Marbling, occasionally referred to as marbleizing, is an aqueous method of surface design. Contrary to popular conceptions, it is not merely made by floating oil on water, but encompasses a wide variety of materials, methods, and approaches. The most basic description for all forms of marbling that it is a process in which colors are dispersed onto the surface of a liquid, manipulated using a variety of tools and movements, and then captured it using a material such as a sheet a paper by carefully laying it over the top of the floating design. Every result is unique, and each application is used to decorate only one item at a time. In artistic terms, marbling is a method of aqueous monoprinting.
All forms of aqueous marbling fall into two distinct categories. In the first method, colors are made to float on water. This may in fact be one of the oldest and most basic forms of marbling. A variant method emerged that utilized a liquid bath thickened with plant gum or mucilage, scientifically referred to as a colloid system. The use of a mucilage for the marbling bath allowed for distinct pattern variations that could not be produced on water alone.
Some of the resulting designs resemble marble or stone, hence the term “marbling” or “marbled” has been a descriptive term used in the English language for several centuries. Many would recognize marbled papers as a type of decorative paper used mainly as endpapers and covers of bookbindings. Many historic items decorated with marbling have become incredibly valuable. The demand for rare marbled collectibles has steadily increased in recent years as people learn of the unique history of the art. Aside from the spotted patterns, other designs are made using a variety of tools and implements such as rakes and combs to manipulate the floating colors into tiny curls and intricately combed designs.
This method of floating colors on a liquid bath distinguishes marbling from other forms of non-aqueous surface design, such as “faux marbling”, “marbleizing” or “faux graining”. Faux marbling as it is applied to interiors is really a form of fresco painting. Similar methods have been adpated to decorate a variety of surfaces and objects, including surfaces as small as fingernails! Another form of surface marbling is commonly seen applied to cheesecakes and other foods. Ancient forms of surface or media marbling include Egyptian core-form glass, varieties of pattern–welded steel also known as “Damascus” steel, Japanese mokume-gane, Chinese ceramic methods dating to the T’ang dynasty such as jiaotai and sancal, as well as the Japanese of nerikome and neriage ceramic methods. Some of designs produced by such non-aqueous methods are closely related to other forms of historic decorative papers such as what are called paste papers and “coulée” papers. Such papers are sometimes mistaken for marbled papers.