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The Secrets of Paper Marbling Revealed

Will Jackson Shares the Secrets of Paper Marbling in this Comprehensive Step-by-Step Demonstration


Marbled papers have a variety of uses. Clockwise, from left: notecards, handbound books by John and Annie Hansen of Indiananola,Washington; lamp base coverd in marbled paper;gift box; books (c. 1900) with marbled covers and page edges. The round boxes and frame are made with papers from Florence, Italy, one of the great marbling centers.

Although 19th century books contain some of the best examples of marbled papers, the history of marbling began several centuries earlier. 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?" What most people don't realize is how easy paper marbling actually is, and how quickly the basics, at least, can be learned.

Simply put, marbling consists of floating paints on a surface of thickened liquid, manipulating them to create patterns, then lifting the patterns onto prepared paper. Traditional marbling was done with oils or gouache. Acrylic paints are easier to use, and are chosen by many professional marblers today. Waterbased, safe, and quick- drying, they are capable of producing intricate, clearly defined patterns. According to Galen Berry, a well-known marbler who has conducted several workshops at Daniel Smith, Liquitex Concentrated Acrylics seem to work best. They can be thinned with water and are widely available. Daniel Smith Luminescent acrylics, also thinned with water, work well for metallic and iridescent effects.

When marbling with acrylics, the paper must first be coated with mordant, an alum solution, to make the paint adhere to it. To make 2 cups (enough for a few dozen 8-1/2"x 11" sheets), add 2 level tablespoons alum (aluminum sulphate) to 2 cups warm water and stir until dissolved. Use a sponge to apply mordant evenly over one side of the paper (mark the other side to prevent confusion when lifting the pattern), making sure the paper is completely covered. Two types of size, or thickened liquid, are recommended for floating acrylic paints. The more traditional size is made with powdered carrageenan, a substance extracted from seaweed. A modern methylcellulose- based size is quicker to make and lasts longer without spoiling. Both produce excellent results. The recipes follow.

Carrageenan Size
• In a blender, add 1 level Tablespoon instant (powdered) carrageenan to 4 cups water. (Carrageenan is often used as a food thickener, so it won't hurt your blender.)

• Blend on high for 30 seconds. Pour into tray. Repeat, if needed, to fill tray 1-2" deep. Cover with plastic and allow to sit for at least 8 hours before using, to allow the bubbles to pop. It will stay usable for 2 to 3 days, up to a week if refrigerated.

Methylcellulose Size
• Place 4 Tablespoons methylcellulose in a clean 2+ quart bowl. Pour 4 cups boiling water over the powder and stir gently to completely disperse powder. Do not create bubbles or froth.

• Add 4 cups ice water (can be all or part ice cubes). Stir gently to blend. Within 10 minutes, the liquid will quickly become thick and clear. Pour into clean tray, to a depth of 1-2". It can be used immediately and, covered with plastic, will keep indefinitely.



Before you start marbling, arrange your workspace. Cover the table with paper, since you will be splattering it with paint. In small jars or glasses, squeeze a half-inch or so of paint, then thin with water to the consistency of milk. Add a few drops of marbling gall to each color, and stir with a small bunch of broomstraw (natural or plastic), tightly bound with a rubber band. Use one bunch for each color, since the straw bundles are what you use to apply the color. Place the prepared jars next to your pan of size. Make sure you have an old towel handy, and wear painting clothes! Set up your drying rack, and either have a deep sink or a large tub of water and a sponge nearby, for rinsing the papers. Lift bubbles off your size with a piece of newspaper, pop any that remain with a pin, and make sure there is no dust or lint on the surface.


Now you are ready to begin. Pick up some paint from a jar with a straw bundle. A dark color is usually best to use for a base color. Holding the bundle over the pan, tap it with your finger to spatter small drops of paint onto the surface The paint should stay on the surface, not sink and should begin to spread over the surface. If it spreads almost instantly over a large area, paint contains too much gall; add more paint to the jar. If it spreads very slowly or not at all, add more gall to the jar. (Getting the paint/gall ratio right is tricky-it varies with each color, due to the various pigments used.) Continue tapping the bundle over the pan-you want an even, not too heavy application of similarly sized spatters over the entire surface. Tap the bundle fairly lightly to prevent the spatters from penetrating the size and sinking.



Using the same technique, add additional colors. As you add a second color, you will notice that, as it spreads, it crowds the first color and begins to create a pattern. As third and fourth colors are added, the base color will squeeze into thin "veins". The veins help define patterns, which is why a dark base color is desirable. Use restraint when applying the paint. Four colors are usually sufficient. The entire surface should now have a fairly consistent spatter pattern, with veins. This is the classic Turkish Stone pattern, and you could lift the pattern at this point. Beautiful by itself, the Turkish Stone is also the basis for all other marble patterns.



As you spatter paint and then create patterns it is important to work fairly rapidly, as the paint will continue to disperse and separate. The first basic modification of the Turkish Stone is called the Back and Forth pattern. Insert your stick or stylus 1/2' at one corner of the pan Slowly drag it horizontally across the pan, then lift it reinsert about an inch down, drag it back across, lift, reinsert another inch down drag across lift, etc. This will begin to blend the colors. You can stop at this point and proceed to a Nonpareil pattern, or you can complete the Back and Forth pattern by repeating the process, this time dragging the stylus vertically, to create a finished pattern resembling feathers.



To make the popular Nonpareil pattern, complete the first, horizontal, step of the Back and Forth. Take a marbling comb, insert it about 1/2" at the top of the pan, and, using one hand on either end of the comb, slowly draw it vertically down through the paint to the bottom of the pan. You will see the paint "magically" form into an intricate combed pattern. Do not use the comb more than once. It is important not to overmanipulate the paint, or the design will become overcomplicated and muddy, or start to break up.



To lift the completed pattern, pick up a sheet of your prepared paper by opposite corners, keeping the marked side up and the mordant side down. This will create a sort of roll in the paper. Touch the bottom of the roll to the paint, then quickly but smoothly lay the paper down. The key is to not trap air bubbles under the paper. Tap down the corners to make sure they get coated. Immediately, the paint on top of the size will transfer to the paper. Carefully pick up the sheet, by the top corners, and peel it away from the size.



Lay the paper, pattern side up, on a shallow tray or piece of masonite. Take it to the sink and run a soft stream of water over it. The point here is to remove the excess size from the surface of the paper. Too strong a rinse will remove some of the paint. If you experiment (perhaps with a piece that didn't turn out too well), you will find that by intentionally rubbing off some of the paint, you can create a more pastel look or other interesting effects. If you are using a tub and sponge instead of a sink, squeeze water over the pattern, rather than sponging it, to avoid lifting paint. If there is some leftover size on the pattern after rinsing, it will not harm the paint.



The paint on the sheet is not completely fixed until it is dry. Drape the sheet on a drying rack. You can use a wooden drying rack from a housewares store, or you can hang sheets on a clothesline-remember, some paint may rub off. Plastic tubing also makes good racks. Allow plenty of drying space, since you will find that marbling goes quickly and you will probably make lots of sheets in one session. How long the sheets take to dry will depend on how wet they are, the humidity, and other factors. Allow them to dry thoroughly. Once they are dry, any wrinkles can be ironed out with an iron set on a low setting, and a piece of muslin or other protection between the iron and pattern.



To make your next marble, first clean the size. You can lift most of the remaining paint with a piece of newspaper cut to the size of the pan. Lay it on the paint, then lift and discard. Then you can use a scraper, a thin piece of wood or stiff piece of cardboard nearly the width and almost the depth of your pan. Insert this at the top end of the pan, NOT touching the bottom, and draw it down through the size to the bottom end of the pan. Excess paint will collect in front of the scraper. At the end of the pan, lift the scraper, catching as much of the paint as possible, and wipe it off on your towel. Repeat as necessary, until the surface is as clean as possible. If some color sinks (and it will) the size is still fine to use, as long as the surface is clean and free of bubbles or lint. Now you can start another pattern.



The Nonpareil pattern is the starting point of many of the more complex marbled patterns Using rakes a Nonpareil can be manipulated into the French Snail, Birdwing, Peacock, Bouquet and other patterns. Here's how to do the French Snail Using the rake you have prepared insert it about 1/2" into the size near the top of your prepared Nonpareil pattern. With a hand at either end of the rake, move it in a curl, then lift. You will see the snail-like swirls this makes in the paint. Reinsert the rake a couple of inches further down the pan and repeat until the entire surface is evenly patterned with swirls. Then lift the pattern, rinse, and dry.



Examples of some of the many marbling patterns. From left to right: French Snail, made by inserting a rake or stylus and moving it in a spiral; Peacock (or Bouquet), produced using either a stylus or a special rake; Nonpareil; Italian Vein, made by spritzing marbling gall on a Turkish Stone; and Birdwing, made by moving a rake through a Nonpareil in a regular wave-like motion. The book Marbling Techniques offers clear directions for creating complex patterns.

Liquitex Concentrated Artist Colors

Especially well suited for paper marbling, these acrylic paints are also good for fine and decorative art, stenciling and fabric painting. Packaged in 2 oz. flip-top squeeze bottles, they are easy to dispense and mix, which makes the sometimes tricky task of getting the consistency of marbling colors just right a little easier. Mixed with varying amounts of marbling gall, they will disperse well on the size. They are certified non-toxic by the Art and Craft Materials Institute and, like all acrylics, clean up with soap and water.

Marbling Gall
Darker and more concentrated than the oxgall liquid used in watercolor painting, Marbling Gall is used to control the dispersion or spread of marbling paints on the carrageenan or methylcellulose size. Ours is packed in a 2 oz. squeeze bottle with a fine nozzle which can dispense a few drops or a fine stream, depending on how much is needed to modify each color.

Daniel Smith Aluminum Sulfate
Used as a mordant, aluminum sulfate (alum) is sponged on paper to help marbling paints adhere properly. WF2936004 1/2 lb. Bag

Making Marbling Combs and Rakes
Making these basic marbling tools is easy. Your tools should be as wide as your marbling pan. To make a simple comb, cut a strip of 4 ply matboard about 1/2" wide and then cut that strip 1/2" shorter than the width of your pan. Coat both sides with acrylic medium for water-resistance, then insert straight pins at regular intervals, about 3/16" apart. To make a rake, cut a length of wood moulding about 1/2" shorter than the width of your pan. Hammer finishing nails into the moulding about 1-1/4" apart.

Daniel Smith Carrageenan
Powdered to mix with water, this is the "instant" form of this North Sea seaweed. Used extensively as a thickener in foods, non-4oxic carrageenan is safe to use in your home blender and makes an excellent marbling size.

Daniel Smith Methylcellulose
This powdered thickener and paper sizing material dissolves quickly in boiling water, then thickens quickly with the addition of ice water to make an excellent marbling size.

Marbling Techniques by Wendy Addison Medetros
Subtitled How to Create Traditional and Contemporary Designs on Paper and Fabric, this book gives clear, up-to-date instructions for several marbling processes. It also discusses the tools and materials needed for marbling in acrylics, watercolors, gouache, oils and tempera, how to organize a workspace, and how to overcome "technical difficulties". Abundant color photographs include many inspiring examples of marbled patterns. l44 pages, soft. Watson-Guptill Publications, 1994.