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Leanne Woodley
courtesy of Instagram/

Leanne Woodley's intricate nail designs are miniature works of art

The nail artist talks to us about being a black woman in the industry and men becoming more comfortable rocking nail art

From digital artists to photographers, body sculptors and hair stylists to make-up and nail artists, in our Spotlight series, we profile the creatives tearing up the rulebook in their respective industries.

Leanne Woodley is an artist and nails are her canvas. Although, she hasn’t always seen it that way. “I’ve really only just come to terms with the idea that I am an artist,” she tells us. “Growing up, I would draw a lot but didn’t consider myself an artist. Now that I have come to terms with it, each step of the process feels very emotional.”

There’s no denying the creativity and skill that goes into Woodley’s work. With a razor-sharp focus on composition and colour, her intricate designs are miniature works of art. From scaled-down reproductions of Keith Haring and Chris Ofili paintings to perfectly-drawn flowers to your favourite nostalgic cartoon characters, Woodley’s skills cover the spectrum and the results are always immensely satisfying in their precision.

Born in St Thomas in the Virgin Islands and growing up in Rockville, Maryland, Woodley had her first manicure at the age of seven – a treat from her dad. It wasn’t until later, however, when she was working as a stylist assistant on the same set as Bernadette Thompson, that she realised her passion lay in nails. Since then her work has appeared in the pages of magazines including L’Officiel and Nylon and in campaigns for Sephora, Desigual, and Gossamer. Here, we speak to Woodley about her influences growing up, being a black woman in the industry and men becoming more comfortable rocking nail art.

Can you tell us a bit about yourself and where you grew up? 

Leanne Woodley: I was born in St Thomas, US Virgin Islands, grew up in Rockville, Maryland now based in NYC. I am a product of Caribbean immigrant parents. I think unknowingly watching how hard my parents worked has shaped my drive and work ethic. They both grew up really poor, so watching them work hard to not only provide but also buy themselves nice things has also shaped my taste.

Do you remember the first time you were conscious of your appearance? 

Leanne Woodley: My mother definitely is the reason for my self-awareness. I would intensely watch her get ready in the mornings or before going out – the way she did her hair and make-up to the way she would choose her clothes and shoes. It definitely made me become aware of myself. When I was younger, my mother would joke that I was vain but ultimately it was because I was obsessed with wanting to be as beautiful as her inside and out. It didn’t help that she would constantly praise me on how smart and beautiful I was.

Growing up, what informed your understanding of beauty and identity and the way you presented yourself visually?

Leanne Woodley: BET, MTV, Married with Children, old dancehall videos, Belly, Lil Kim, Total, Mary J Blige, Patra, Brandy, Naomi Campbell, Alex Wek, Kimora Simmons, Seventeen magazine, Essence, Suede magazine, Vibe magazine, Issac Mizrahi, Baby Phat, Todd Oldham, Calvin Klein, Madness (a brand specifically known and grown in D.C.), Betsy Johnson, Donna Karan, and DKNY. I really could go on forever. I have two older brothers so they also had a lot of influence on my style.

What's the first memory you have of finding someone beautiful?

Leanne Woodley: Kacey, a girl that grew up in my neighbourhood, in third grade. I was obsessed with how long her hair was and also jealous. It just made her so much more beautiful than she already was and then in fourth grade Brian Blake. I was obsessed with his red undertones and how smooth his skin was.

Why are you a nail artist? What made you want to become one? 

Leanne Woodley: My dad took me to get my first manicure when I was seven years old. I was really obsessed with nail polish and long nails after that, even though I was a nail biter. Fast forward to 2013 working as a stylist assistant I met Bernadette Thompson. After badgering her on set for hours, I went home to research her. It hadn’t dawned on me how much influence she had in the things I loved growing up, not to mention how much money I could actually make doing nails. Seeing a black woman making her way in two industries, one being predominantly Asian and the other being predominantly white, and dominate blew my mind. It was a wrap after that.

How did you actually get into it? Where did you hone your craft? 

Leanne Woodley: I went to Christine Valmy in 2015, after having only practised on my friends for a year out of my house. To be honest, I sent Bernadette a message asking how I could without having to work in a salon. She basically said it was impossible and that I had to do the work if I wanted to build the clientele. The basic manicure ultimately felt instinctual but the gel manicures, nail art, and extensions that happened at Japanese nail art salon I worked at for almost two years. 

To be honest, being just as good if not better than everyone in the salon is what pushed me, along with my manager riding my ass (she’s one of my closest friends now!). I was one of two black women that worked at the salon, so even though it pushed me it also gave me a lot of anxiety. The owner actually didn’t think I was good when I first started but I ultimately became one of her top artists. Shout out to her for playing herself! I’m never going back to work for anyone unless it’s in the form of collaboration.

Can you tell us a bit about your creative process – from the initial idea to the final image?

Leanne Woodley: I’ve really just come to terms with the idea that I am an artist. Growing up I would draw a lot but didn’t consider myself an artist. Now that I have come to terms with it, each step of the process feels very emotional. I’m a very sensitive person, so every set usually has a connection that the client and I both have come up with, or the client has brought in inspiration and allows me full reign, from colour to composition. 

Is beauty something you try to capture in your work or something that you reject? 

Leanne Woodley: I only think about beauty in terms of the foundation, meaning how aesthetically beautiful is this manicure, fill in, or new set. How moisturised are the hands in addition to the manicure or extensions. It literally could just be a clear coat and as long as it fits within my standards of how I see my work (because no artist hits a perfection mark each time) I am pleased. I ultimately don’t really think about how beautiful the set is until it’s done. I don’t necessarily know that I’ve ever had a relationship with the word beauty, I think it’s something that has just been apart of my thinking. The gauge on what is beautiful is so vast that to me it would be hard to pigeonhole or define it.

Where does your inspiration for the nail designs come from?

 Leanne Woodley: Really anywhere, I get inspired by anything from prints and patterns to someone’s clothing colour palette. I love seeing older women who wear a monochromatic look with nails included. Life is inspiring and even more fun when that can be translated to nail art.

What should nails bring to a fashion editorial or catwalk show?

Leanne Woodley: Ultimately, they should elevate the look and story. This is a fantasy that we are creating, what good is a fantasy if it’s not complete. I feel like fashion often forgets the importance of how nails complete a look and its importance to beauty. There was a time when women matched their eye shadow to their nails, we need to get to a new version of that. It’s great to have the make-up-no-make-up look but if your nails are trash what’s the point? Your face cannot be beaten for the gawds but your nails look like trash, it doesn’t make sense.

Do you get a lot of male clients? Have you noticed a change in the years you’ve been working?

Leanne Woodley: I have a few. I got my friend to stop biting his nails by constantly practising on him, which then turned into practising nail art, which then turned into something he loved. I feel like men are becoming more comfortable about getting their nails done and even more comfortable with nail art, and self-care in general. It's a beautiful thing honestly, men need to learn that societal constructs are a facade and they too can choose whatever they’d like to put on their nails. 

What is your dream project to work on?  

Leanne Woodley: Collaborating with a polish brand that I love would really be a dream job, working with a brand from concept to production. 

How do you think the industry has evolved since you first started out?

Leanne Woodley: The expansion of the independent nail artist has definitely increased, creating a larger space for the editorial work. Nail art and it’s intricacies, the expansion of the use of Japanese gel, the increase of soak-off extensions, and the return of the airbrush machine.

How do you think our understanding of beauty has shifted with the evolution of technology?

Leanne Woodley: The access we have because of the evolution of technology has allowed us new examples of what is beautiful. It’s created a space for people to be confident in themselves in any form of beauty they choose to present to the world.

What advice would you give to young artists hoping to get into the industry?

Leanne Woodley: Stand firm in the respect you deserve as a nail artist, learn everything at your pace, keep your attention on your work and growth, and always always always remain yourself while doing all of it.

What are you currently working on?

Leanne Woodley: A super moisturising hand and cuticle oil trio.

Who would you like to shine a spotlight on next?  

Leanne Woodley: Michela Wariebi, an amazing make-up artist.