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.
Turkish Marbling is a process for creating decorative papers that have a patterns that resemble the organic patterns found in marble stones. The process originated in the middle east and spread to Europe around 1600. It involves dropping pigment suspended in water into a shallow tray of water mixed with sizing. Then the artist can drag combs and brushes through the water in order to move the pigment and change the pattern. The pigments can be layered to create very colorful patterns. Once the design is finished, the artist lays the paper across the water and then picks it up. The paper picks up the pigment in the pattern that it laid in on the surface of the water. Marbling can also be done on paper, wood or other porous surfaces. Sizing is added to the water so that the pigment will float on the surface of the water. The traditional sizing is made from carrageenan seaweed, but methyl cellulose can also be used. The pigments can be suspended in water based inks, gouache, oil paint, or acrylic paint. But in order to use acrylic paints, the paper must be coated in a mordant such as aluminum sulfate to act as a fixative. There are many named patterns within the marbling technique, such as the French Curl pattern, or the shell pattern. But many patterns are simply classified by how they are made: either combed or thrown. The library at the University of Washington has an extensive collection of marbled papers, a gallery of which can be viewer online here.
Suminigashi, the Japanese form of paper marbling, was practiced as early as the 10th century. There is also documentation of paper marbling during the Ming Dynasty in China around the 14th century. Marbling became an art form in Turkey in the 15th century, but it is difficult to determine whether the Turkish form originated from those East Asian countries. However, people began importing marbled paper from Turkey to Europe in the 16th century. In addition, they tried to replicate the process. But, they used different pigments, papers and chemicals depending on what was available to them locally, and this resulted in different patterns. Therefore, scholars can determine a book’s country of origin based on the pigments, papers and patterns used on its marbled end-sheets. Europeans were the first to develop the practice of marbling the fore edge of books.
Mostly contemporary books are commercially produced, therefore hand marbled end sheets are not as common as they once were. But today, marbled paper is still used in artists books and limited edition finely bound books. Furthermore, the practice has recently gained widespread appeal in mainstream crafting communities and has become a popular motif in interior design. One of my favorite contemporary examples of artists working with marbling is Pernille Snedker Hansen, who is based in Copenhagen. She marbles planks of wood and installs them as flooring. I believe that her contemporary sense and use of color is really modernizing and re-contextualizing the tradition.