Nail art has been one of the few activities keeping me content during quarantine. Have I gotten better at it? Questionable. But it's still soothing, painstakingly making little lines and swooshy patterns in an attempt to create something resembling the bespoke claws that catch my eye on Instagram. I'm not a gel manicure kind of person because I like to change it up often, but one trending nail art that had seemed out of my grasp was tortoise shell nails. The layered translucence that makes up the pattern seemed only doable with gel's curing step, but cool, indie nail polish brand Cirque Colors figured out how to make it doable with regular nail polish.

white box of nail polish bottles on an orange surface

Cirque Colors Tortoise Shell Nail Art Kit, $36

The key, I realized, is that the polish is a jelly formula — the slightly sheer finish allows you to layer them over and over again without getting gloopy or too-textured looking. Brilliant!
five nail polish bottles in clear orange, red, and brown colors lined up

The polishes I used

I used Cirque Colors' Base and Top Coat polishes as well because every manicure needs a base and top coat. You don't get the base and top coat in the set, btw, I just happened to have them. The three shades are Camel, Rust, and Walnut.

Step One:

Base coat, Duh. But that's like...step zero. Once that's on, I did a light layer of Camel, the yellow shade, all over. One coat does kind of look like yellowed nails, but hold your judgment until we're done.

So moving on to step two because step one looks kinda gross.

Step Two:

With Rust (the red shade), brush a light layer of haphazard blobs on your nails, like so. Let it dry. And then, do another light layer of Camel on top of that.

A hand with yellow and red nail polish art on the fingernails

Step two

Step three:

And then take Walnut, the brown shade, and do more light haphazard blobs overlapping with the Rust ones. Let that dry, and do another light layer of Camel on top of that.

Hand with tortoise shell nail art on the fingernails

Step three

Steps Four Through...

The rest of the steps are repeats of the first two, layering more bits of Rust and Walnut, sandwiched between Camel, until the pattern resembles tortoiseshell to your liking. The great thing about this pattern is that it doesn't rely on perfection, so you can't really mess up. (OK, my cuticles are not the neatest but this is my first time doing it.)

When your tortoiseshell is complete, let it dry, topcoat that business, and you are DONE.

Hand with tortoiseshell nail art on fingernails

Voila.

Curled Hand with tortoiseshell nail art on fingernails

Please excuse my cuticles.

Believe it or not, this is like... seven layers of nail polish on my nails because I kept going back and making more marks to build the design. The jelly texture of the polish makes it easier to layer thinly so it doesn't look super thicc when piled on top of one another. I think if you were trying to do this with regular polishes you already have, in similar colors, I'd thin out a portion with clear topcoat for each shade to save yourself from the glops.

$36 may seem like a lot for three nail polishes, but I've also worn the red and brown as standalone manicures and they're really pretty and modern-looking with their chic jelly finish, so you get range.

Also, for the eco- and chemical-conscious, Cirque Colors are vegan, cruelty-free, and 10-free (meaning devoid of toluene, DBP (dibutyl phthalate), formaldehyde, formaldehyde resin, camphor, xylene, ethyl tosylamide, phthalates, parabens and fragrances).

Have you tried any Cirque Color nail polishes? If so, drop your review below! We're obsessed with this brand.