If you've ever drooled over a manicure in the pages of Vogue, Teen Vogue, Harper's Bazaar or InStyle, there's a good chance Madeline Poole—one of the most talented and recognized nail artists in the industry—was behind it.
The New York-based manicurist and designer has not only painted for dozens of magazine editorials, but also leads the backstage nail team for Stella McCartney's runway shows and works with celebrities such as Michelle Williams, Rosie Huntington-Whiteley, Kate Bosworth and Kelly Osbourne.
Her particular brand of nail genius? Producing teensy-tiny freehand works of art using a nail polish and a makeup brush as her tools, and nail beds as the canvas.
Madeline has created nail art tutorials for websites such as Vogue.com, Refinery29.com, The Coveteur and Into the Gloss, and her popular Instagram account highlighting her nail portfolio boasts more than 100,000 followers.
In 2013, she wrote a book, Nails, Nails, Nails!: 25 Creative DIY Nail Art Projects. And in 2014, she was named global colour ambassador, trend expert and artistic advisor for Sally Hansen.
Oh, and she's only 28. Impressive, much?
A quick aside in case you're not familiar with Miracle Gel—it's Sally Hansen's at-home gel manicure that cures under natural light, no lamp required, and lasts up to 14 days. You don't apply any base coat, just the Miracle Gel colour and then the new Top Coat, which delivers up to two times more volume for fuller-looking nails, plus a high-gloss finish. And it all comes off with regular nail polish remover.
Here's Madeline on her favourite shades, tips, trends and more:
Were you always into nails and nail art?
No. I wasn't interested in beauty at all. I liked doing makeup on myself, because it was like painting. I just liked the transformation. But it wasn't until much later that I started painting my own nails, and then I became a manicurist. So I did get really into painting my nails before I became a manicurist, and that's why I was like, "Oh, I would be good at that."
How would you describe your approach to nails?
Definitely, in terms of nails, I think less is more. I always take a step back before I add another element, and I'm like, "Do I really want to do that? Do I want to add another colour to this or is it good how it is?" Because in my experience, it's usually good how it is. It's usually better before you do the last thing.
Where do you find the most inspiration?
Probably mostly from fashion and then second from nature—from rocks and insects and fish.
Who are your favourite designers?
I love Delpozo, Céline, Dries Van Noten and Marni.
How do you choose which shades to pair together in your designs?
I think every colour has a sister colour. For example, orange reminds me of the inside of an army jacket, so I would pair it with a khaki green. Or like navy and red, which is so classic. Any colour you look at, you can visualize its sister, and it automatically makes the colour look cooler and boosts its vibrancy.
What nail designs are most intriguing to you lately?
I like splattering and paint strokes. If you wear a dark colour, and then you take a brighter, contrasting shade and wipe most of the polish off the brush and brush it into your nail in a crosshatch pattern, you get a tweed effect. I like things that are easy.
How is the '70s trend on the runways influencing nail art for fall?
There was an overwhelming amount of '70s-inspired collections. A bit too much, really. There were so many swirls on clothing, and scalloped edging and ric-rac and things like that, it was really hard to ignore. I saw a lot of nail looks backstage, and there were so many free-form, flowy, swirly nails. It's a lot easier to paint those, so they're great for backstage.
Are negative space nails still on trend?
I never really thought of it as a trend. I always thought of it as sort of a constant. I've always used negative space, in the way that you would use it when you get dressed—like, the way you incorporate parts of your skin. A short-sleeved shirt versus a long-sleeved shirt. It just makes sense to me.
It's easy to wear a bright colour or a more adventurous colour this way, because you have most of your natural nail showing through, and then you have just little hints of the colour. If you want to get into a colour you're not used to, it's a good place to start.
Are ring finger accent nails over?
I hope so! I think people are looking at that concept and re-thinking it. You can have two hands in different colours, or you can have just a few fingers of colour, or every other finger in colour. There are a few different ways to play with it. There's no right way to do it and I'm happy people are experimenting more with that.
What's the best red?
I personally like a bright, bright red. But depending on the season, you could do a darker red like Wine Stock or Dig Fig. And then if you want to try out a new trend that I'm really into, a metallic colour, like a metallic magenta, looks really nice. I love experimentation with metallics—not just gold or silver, but more unexpected metallics like magenta, burgundy and copper. Nude, terracotta and earthy tones with a metallic finish are another big fall trend.
Are you seeing a departure from classic nudes?
The new nudes would be anything that's sort of neutralized, like when you take a nude base and you mix it with grey or taupe or malt or pink. Something like Per-Suede is a good example of that.
What are the best nail shades to wear for fall?
I think for fall, vibrant jewel tones are always great. I love the trend toward green nail polish right now, like Fish-Teal Braid, and shades that are even greener. I just think it's cool because it's so unusual and not the norm at all. It's unexpected.
I've always loved purple, too. I think it's a really underrated colour. I would pair Boho A-Go-Go with Tipsy Gypsy. It takes the pink, which is really bright and girly, and makes it a little more sophisticated. And the pink brightens up the dark purple, which otherwise would be really serious.
Which shade is your personal favourite for fall?
I think it is Boho A-Go-Go, which I have on now. I like that it's close to a dark black colour, but it has some vibrancy to it.
What are your all-time favourite nail shades?
I'm really particular about what I like, though. I love purples. I love a dusty colour, too—a dusty navy or a dusty green. I love hunter green. I love darks and gem tones.
Which shades don't you like?
I don't really like peach. But that's because I don't really like it on myself. It's not that I don't like it on other people, but I just can't get into it.
How do you feel about French manicures?
I actually really like French manicures. I just think they're pretty. When you think about what they are, the idea is to really make the nail like a hyper version of the nail. It's actually kind of cool.
What's your favourite nail shape?
I like short nails. I like them short enough to see the skin above the tip, even. I think that's really cute, especially with a solid colour. I think you have to work with what you have; it's more flattering. If you have short nail beds, it might look weird to have long nail extensions, you know? I think it looks best and really pretty to just be short. If you have long nails on a wide nail bed, it might look a little awkward. If you have long, elegant nail beds, you can kind of get away with long tips and that sort of thing. But yeah, there's no sense in forcing it.
Are we moving away from stiletto and almond nails?
I think so, personally. I've seen a lot of people wearing the squareletto, the tapered square nail. That's fun. I like that, if you can pull it off. It's a lot of work, but I think it's a cool look.
How do you find the right nail polish colour for your skin tone?
First, I think contrast. How does the colour pop off your skin? Look at your skin in terms of lightness and darkness, and then find a shade that contrasts well with it.
I put a colour on the other day that was this beautiful lilac, and I was like, "Oh, this is going to look so lovely on my toes." But it just kind of blended in with my skin and looked so gross. It's a beautiful colour in the bottle, but it just didn't work. Weirdly, it was too close to my skin. So I think the first order is to find something that's going to pop off the skin.
That could be something that's part of the formula, as well. Some colours are just really opaque, so they'll pop off of anyone's skin.
Second, I'll look at the undertones. I have reddish-pinkish skin, and I usually look better in cooler-toned colours, like red or purple that have a little more blue in them. If you have a red or pink hue to your skin, you might want to try and wear colours that have more blue. If you have golden skin, you can wear colours with a bit more warmth, like warmer reds and orangey tones. So you are matching your undertone. If you go with the opposite colour to your skin tone, you notice it even more, like, "Her skin's really red compared to that colour."
Is there a secret to getting good opacity?
I think it's just colour to colour. There are certain colours where the pigmentation is difficult to achieve. Some are streaky, some aren't. I find especially with Miracle Gel, most of the colours are pretty strong, unless they're intentionally sheer.
What's the best way to apply nail polish?
I think people tend to over-stroke the nail. You want to stick with five, six strokes, maximum. Start in the middle, and then on the sides, and then fill in where you need to and sort of cap the edge. Don't do too much more than that. If you start stroking it too much, it's going to become clumpy, and the consistency's not good.
Also watch the amount of polish you have on the brush. It's hard to explain, because you don't want too much and you don't want too little. You don't want so much that it starts bleeding into the cuticle, but you don't want so little that it's streaking. So it's somewhere in between.
Do you clean up the cuticles with a makeup brush and nail polish remover?
Yes. That brush is a big deal.
What's the biggest mistake you see people making with their manicures?
I would say over-brushing. That's really common. Also—you don't need it with Miracle Gel—but a lot of people who use other colours won't use a base coat. Unless it's built into the polish, it's really important to use a base coat, because it helps prevent staining and helps adhere the polish to the nail.
With nail art, it's overdoing it. I always like to take a step back. It's a really small surface and I find it has more of an impact when you have less going on.
You're known for your hand selfies. Any tips?
I think one of my most important tips is to choose the right background. Find a colour that really brings out the colour on your nails, so that the nail doesn't blend into the background and get lost, and you can see the tip of it.
Usually, the first thing I do is I'll take one of these background boards and I'll put it by the window and I'll do a 360. I hold my hand up on the board and when I see direct sunlight, where I see it's really washing out wrinkles and brightening my skin, that's where I usually find is the best light spot.
It's great to lift your hands in the air first and let the blood rush down. Sometimes you get veins and things like that. It's very helpful.
Use a clutch, a bag or a book—something that you can wrap your hands around naturally, and not like a claw, in a grabby way. Another great prop is always nail polish bottles because they're rounded and they fit in your hand nicely. It just makes you have to choose the identical colour.
Sometimes, you'll find maybe your picture's not working out with all your fingers. You can try it with just one or two, and sometimes it's better that way. So you don't need all the fingers.
In the event that you have a two-handed manicure, which we probably all do, you can't take that on your own. There's really no way around that, so you have to find someone else to help you. It's great to have rings or accessories with you somehow to incorporate into the nail look. You can also play with poses—a lot of intertwining and things like that. Especially with a nail look that's kind of a story from one nail to the next.
I always try to take one photo with a flash and one without. You never know which one's going to be better. Even if it's daylight, it might be better with a flash. Usually, when you first look at it, it might not look good with the flash, but you can try a brightening filter and sometimes it can look amazing. It's random.
Any tips for doing nail art at home?
First of all, if you can use tape in the look somehow, then you should go for it and try it. Especially on a negative space nail look, because you don't have to wait for the base to dry; you can just lay the tape down, paint, pick it up and if it bleeds at all, you can use nail polish remover with a makeup brush to clean up the mistakes. Then, you'll find you've got super-crispy lines.
But just start small. Triangles are a great thing to start with on your own, because it's not going to take forever, it's just one colour, and you've just got to fix that one triangle on every nail. You can probably figure it out.
Do you think nail art is ever going away?
I think it'll just evolve. A couple months ago, it was like, "Nail art is dead!" and I was like, "Okay, you just wait." It's not going to happen.
What I compare it to is sunglasses. There have been sunglasses designed for however long that people have worn sunglasses. And there are still new sunglass designs coming out, hundreds of thousands of them every season, from cheap to expensive. There are so many versions. I think it's the same with nails. There are just going to be new evolutions forever and ever, as soon as new materials are made and new paints are made. Like with sunglasses, there are new reflective materials and new plastics. Nail polishes will evolve.
Do you paint artistically on the side?
Not really, no. I did, but it doesn't really work out. It's not enough of an artistic outlet, so I do other things, like I sew. I'll embellish clothes or I'll play keyboard or I'll design shoes. I find other ways to get it out. After a day of painting nails all day, I'm like, "I don't want to paint anymore." So I find other creative pursuits.
What's your best tip for aspiring nail artists?
I think rather than being inspired by other nail looks, it's better to look outside of nails for inspiration. Look at clothing, at shoes, at nature, at architecture, at product design. See colour combinations you like and think about how you can incorporate that into a nail, rather than seeing a nail and just wanting to copy it.
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What do you think of Madeline's approach to nails?
Have you tried any of her favourite shades?