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 type of seaweed. A modern methylcellulose- based size is quicker to make and lasts longer without spoiling. Both produce excellent results. The recipes follow.