Suminagashi, or “ink floating” is the oldest form of marbling paper that dates back to over 2,000 years ago in Japan. Suminagashi was mostly done by high priests for the royal court as a fine art. The priests would use a special Sumi-e ink that is dropped onto a still water surface and then blown to create a design on top of the water, then they would place paper on top of the water and the ink would transfer onto the paper. The technique of paper marbling goes very well with the art of calligraphy that was very popular in Japan at the time. A beautiful marbled background.
As time goes on, around the 15th century, other styles of marbling started to develop in Turkey and Persia. Here they used a bit of a different technique to create wavy images they called “Ebru”, which means cloud, or wind-like. In central Asia they used oil inks which are much heavier. These oil inks required a medium to be added to the water called size so that the oil inks would stay at the top, which is essential for the marbling process to happen. This also allowed for more control over the way the inks moved, creating more patterns. Ebru used more colors than Suminagashi.
Soon after, marbling became known in Europe. It still remained a special technique because not very many people knew how to do it, and the artists were keeping it a secret. The business of book binding was taking off and the bookbinders really wanted to learn how to marble the book cloth. It wasn’t until the 19th century when an Englishman, Charles Woolnough, published The Art of Marbling (1853) where he describes different methods of marbling, how to make certain kinds of patterns.
No two marbles are exactly the same, making it a “monoprint” type of process. It relates to printmaking because it involves transferring designs and patterns onto paper and fabrics. Marbling is still used very often today, not only onto paper but onto surfaces of all kinds. I have once actually marbled my arm by dipping it into a tub of inks and slowly pulling it out.