I've gotten lots of questions about nails so I thought I'd put together a little series of posts about some of my favorite basic products and tools, along with some tips on how I get the most from my mani. There are loads of nail blogs out there with far more detailed information as well as step-by-step instructions ranging from simple to the complex, and of course tons of nail art on Pinterest. One of my favorite nail art blogs is Chalkboard Nails, you can get to lots of others from there. A very comprehensive Pinterest collection can be found here, with a HUGE nail art board specifically found here.
There is a surprisingly large amount of nail art that can be done just using things you probably already have (photo #1).
Bobby pins and toothpicks are both excellent dotters, and you can somewhat control the dotting size on a toothpick by cutting it and flattening the end. Toothpicks can also be used for interesting drag marbling, where you blob on two colors of polish and then use the toothpick to swirl where they meet. Both of these can also be used when polish is a bit tacky to leave indentations.
For tape manicures (where you tape off sections to paint different blocks of colors), nothing beats electrical tape; since it's flexible it will follow your nail curve perfectly, and turns out nice clean lines all the while leaving the underlying polish in good shape. This is one instance where it's highly beneficial to use quick dry oil over the base layer and wait a few minutes to tape. For any taped layer, I will tape all fingers first and then paint and slowly remove the tape one nail at a time while the polish is still wet.
Makeup sponges are usually cut into littler pieces, and can be used for gradients, layering, or soft-edge effects like those you see in galaxy manicures. The polish can be either applied directly to the sponge or on a bit of wax paper in which the sponge is then dipped.
More Specialized Tools
And there also are, of course, plenty of specialized nail art tools out there. I'm only going to mention a couple of the most common and useful ones here (photo #2).
If you want more options than bobby pins and toothpicks provide for dots, or perhaps a bigger hand hold area, proper dotting tools come in many dot sizes. The smallest sizes can be used like a fine paint brush as well.
Extra-thin striping tape, most commonly found in gold and silver, is great for very fine striping work and can also be left on as part of the manicure. I get mine at Sally's Beauty Supply, and would guess most beauty supply stores carry some. It's somewhat specialized so you may need to order online otherwise.
Getting into the more advanced tools, a very fine and long thin brush called a striping brush (which I don't have, but you saw something similar in part two) is great for fine freehand painting.
And a stamping set is another fun option, though they take practice to get working well; there are so many cool plates available for stamping! I use an inexpensive one by Essence (you can find them at ULTA), but disliked the scraper that it came with and instead use an old credit card. I haven't done much stamping yet, but the most useful tip I can share is that you don't have to keep what you've picked up on the stamper: if you didn't get a good pickup, simply wipe it off and do it again. A great tutorial with some additional resources can be found here.
I'm happy to answer any questions, and would love to hear your own tips!