Permanent Marker Nail Art Tutorial (aka I’m Nail MacGyver!)

I feel like I’ve been on fire with DIY nail things lately! Here’s my latest discovery – how to successfully use permanent marker on your nails.

I’m not too shabby with a fine brush (years of weighing out micrograms in a lab will do that to you), but I can’t count the number of times I’ve wanted to just throw down my brush in frustration and just scrawl all over my nails in permanent marker. But as all nail addicts know, top coat will smear your hard work into an unrecognisable mess, and if you don’t use top coat, the marker will rub off within hours.

Turns out there’s a cheap, easy solution! It’s…

The reason that top coat smears marker is that markers contain pigments suspended in organic solvents, and your top coat is full of (you guessed it) organic solvents (in particular ethyl acetate and butyl acetate). So the top coat will quickly dissolve the ink up again! The solvent (liquidy stuff) in PVA glue is water and, as you’ll know if you’ve ever had the misfortune of having someone draw on your face while you’re asleep, water doesn’t dissolve permanent marker. So I figured, if I placed a protective PVA layer (applied with water) between the marker and the top coat, there’d be no smearing… turns out I’m right! (Love it when that happens!)

What you need
- dry base colour
- permanent marker (it has to be waterproof for this to work)
- PVA base (the same stuff you’d use for a peel-off base)
- top coat (Seche Vite in my case)

1. Make sure your polish is dry enough to be dent-proof.

2. Draw on your nail with permanent marker.  Let it dry (it can still smear if it’s not completely dry).

3. Cover the design with PVA base. Make sure the whole design is covered, and that the PVA doesn’t shrink and expose any areas. It tends to cling to the markered areas.

4. Wait. PVA takes a while to dry, but it’s obvious when it’s done, since it goes clear. Watch some TV or something. I recommend Archer. Make sure it’s COMPLETELY CLEAR – if not, the water will stay trapped between two solid layers of polish. A little cloudiness is ok, but it’ll take ages to disappear after it’s trapped.

5. When it’s all clear, go ahead and add top coat. Voilà! Nail art success!

Now you might wonder, why bother putting on top coat at all? Here’s a comparison of my unprotected thumb nail art after 12 hours and a properly sealed design:

And here’s a comparison of what happens if you don’t PVA before adding top coat:

Poor Mr Happy! (I’m not entirely sure what sort of overall design concept I was going for here. In my defence, it was late and I was tired.)

I’m really happy with the final look! It looks like something I could’ve achieved with stamping, but I really like the ability to have a completely unique design for each finger.

So if you thought awesome nail art was beyond your abilities, think again! :)


  1. says

    Great job Michelle!!!!! I am so going to give this a whirl.

    Alice from one nail to rule them all uses a ballpoint gel pen all the time to draw designs on her nails and she just lets her nails wait a reasonable amount of time then just applied top coat as per normal without smudging!?

  2. says

    You’re a genius! You deserve to be immortalised in the nail art hall of fame. I’m taking a trip to officeworks to stock up on permanent markers tonight!

    Also, that Mr Happy after top coat is going to give me nightmares :(

  3. says

    Wow!!! This mani is so pretty. I so love the color combos and design. It really looks so pretty with PVA and top coat. You def are a genius when it comes to nail arts.

  4. says

    That is so awesome. I will definitely try this…when my nails grow out. haha. Now we’re going to see so many more beauty buffs stalking the aisles of stationery stores.

    - Mary

  5. says

    A couple of things – 1, I am totally going to go at my nails tonight with a permanent marker (what would we all do without your scientific brain solving all our nail art dilemmas?) and 2, Archer is hilarious!

    • says

      It’s nice that there are actually useful applications for my knowledge, so much of what I worked on was decades from actual applications that this feels much more rewarding :)

  6. says

    great tutorial! I’ve always wondered why more people didn’t ‘just draw’ on their nails! I’m going to have to give this a go, thanks :)


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