What is Marbling?

Miki Lovett | Nantucket, MA

Historic Marbled Paper by Miki LovettMarbling consists of floating paints on a surface of thickened liquid, manipulating them to create patterns, then lifting the patterns onto prepared paper. Traditionally this craft was done with oils or gouache. Acrylic paints are easier to use, and are chosen by many professional marblers today. Water-based, safe, and quick- drying, they are capable of producing intricate, clearly defined patterns.

Suminagashi, a Japanese form of marbling, dates back at least to the 1100s. Ground sumi inks were floated on water, then lifted onto paper. The random patterns formed were revered for the way they emulated natural phenomena such as the waves created by wind in fields of grain.

The type we are more familiar with, Turkish marbling, was developed in 15th century Persia, and called ebru (cloud art) by the early artisans. More tightly controlled, it lay within the middle eastern artistic tradition of complex overall patterning. While marbling spread to Europe by the 17th century, the process remained a closely guarded secret known only to a few. For the next 300 years, marbling was primarily connected with the bookbinding trade, decorating endpapers, book covers and the edges of the pages.

Changing tastes and the continuing secretiveness of marblers combined to make marbling an almost lost art by the 1930s, but a great revival of interest began in the ’70s. One reason for the current popularity of marbled motifs is the beautiful complexity of the colors and patterns-they cause one to ask “How do they do that?”

How Marbling is Done

First, the paper or fabric is treated with a salt called Alum so that it can accept the marbling paint. The size, a viscous solution usually made with Carrageenan or Methel-cellulose, is prepared and allowed to sit overnight.

Inks or paints are then floated on the surface of the size drop by drop. Then the design is created either with rakes and combs or with a stylus. Next, the paper or fabric is laid onto the floating inks and the design is transferred from the size to the paper or fabric.

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