This is important: The tonal manicure is everywhere. Unless your Instagram explore tab is stacked with nail art, you may have missed this fact.

But unlike other nail art trends that require a steady hand (and, realistically, many other skills), the tonal manicure is very easy to do. Pick a few shades in a color family — variants of blue, green or gray, perhaps — and paint.

“Most people have a favorite nail color,” said Amy Lin, founder of Sundays, a wellness-focused nail studio in New York. “And they own polishes that are many different shades of that color.” In other words, you already have everything you need.

Lin has noticed that tonal dressing — a knit tank and midi skirt, say — is trending in fashion, too. But she thinks the tonal look appeals to her clients for other reasons. “Choosing shades that work together is an artistic way to engage with color,” she said. “The process sparks their self-expression and creativity.”

A tonal manicure looks great in neutral tones — that’s the most popular version — but the colors don’t have to take ombre form. (An autumnal blend of hunter green, sunflower yellow and crimson would be cool, for example.) Here, we answer a few questions, with help from nail experts.

A tonal manicure with Olive & June polishes. Unlike other nail art trends that require a steady hand, the tonal manicure is very easy to do — pick a few shades in a color family and paint. (Olive & June via The New York Times)
A tonal manicure with Olive & June polishes. Unlike other nail art trends that require a steady hand, the tonal manicure is very easy to do — pick a few shades in a color family and paint. (Olive & June via The New York Times)

Where did this thing come from?

Perhaps you’ve stood in front of a wall of polish at a nail salon, undecided on a standout among a few colors that spark your interest. Tonal manicures came from that place.

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“It resonated with the experience of picking a color for your manicure,” said Sarah Gibson Tuttle, founder of Olive & June, a nail care brand with three studios in California. “Here you don’t have to choose.”

Michelle Saunders, a manicurist, recalls a photo shoot years ago at which she had to “audition” several shades, painting a different color on each of the model’s fingers. The creative director loved them all, they shot the look and, Saunders said, the multicolored manicure was born.

The origins of the multicolored manicure’s current popularly aren’t clear. “I think this spring people started to wear what used to be a ‘Skittles mani’ in softer, subtler colors,” Gibson Tuttle said. “It looks wearable now, so it’s getting popular.”

A tonal manicure with Olive & June polishes. Unlike other nail art trends that require a steady hand, the tonal manicure is very easy to do — pick a few shades in a color family and paint. (Olive & June via The New York Times)
A tonal manicure with Olive & June polishes. Unlike other nail art trends that require a steady hand, the tonal manicure is very easy to do — pick a few shades in a color family and paint. (Olive & June via The New York Times)

You said it’s easy, but really: How do I do it?

If you’re iffy on picking colors, look to your closet for inspiration in fabric prints and patterns. Browse nature shots, like sunsets, on Instagram for shades that are intrinsically harmonious. The polishes in seasonal collections from fashion-influenced polish brands, like Essie and Orly, always jibe tonally.

Or shop the entire collection of a small brand like Paintbox, a nail art studio in New York that recently introduced a 10-piece line of long-lasting polishes that were curated to complement each other.

Sounds good. But have we already reached peak tonal mani?

This manicure hasn’t yet reached mainstream saturation. It hasn’t, for example, become a thing for the Housewives or Kardashian/Jenners. Last month, Olive & June, picking up on the budding trend, introduced ombre manicure kits in blues, pinks, grays and reds. The kits were immediately among the company’s best sellers, Gibson Tuttle said. You’ll be quite cool if you start wearing them, basically, right now.

An updated French manicure by Michelle Saunders uses tonal shades. (Amber McKee via The New York Times)
An updated French manicure by Michelle Saunders uses tonal shades. (Amber McKee via The New York Times)

OK, it’s definitely still cool, but how do I make it even more of a look?

Mabelyn Martin, creative director at Paintbox, suggests simple negative-space designs, in which part of the nail is left bare. Painting just your tips in an updated French manicure won’t distract from the main event, the color.

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“You also don’t have to do a different color on every finger,” Martin said. “Paint two or three shades on one hand and repeat that on the other, or do a different combination.”

Saunders likes a rose gold, copper and yellow gold mix — metallics are predictably popular during fall and winter. Since it’s do-it-yourself-friendly, the tonal manicure is your opportunity to explore not only color but also finishes and textures.

“It’s nail art without being nail art,” said Gibson Tuttle, whose mission is to help women do professional-level manicures at home.

“You feel so good when your nails are fun,” she said.