is now more a form of self-expression and a show of individual style.
Accordingly, the simple powders, oils and dyes of old have evolved into a plethora of formulas that let you play with the finish, the lifespan and even the breathability of the colouring. Nail painting has even been elevated to an art form of great finesse, thanks to skilled nailists who let loose their creativity on these tiny canvases to exquisite effect with 3D embellishments and hand-drawn designs. Nail artist Jenrine Tan is one such individual.
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The co-founder of The Nail Artelier, an art-centric nail studio that has humble roots as a home-based business, believes that “fine art doesn’t have to be restricted to the traditional medium and canvases”. She encourages clients to customise designs that reflect their style or personality, whether for special occasions or the everyday, and while she admits that it “took a while for the idea to catch on, once they realised that a manicure can be so much more, clients started coming in.”
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Tan’s elaborate nail art creations span from the arty to the personal: Famous art pieces such as Japanese artist Hokusai’s “The Great Wave Off Kanagawa” and Gustav Klimt’s The Kiss have served as references, as have intimate family photos. One that left a particularly deep impression on her involved a portrait of her client with her spouse and dog. Though difficult to achieve due to time constraints, Tan considered it a privilege to work on, as the request was meaningful to the client and allowed a peek into her life and personality.
Before there were gel formulas, regular nail polish was used to create the oft-intricate designs, which added to the challenge of nail art, as the polish dries quickly, giving the manicurist limited time to paint and blend. These days, gel polish is typically used not only because it lasts longer than the regular ones, but also because it allows the nail artist more time (the usual gel polish is cured only when placed under UV or LED light) to work on the design and to mix different shades to achieve a desired colour. The use of alcohol ink, which creates an effect similar to the veins on marble, has also grown in popularity, given its versatility in creating styles ranging from edgy to elegant, depending on the colour combination used.
To dip your toes into nail art, Tan suggests keeping things simple. “When too many details are being crammed onto each nail, you can’t see them unless you hold them close to your eyes. Plus, it can make the overall look messy,” she says. “If it’s your first time, we’d recommend just getting the art done on select nails while keeping the rest simple. This is to help ease the transition so you don’t feel like there’s too much going on at once.”
Interestingly, it seems the pandemic has unleashed an audacious streak when it comes to nails. Tan shares: “Over half of the orders for press-on kits during the circuit breaker (when nail salons and other non-essential businesses were closed) were for nail lengths that people usually won’t keep—everyone was very adventurous!” And the walk on the wild side looks to have continued even after nail salons reopened. No doubt emboldened by the fact that working from home is still encouraged, customers “are opting for funkier colours and flashier designs that are more vibrant and eye-catching, but not so office-friendly,” says Tan. Till that fateful callback happens, enjoy these mini works of art with every tap of your fingers.
Photographed by Tan Shou
Styled by Xue Mei
Manicure: Fei Fei/Wei Ai Mei Jia Training School
Hand model: Tan Jia Xin