A comprehensive guide to start you marbling designs on paper
2021 is well underway and it’s never too late to try something new or learn more about a technique you already use. With a rich history and gorgeous versatility, paper marbling will definitely be something you’ll want to immerse yourself in!
What is Paper Marbling?
Paper marbling involves floating inks or dyes on a liquid surface in a tray. The inks are manipulated into patterns using tools and then a sheet of paper is placed into the tray, absorbing the floating design. Exact methods tend to differ, and the results can vary depending on the tools used to create the patterns. Marbled Paper is technically a ‘monotype’ since each sheet of marbled paper is totally unique from another.
“There are lots of ways to get the marbled effect. If you want to create with kids then shaving foam marbling and marbling with oil and food colouring are great places to start. For older kids you can do nail polish marbling which is brilliant for decorating glazed pottery and glass”– Jessica Gouty, The Whimsical Marbler on Folksy
In an interview with Folksy HQ, Jessica Gouty from The Whimsical Marbler, talks about her process and briefly about the history of paper marbling [8 minutes,10 seconds – 10m,11s]. It’s definitely worth a watch!
The History of Marbled Paper
Paper marbling has been around for centuries, no one is quite sure exactly when or where it was first invented. Most historians seem to agree that paper marbling originated in Japan in at least the 12th century, where it was called Suminagashi or ‘floating ink’.
While this Japanese technique was emerging, a separate iteration was developing in Turkey called Ebru or ‘clouded paper’, which is a very stylistic artform that involves flower designs on lightly marbled backgrounds. Compared to Japanese Suminagashi, which involved dropping ink on to water and manipulating with blown air to give it a distinct smoky look, Turkish Ebru used brighter pigments and tools such as combs to manipulate the colours into the desired design.
By the 15th Century marbling had spread to the Persian Empire. It was useful for legal documents as an anti-forgery device because every sheet is unique – if you wrote a document on a sheet of marbled paper and went to remove any writing, it would take the pattern off underneath too, which made it very obvious that someone had been messing around.
The traditional use of marbling in western culture is mainly in books as endpapers or covers; and it’s how most people first encounter this beautiful technique. Covers that were marbled were less likely to show up any damage due to handling than plain covers. Marbling entered the western world from Turkey and there is evidence of its use in Holland in the late 16th Century.
“My favourite thing about using this technique is that is that even though you have an element of control over the finished effect as in what colours you use and what pattern you make in the ink. There is still an element of surprise and happy accidents”-Lucinda Thompson, Lucinda’s Art on Folksy
Marbling was kept a closely guarded secret for centuries, passed on by masters of the art to apprentices. Each apprentice would only be taught one aspect of the process so the technique was shrouded in mystery and highly protected by artisans. It wasn’t until Charles Woolnough – an English marbling master – published a book titled ‘The Art of Marbling‘ in 1853, that the craft was brought into widespread use. However, it then fell out of favour until a resurgence in the 1970s helped secure its legacy as a much loved craft, which continues to this day.
Take a look at this marble-ous old archive video made in 1970 by Bedfordshire Record Office showing Cockerell marbling (known as Corckerell and Son, the studio closed in 2012):
Give Paper Marbling a Go – The Method
Materials you will need:
Try to find trays that are roughly the same size as the paper you are marbling to reduce waste inks. When dipping objects to coat a 3D surface, find a tray or pot deep enough that the object is fully covered without touching the bottom.
‘Size’ is a simple solution of water and cellulose based water thickener, such as CMC powder. This thickens the water and helps the pigment to float on the surface of the water, giving you time to manipulate the colours without them sinking.
These are to float on the liquid to create patterns. Each artist favours different combinations of pigments and ‘size’ (the watery surface the pigments float on), so it’s best to try a few different combinations and decide which works best for you. Use the handy table below to decide which combination of size and pigment to use…
|Marbling inks||Various brands – some may be more oily than others. Can get different finishing effects and fix on to fabrics too.|
|Acrylic paints (thinned with water)||Acrylic paint creates a waterproof finish once dry but be careful with the consistency. Too thin and it will spread uncontrolled but too thick and you may get lumps.|
|Oil paints (thinned with turpentine)||Oil paints float much better on the liquid surface. Using harsh solvents like turpentine to thin the paint can be dangerous, so do this in a well ventilated area.|
|Watercolour paints/ Gouache paint||Not waterproof, so make sure to keep dry once the design is on the paper.|
|Japanese inks||These can be used on non-Alum-coated paper for Japanese marbling as the inks absorb into the paper. Traditionally used with just water rather than thickened ‘size’ solution.|
The best papers for marbling are ideally 100gsm or heavier. The paper needs to be able to hold its structure when wet, as well as absorbing the pigments. Avoid coated or buffered papers as these won’t react well with the pigments.
Pure Aluminium Sulphate is used to coat the surface of the paper before printing. This acts as a colour binder. Prepare your alum solution (I found this site useful for mixing instructions). Sponge your Alum and water solution over the surface of your paper and leave to dry. You should aim to do this a few days before printing, so it will be ready to use.
Combs, cocktail sticks, feathers, pipettes all create different effects – but you can use whatever you have to hand.
- Coat your paper in the Alum solution a few days before printing and allow to dry.
- Mix up your ‘size’ solution a few hours before printing and refrigerate.
- Pour ‘size’ solution into tray you are using.
- ‘Skim’ the surface using a scrap piece of paper to remove any dust before you add pigment.
- Apply colour to the surface however you like, using a pipette.
- Use a cocktail stick to pop any air bubbles or remove unwanted clumps of colour.
- Curl paper face-down onto the surface so you don’t trap any air under the paper.
- Use scraps of paper to soak up any excess ink around the edges of your paper.
- Remove paper carefully by pinching the corners of the paper and dragging it upwards.
- Rinse off gently with a spray bottle in the sink.
- Leave to dry.
Patterns to Try
Crafting with Marbled Paper
Once you’ve had a chance to perfect your marbling technique, you might be wondering what to create with your colourful sheets of paper. Your paper might just be good enough to frame on its own (perfectly valid use) or you could turn it into something completely different altogether. Let your imagination guide you.
Marbled Paper can make a gorgeous background that works perfectly for printmaking. When used with linoprint or etching, the marbled pattern adds depth and colour to the background and that extra something special. If you’re already a printmaker looking for a new technique to compliment your existing craft, then it’s certainly a worthwhile process to add to your skillset and enhance your practice further.
Greetings cards are a thoughtful way to share your marbled creations with your loved ones. You could write over a marbled background with a paint pen to personalise for any occasion or cut out marbled patterns into shapes to stick to a greetings card. If you’re feeling adventurous, why not try a concertina card or some origami using marbled paper?
If you enjoyed our history lesson at the start of this blog post, you might fancy incorporating your marbled paper into a book as a homage to the classical western use for marbled paper. Notebooks are functional and never go out of fashion. What better feeling is there than making a notebook just the way you like it, decorated with hand-marbled paper. Folksy has a fantastic selection of handmade notebooks, which feature gorgeous marbled paper covers – find Marbled Paper Notebooks on Folksy.
What would a book be without a bookmark? Bookmarks are a good way of using up any excess strips you’ve trimmed off a sheet while making a notebook, card or print. Keep things simple just using a strip of marbled paper, or add some creative flair with a fun tassel, a fold out design or your favourite book quote. If you’re looking to save your page, but don’t want to wait to make your own, our makers have got you covered too! Take a look at Marbled Bookmarks on Folksy for beautifully useful bookmarks you’ll treasure every time you read a book.
Who says marbled paper has to stay flat? Try making a folded paper star by following the instructions on our blog post, if you enjoy creating origami ornaments. Anything you can think of could become a paper creation. Leaves of paper may become the leaves on a delicate paper flower, making a romantic gift for those of us allergic to pollen!
For special occasions, gift tags can be made using offcuts of paper, similar to making bookmarks. You can even marble on pre-made paper decorations like baubles, keyrings and even earrings. Seasonal items including DIY marbled cracker kits and decadent marbled jewellery, mean that whatever the occasion you can always add some colourful marbled magic.
Meet the Marblers
On Folksy we have some super talented makers working with marbled paper and even making their own, so I thought I’d ask them why they choose to use this technique and what they love about it and who inspires them…
Vivien House uses paper by The Whimsical Marbler as a background for her own lino prints.
“I love using handmade marbled paper as a background for some of my prints because it adds a different dimension to them. I add colour sometimes by water colouring my prints but this is a very considered look, it suits some subjects perfectly however some suit a more random effect and marbled paper is amazing for this. It adds a depth and texture to the artwork without competing with the crisp quality lino-cutting brings.”
– Find Vivien on Folksy.
Eloise Lee makes her own handbound notebooks using marbled paper to create unique covers.
“I am obsessed with colour so marbling allows me to be really experimental with colour and pattern. I love that there are endless possibilities of combinations to create, I find the whole process really fun and liberating. I really love the work of Lucy McGrath and Freya Scott, both who have really good books on contemporary marbling. I also really admire German marbler Josie Majetic, who also makes beautiful marbled books. I am drawn to more contemporary marble artists who use really vivid colours, rather than the more traditional ones.”
– Find Eloise on Folksy.
Lucinda Thompson creates greetings cards featuring her marbled paper designs.
“A couple of years ago I decided to try marbling again but couldn’t remember quite how I used to do it. I got an effect I liked using acrylic paint, oil and water. It was quite a delicate effect and I had to be quick before the paint sank to the bottom of the tray. Some people add a thickening agent to the water to prevent the paint sinking or use shaving foam instead of water. I probably don’t use the textbook technique but it works for me.”
– Find Lucinda on Folksy.
Angela Harpham makes marbled paper to use for her prints and bookmarks.
“I marble on to a variety of different papers and cloth as I like experimenting my handmade recycled papers and my silk fibre papers. I am inspired by The Whimsical Marbler on Folksy, as well as videos by Linh My Truong. I also admire Takaji Kuroda’s work, it features in the book ‘Suminagashi: The Japanese Art of Marbling, A Practical Guide‘ by Anne Chambers. Another book worth reading is Techniques for Marbleizing Paper by Gabriele Grünebaum.”
– Find Angela on Folksy.
Jessica Gouty creates marbled designs for everything, from paper and bookmarks to baubles and charms.
“I predominantly use this technique to create sheets of paper which I then sell to other makers for use in their book binding, cardmaking and other paper crafts. I create some products myself using my papers and also marble directly on to some items to make decorative homewares. My favourite patterns are the fern and the Spanish Ripple. I love seeing other marblers’ work! Four of my favourites are Jemma Lewis, Freya Scott, Chena River Marblers and Renato Crepaldi.”
– Find Jessica on Folksy.
Top Tips for Paper Marbling
I’ll leave you with some handy bits of advice straight from our Folksy Paper Marblers, so you can enjoy your paper marbling journey with some useful nuggets of knowledge to help you…
- “I would advise people to get some really good books on marbling and research materials and tools well before starting, or when restrictions allow, to attend a class and learn from an experienced teacher”– The Eloise Bindery on Folksy.
- “A marbling kit is a great place to start, and YouTube can be a good resource for those who want to see how it works. Bear in mind that ‘size’ solution gets thinner with use and won’t hold colour as well. Make sure to add the dominant colours last as the earlier ones get pushed into veins. Try not to pick paper that is too stiff – 150gsm is the heaviest I would use and 80gsm is the lightest” – The Whimsical Marbler on Folksy.
- “If you do not have a dedicated room working in a bathroom is good as you need access to water to rinse the sheets. I peg them on an airing rack over the bath with a bowl or large tray underneath (could use a shower), as the colours can stain. Do not be put off by first attempts. Marbling 4 Fun have kits that come with an instruction book and online lessons” – Foto Art Paper Craft on Folksy.
- “Experiment with lots of different methods, possibly using a thickening agent in the water or foam. Find a method that suits you with what you have to hand in your studio. What might not work for someone might work for someone else. I would suggest having a large drying space, so if you want to make many pieces you can. It can be quite addictive and the paper takes a long time to dry” – Lucinda’s Art on Folksy.
A huge thanks to our wonderful makers for all their marbling insights and beautiful images. We hope this blog post has inspired you to give marbling a try! As always, keep an eye out for exciting chats with our talented makers on Instagram @FolksyHQ and in-depth technique introductions on our YouTube channel.