Marbling is the act of floating paints or inks on a fluid medium and then taking a unique ‘print’ of the pattern created on the liquid surface.
It’s likely that the earliest form of marbling originated in China or Japan. This form is known in Japan as suminagashi, which literally means floating ink. Traditional suminagashi involved floating black ink on water. In this technique, concentric rings of ink are created by placing first a drop of ink and then a drop of dispersant in the centre of that, followed by further drops of ink and dispersant, on top of those just placed. The video below shows the process.
Although in the past suminagashi was always transferred to paper to print it, using a variety of media, it is now very effectively transferred onto fabric, ceramic and other surfaces. Modern suminagashi also often uses coloured inks, not only black.
There’s a little more info about suminagashi here.
In the West we’re probably more familiar with the kind of marbling that probably originated in Persia or Turkey around the 12th century AD (or CE if you prefer). In Turkey this technique is known as Ebru. Paints are floated on a thickened water-based liquid called ‘size’, and then manipulated into various patterns, using a stylus, comb or rake. The video shows the making of the Emmeline scarf, including raking and combing to create the palms pattern.
The size may be made using various thickeners. Traditionally either carrageenan or gum tragacanth was used – carrageenan, a type of seaweed also known as Irish moss or Irish sea moss, has been used in Western Europe for centuries, and gum tragacanth was very popular in Turkey, although many Turkish marblers now use carrageenan too.
Once upon a time, carrageenan would have been supplied to marbling workshops as fresh or dried seaweed, from which the active ingredients had to be extracted – a smelly and unpleasant process, I’m told! Fortunately now it’s available in powdered form.
In another post I will talk about what I’ve found the best types of size to be and why – and where to get them, at least in the UK.
Pretty much anything with a porous surface can be marbled: leather, wood, fabric, paper, ceramic (unglazed). Most, but not all, surfaces will need to be mordanted – soaked in or painted with a solution that helps the paints to ‘stick’ to the surface. For paper and fabric marbling alum is used. More to come in a post on how to marble.
Turkish Ebru uses heavy-body (thick, like clotted cream) mineral-based paints that are thinned with water, but, depending on the effects desired and the purpose of the marbling, watercolour paints, acrylic paints and oils can all be used. I use acrylics because they provide a permanent colour on fabric, and have also played with watercolour on fabric and paper.
Creating a pattern
Whichever paints, size and medium you choose, the pattern can be created by dropping paint on the surface of your size, allowing it to spread and then using combs, rakes or a stylus, if desired, to create patterns in the paint.
There are far too many techniques to cover here, but the video above shows some raking and combing. One type of Ebru creates intricate flower and animal patterns on the size. That’s one I’m still working on myself but there are some super-talented people – just search Ebru flower or Ebru bird on YouTube!
Pulling the print
Yes, marbling is a printing process. It’s a mono-print, because only one print can be pulled from each application of paint to size. That means every single pull is unique, which makes it even more fun in my opinion. To pull a print on a flat surface such as fabric or paper, float the fabric or paper on the size, allow it to rest for a few moments and then pull it off. You can see this process in the video above. There are various issues in doing this such as avoiding trapping air bubbles as you place the paper or fabric down, and handling larger pieces of fabric, which I will cover in another post.
To print on a 3D surface such as a Christmas bauble, you only need a small surface area for your bath but it needs to be deep enough to submerge your object. Create your pattern and lower your object slowly into the bath, completely submerging it. Then pull it back out through an area of size that still has paint on it, to make sure you cover any areas you missed going down. Pull out the object and let it dry. That’s it – you’re done.
Fortunately, given that it takes quite a while to set up the bath, mix the paints etc., you can reuse the size quite a few times before it becomes too murky and unusable. Some sizes, particularly carrageenan, go off after a few days, while others will last much longer, but all will eventually be so full of bits of sunken paint etc. that they need to be replaced. Never mind; that’ll give you a lovely, fresh new surface to start all over again on!