About Marbling

Marbling is mesmerizing as a process. The drops of paint spread out on the surface of the size* at varying speeds, not mixing with the other drops but subtly changing their colors as the drops push up against one another. Then the marbler begins to use a stylus or combs to move the paint into new shapes and patterns. The colors still don’t mix; that is a special property of applying paint in this manner. Each time a comb is used or the stylus makes another stroke, the patterns change. That’s the magic. The results are intricate designs where colors are juxtaposed in a variety of ways. Finally, paper which has been treated with alum is laid on the surface of the size and when it is lifted, the pattern has been transferred to the paper and you are ready to begin the process again.

Marbled paper was extremely popular in the 18th and 19th centuries in western Europe. At first, there were no combs and the papers were primarily drops and what looked like veins – the similarity to how the stone marble looks is probably how the craft got its name. Then combs were added and patterns were devised. In a sense, the marbling we do today in the U.S. is a traditional craft rooted in the western tradition because the decorative patterns were mostly developed in Europe.

*”Size” is a thick carrageenan mixture that is in a vat on which the paint drops are floated.

How was this relatively elaborate process developed and where did it come from? A thumb nail history goes like this:

  • The first known process of floating pigment on a size was ink on water in 12th century Japan. It is known as Suminagashi. The papers decorated in this way suggest water rippling and often form the background for calligraphy.
  • As trade increased across Asia knowledge of the marbling process traveled the same routes and artisans in different regions began experimenting with different materials to produce their decorated papers. Europeans adopted the process and materials which were developed in Turkey in about the 17th century.
  • Marbled paper has been used to decorate boxes, drawers, and shelves as well as in books. But it was also used on paper money to make it hard to counterfeit and on legal documents to make them hard to alter.
  • For much of its history, marbling was very secretive. In fact, only a few books were written about it until the 20th century. People back then wanted to keep the process secret because it was a valuable skill. Today there are still few books written about marbling because it is an endangered art form.

Today, new materials can produce much more refined patterns and the luxury of time allows much more intricate work. Furthermore, new ideas allow this art form to expand beyond the book arts and into the larger art world. 

Artist’s Statment

I have been drawn to marbling as an art form since I first saw it done some 20 years ago. It is a magical, contemplative process. My work explores patterns and color. I also enjoy the challenge of working inside the bounds of chemistry and technique to see how far I can push the art form. That has led me to exploring negative space, building sequences, experimenting with creating depth, and moving past the traditional limits and rules of marbling.