How This Woman Paints Hyperrealistic Nail Art

This woman uses tiny brushes to create ultra realistic portraits on acrylic nails. Her name is Vivian Xue Rahey, and she's a nail art scientist and the CEO of Pamper Nail Gallery. Her unbelievable creations have become viral, leading to some wild collaborations with major brands. Director: Corey Eisenstein Director of Photography: Florian Pilsl Editor: Parker Dixon Talent: Vivian Xue Rahey Producer: Wendi Jonassen Line Producer: Joseph Buscemi Associate Producer: Melissa Cho Production Manager: Eric Martinez Production Coordinator: Julie Suronen Camera Operator: Shreyans Zaveri Audio: Hugh Scott Production Assistant: Nathan Sandoval Post Production Supervisor: Nicholas Ascanio Post Production Coordinator: Ian Bryant Supervising Editor: Doug Larsen Assistant Editor: Andy Morell Archive Credits: Vivian Xu Rahey Special Thanks: Pamper Nail Gallery

Video Transcript

- This woman uses tiny brushes to create ultra realistic portraits that are just an inch tall and half an inch wide on a curved canvas.

VIVIAN XUE RAHEY: My name is Vivian Xue Rahey, and I am a nail art scientist.

- That's right-- nail art science. This is not your grandma's manicure-- secret messages that glow in the dark, thermo-chromatic paints that change color, and ultra-realistic portraits that you have to see to believe.

VIVIAN XUE RAHEY: I was just sitting at a restaurant, and I had Dwight Schrute on my nails. And somebody came up to me and was like, is that Dwight? And I'm like, it sure is.

That's one thing I love about nails-- because as long as I've done this, I have not failed to have people have this, like, really vivacious reaction to it. It's never like, oh, that's pretty cool. It's like, oh my God!

- OK, this is weird, but has anyone asked you to do nails for their pet?

VIVIAN XUE RAHEY: No, not for a pet, but we have been asked to do nails for dead bodies.

- Wait, what?

VIVIAN XUE RAHEY: There are some people that have put me actually on their funeral wish list. And I have to have nails from Vivian. Don't disrespect me by putting, like, other nails on or something.

- OK, let's back up. In 2016, Vivienne was working as a software engineer, painting her own nails during her free time.

VIVIAN XUE RAHEY: I was doing crazy stuff like painting Arnold Schwarzenegger like the "Terminator" movies on my nails or, like, painting stuff that people just normally wouldn't really get. I see a lot of people doing, like, pretty stuff or, like, princessy stuff. And I'm like, no, dude. Let's put "Rush Hour 2" on my nails. So it kind of resonated with a lot of different audiences as opposed to just nails as a pretty accessory.

- Within a few months, she had over a million followers on TikTok.

VIVIAN XUE RAHEY: People started DMing, asking for various things like, can I get this character? Can I get this portrait? Oh my God, can you do that for me?

Oh my God, I'm super into that too, or, oh my God, you should open a shop or something like that. I love doing portraits. Portraits is my favorite thing to do.

I've done Hagrid and Dumbledore with Snape and Lupin and McGonigal. I've done Post Malone, Billie Eilish. I did do a Bob Ross, Grogu.

Also done Mando. I do have an affinity for villains. I did the Night King from "Game of Thrones," the Terminator. I've also done Voldemort.

- Something to keep in mind with Vivian's portraits-- her canvas is curved. The artwork then goes on a moving hand that's meant to be seen from many different angles.

VIVIAN XUE RAHEY: I have to almost architect it so that the positioning of it is conducive to viewing it from all different types of angles. I've done a ton of Marvel characters, Thor and Loki, Wanda Maximoff. The ones that I have on right now, which is all three Spider-Men-- oh my gosh, I almost forgot about my Thanos nails.

I loved that set because it was the iconic, you know, him with the Infinity Gauntlet. I was able to do a little video where I snapped. My face and character painting technique is rooted in spatial awareness and dot plotting.

I work from the center outward so that there's room to make corrections. And so what I do is I use different facial features as anchors for another facial feature. So I'll, say, start with one eyebrow. And then from that eyebrow, I can swing from one vine to the next. So I'm not just looking at this overwhelmingly complex subject.

I collect data, and the more data that I have, the more accurately I can place the next feature and so on and so forth. The materials that I use are actually very carefully curated over the years. I mainly use Japanese brands of gel paints as my base colors.

I actually started off. I modeled my color collection off of a watercolor palette. I figure if real artists who work on canvas can actually use just these limited amount of colors to make everything that they need, then why couldn't I? If Bob Ross can do it, why can't I do it?

In terms of other materials that I like to use, the Freddy Kruger set that I did, I was able to use this nude-colored builder gel that is actually used to build nail extensions to create this fleshiness for his face. I got to use, like, jelly red to get that kind of runny blood look to it. I will use thermochromatic pigments, and essentially, what happens is the molecular structure changes when you expose it to either heat or cold.

And one of my favorite ones is something I like to call my invisibility pigment. And it's something that changes from black to colorless. I painted a portrait of Sirius Black. So what I did was because Sirius perished behind the veil, I was able to cover up his portrait using this black to colorless thermal pigment. And when you exposed him to a little bit of heat, the Black pigment went away, and you can kind of see like a white haze over him. And it actually made him look like he is behind the veil.

- Painting with a brush of only a few millimeters long, Vivian's portraits can take hours or even days.

VIVIAN XUE RAHEY: Usually, the portraiture takes about 5 to 6 hours for just the portrait alone. But when I get an idea that's stuck in my head, I will stay up all night to do it because I'm that laser-focused and I enjoy doing it so much. Moana took me 16 hours.

The death of Sirius Black took 18 hours. King T'Challa, including the ancestral plane, took about 10 hours. The Anastasia nails took seven hours. The "Howl's Moving Castle" took seven hours. "Little Mermaid" took me 6 and 1/2 hours.

- Jasmine and Raja took her 5 hours. This glow in the dark "Happy Haunt" set took 11 hours. The Alicia Silverstone "Clueless" set took 6.5 hours. "Jurassic Park" and "Lord of the Rings" each took over 10 hours. Once, she spent 40 hours on a single set of nails.

VIVIAN XUE RAHEY: The 40 hour project was a set of "Encanto" nails. The customer wanted every single character. So was the entire family Madrigal, and it had also their glowing doors with their powers and their little symbols and stuff.

And I also had a separate section where I did single nails that pieced together like a puzzle. And when you put those four nails together, you can see that it was the prophecy all put together. Today. I am working on a portrait of Anakin Skywalker as he is turning to the dark side. We're going to have half of Hayden Christensen's face, and the other half will be the Darth Vader helmet.

One of the most challenging parts about this one is that he's kind of turned a little bit, which is kind of tough because my nail is super curved. And I also have to fabricate some form of shadows. But right now, it's just a lot of blending and a lot of looking back and forth at the canvas to make sure that everything from, like, nostril placement to placement of a specific shadow is all in line with his facial features. And because the dark side has the red light sabers, I want to have kind of a more distinctive red glow on his face.

So these are gel paints. It's similar to if you go to a nail salon and you get gel polish. It really quickly dries.

And the way that you dry. It is you use an LED or a UV lamp. It triggers a chemical reaction in the gel and dries the polish. So when I'm working with these textures, sometimes I need to paint on top of dried paint, and sometimes I need to keep blending. And so I'll just leave it wet.

And I won't care until I need something to be completely solidified. And so it varies a lot when I'm doing these types of portrait processes. What happens when I mess up?

Everyone loves to ask me that question. Because I move so calculatedly, I don't really have any major mistakes. I think it's like, I will early detect if something is going awry. With portraits, you don't just look down all of a sudden, and it's like, oh my God, the whole thing looks bad. So I don't really make mistakes like that anymore because I just learned to check back and forth a lot.

- Why did you do Magnum condoms?

VIVIAN XUE RAHEY: I love reproducing packaging because I think it's kind of an exercise into how I can get text to look really accurate and how I can even replicate, like, weird designs on cans or on bottles. So I did Magnum Excel nails for Valentine's Day. And I tweeted at them, and I was like, just doing my part, guys.

And then they sent me a ton of condoms. And so I was like, OK, thank you. So we actually put it out for clients to take, which is, like, kind of awkward but also really funny at the same time.

I'm really proud of that Lysol nail. I painted that at the height of the pandemic, and I think it ended up in a, meme and Snoop Dogg reposted it. And I thought that was the coolest thing. He didn't tag me, though, but you know, Snoop, I see you. That was really cool.

- Vivian's success quickly got her to the point of receiving more custom nail requests than she could possibly handle alone. So she began hiring and training other talented artists to collaborate with.

VIVIAN XUE RAHEY: I started Pamper Nail Gallery, and we're based in the San Francisco Bay Area. But we shipped nails worldwide. We've had people order from Dubai.

We've had people order from Shanghai. We've had people order from the Yukon territory. So it's pretty much all over the place at this point.

- The requests they keep them on their toes.

VIVIAN XUE RAHEY: There will be people who will make an entire brochure. Like, there would be people who maybe, like, they plan out a wedding set, and they'll, like, have reference photos. And they'll show me, like, their entire life.

There was a dad who ended up sending 40,000 photos of his daughter, like, growing up. And he's like, yeah, just, like, create something, get to know her and, like, create something. Or like, how do we do that?

So it's definitely, like, challenging because people like to throw curveballs. It's not just like, oh, I want Lion King nails. It's like, yeah, I want Lion King nails, but I also want you to explore the depth of the relationship between these two characters and make it look like the relationship that I have with my brother. And we're like, oh my God. Like, this is actually getting really deep.

- But for Vivian, it's worth it. Creating wearable art based on these iconic characters gives her a chance to create community.

VIVIAN XUE RAHEY: I would say that I'm a nerd. I think that's something to be proud of. I would much rather talk about my obsessions and interests with people, and I think that it really cultivates deeper friendships and relationships because of that shared fandom or that shared obsession.

So that's actually one of the things I love about it as a form of self-expression because it's such a personal experience because I'm looking at my hands all the time. And I pretty much enjoyed the most out of the work that I put in. And I think that the customers of mine see that too is that they get it, but it's mostly, like, they enjoy it for themselves, and if somebody happens to get a peek at it, it's such a moment of instant camaraderie because it's like, oh my God, I'm super into that too. It just really connects people through a lot of their kind of personal obsessions.