Q: What is the art of marbling?

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.

Q: What is marbling used for?

Many in the West recognize marbled designs that are often applied as wrappers for simple pamphlets, as well as covers and endpapers of hardcover books. Marbled designs have even been applied to the edges of a book instead of gold. The papers were used to cover everything from simple paper notebooks, known as pappband in German, to luxurious leather bindings, penboxes, as well as a wide range of other office and stationary accessories. Prestigious royal grants of arms, traditional academic diplomas, and even international awards and prizes are still presented in some countries today in specially constructed cases, covers, and even cylindrical tubes made by master bookbinders that are lined with marbled papers. When framing valuable works of art on paper, professional picture framers have long used marbled papers to embellish decorative matting for their clients. Brightly colored marbled papers have long been used to cover children’s toys such as kaleidoscopes.

Marbling was often used in the past as an element in interior design. For example, it has been used as a fancy wallpaper or decorative border, for lining built-in bookcases, desk drawers, trunks, and chests. Marbling is still used today for some of the traditional applications outlined above. It has also been used to decorate textiles since the mid-19th century. Today it is used to manufacture of a wide variety of items such as clothing, quilts, and fashionable accessories as neckties and handbags. Marbled fabric can also be adapted to interior design uses such furniture, lampshades, and folding screens. While marbling is now commonly found incorporated into many examples of modern art, especially collage, it has also become recognized as an artistic medium in its own right and some marblers use the medium to exclusively create original artwork.

Marbling is also commonly used in graphic design, for printed stationary, for advertising, and as commercial packaging for a wide range of items from boxes of facial tissue and musical album covers to Venetian masks, and packages of Indian incense. Children’s book illustrator Jan Pienkowski employs marbling as a background for silhouettes in his award-winning books. Some more unconventional applications include animation short films that aired on the Public Television program Sesame Street incorporated marbling in the early 1970’s. Another derivative of marbling was used in stage lighting in the late 1960 and early 1970’s. A resurgence of interest in traditional arts and crafts at the time led psychedelic artists such as Cove in San Francisco to experiment with the art form. Those who employed marbling in such applications at that time were often totally unaware of the venerable history of the art, much less cognizant of the wide variety of patterns and styles that were made in different parts of the world.

Q: Are old books or other items decorated with marbling valuable?

Some marbled papers can be very valuable. Marbled items sold at auction have set records prices as high as six-figures within the last decade. The very earliest examples of marbling from every culture are considered the most valuable. Many rare books and other antiques decorated with marbling may be considered more collectible and appraised at higher prices than plain editions of the same work. Lavish fine bindings bound by great masters of the past that employ marbling are often very valuable. Like any antique, the exact value can depend on a number of factors including the general rarity of the work, the condition of the item, the provenance if it can be determined, whether the marbler can be identified, or if the pattern is of exceptional quality. Traditional marblers often provide their expertise to libraries and museums to help curatorial staff identify and understand marbled works in their collection.

In other cases it is simply recognition of the uncommon use and application of marbling that can make an item valuable. Extremely rare examples of Indian marbled miniature paintings have sold for as much as six figures in recent years. Islamic calligraphy panels, albums, and illuminated manuscripts by famous masters, as well as the marbled borders of paintings are also highly valued. The earliest marbled papers found in Europe were imported from Turkey during the late Renaissance, and can be found bound into what are known as alba amicora in Latin, or “Books of Friendship”, an early form of the autograph album. One example is currently for sale (2006) at the New York Antiquarian dealer Ursus Books for a handsome sum. Other items such as early telescopes that are lavishly decorated, especially if signed by the maker can fetch premium prices at auction in comparison to more rudimentary instruments. Two early marbled American $20 bill notes recently sold at auction sold for more that US $10,000.

Q: Where can I buy marbled products?

Many marbling products can be bought via the Internet. A list of professional marblers web sites can be found here. However the images of various products often do not convey the intricate details and subtle qualities of most designs. It should also be expected that a marbled product on display on the Internet might not look exactly like the one you actually purchase, due to the variables in the method.

Not all marblers treat their art the same way. Some are traditional, some are contemporary, and some work exclusively in one medium, whereas others marbled a wide variety of materials. Some traditional marblers are also professional bookbinders. Some marblers attempt to create consistent lines of products, while others refuse to categorize them in any way. If you are looking for a very specific kind of marbled product, or a particular style of marbled design, asking the right questions will help you to choose the best marbler for your project. Many marblers who take special orders will require down-payments before starting a job.

Q: How can I learn to identify marbled designs?

Even experienced marblers can find it problematic to identify an old design. Many scholarly works and instructional manuals provide images of historic marbling that can be used to help identify marbled designs. A major effort has been initiated to assemble a comprehensive digital decorative paper database based on historical pattern books is currently being coordinated by Dr. Henck Porck, a Curator at the Koninklijke Bibliotheek, the National Library of Holland in the Netherlands.

Other sources include digital images from historical collections provided principally by the web sites of prestigious public institutions, mainly museums, libraries, and archives. Many feature important historical works of art that utilize marbling in some from different parts of the world. Many public institutions are mounting images of historic marbling, but it is often never identified in the description. To assist both the general public as well as institutions, a survey of marbling in online collections and exhibitions has been established by the Society. Please contact us if you would like to contribute links to images historic marbling that you have found on the Internet.

In time this list will hopefully expand as digital collections become more available. Another useful resource for researching historic marbling is by checking art auction catalogs. These can often be found in fine art museums and libraries, at most colleges and universities around the world. Many members of the Yahoo Marbling Group would be interested to learn if you personally own or know of an interesting marbled item that you would like to share with others. Please let us know if you have found links to specific historical images. Also tell if you know of significant marbled items that are for sale or to be auctioned, if you have identified examples after surveying a particular collection, or even if you have extensively searched digital collections online. The more information that is contributed only serves to educate all of us!

Q: Are there marbled designs created by computers?

Methods of virtual marbling using computer software have been developed and marbling is increasingly used as an element in digital design. Special marbling effects can now be used in programs such as Adobe Photoshop to manipulate an image. The influence of marbling can also be seen today in some contemporary animated special effects. Software such as Liquib will allow you to manipulate images to create marbled or liquid effects.

Q: Are there any marbled products that are made by machines?

Artists and craftspeople largely perpetuate the method of marbling by hand today. Marbled patterns are also printed onto paper and fabric that is sold commercially. There are some forms of marbled paper that were and still are mass-produced through a mechanized process. Machine marbled patterns are very inexpensive, are widely available, commonly reproduced, and therefore among the more recognizable forms of marbling to the general public. However it is important to note that the mechanical patterns primarily employ rudimentary materials and oil colors rather than traditional marbling paints and formulas. Such papers only barely resemble the historic marbled designs that were prized in the past.

Q: How can I distinguish machine-made from handmade work?

Printed papers will appear pixilated upon close inspection. One can usually distinguish a machine-made design from a handmade one by closely examining the details of the pattern. Like many other arts, any kind of machine-made attempt to reproduce handicraft results in an inferior product. No matter whether works are made of wood, ceramic, metal, or other materials such as plastic, the difference in quality is immediately noticeable.

In contrast, handcrafted combed designs feature tiny delicate lines in the combed designs, or carefully stylized motifs. Some makers such as the Cockerell firm in England use a number of tools and apparatus which are operated by hand to achieve amazing consistency, leading some to incorrectly conclude that the marbled designs are machine made. In fact to master these results still takes time, patience, and considerable experience.

In contrast mechanized marbling is made very rapidly. The oil colors used in the process often break up into dots rather than fine lines, so the patterns are never as detailed. The papers are made very rapidly, so some of the floating colors end up slightly mixing with one another, and the results look muddied when compared to the traditionally handcrafted varieties.

Mechanized papers fail to render the complexity, extensive range in variation, or incredibly fine and delicate detail found in truly handcrafted papers. Therefore they cannot be considered authentic historic reproductions. In addition, the oil colors applied to a paper surface are often seen to degrade considerably more than other forms of marbling paints. Paints made with pure pigments, gum binders and acrylic mediums are proven to be far more stable and do not damage the paper over time.

This is a very important consideration to make when marbled papers are to be used for example, in the restoration of historic items, displayed in historic homes that attempts to preserve authentic period decor, for matting historic prints and art of paper, or for creating a facsimile bookbinding from a certain historical period. Marblers who preserve and perpetuate the art and reputable marbling suppliers should be consulted for historic and prestigious projects.

Q: Are marbled designs copyright-free?

No! Copyright Law is very clear that contemporary marbling is protected against unauthorized reproduction. Marbled paper may be reproduced only with the agreed consent of the artist who made it. Violators of the law may be subject to lawsuits by the artist. The Graphic Artists Guild publishes standards for reproduction fees for the use of marbling in commercial publications in their annual handbook Pricing and Ethical Guidelines.

Q: What are some of the scientific principles behind the art?

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. A variety of chemical surfactants are used in all forms of marbling to disperse the colors and make them float. Some of the more traditional forms are extracts of plants such as soapberry, bile extracted from the gall bladders of animals, while contemporary marblers often use a variety of detergent soaps.

The explanation of marbling as scientific phenomena is nothing new. This curious art drew the attention of early philosophers and scientists such as the Jesuit scholar Athanasius Kircher, The English scientist Francis Bacon, and America’s Benjamin Franklin. Some of the first modern scientific evaluations of the art were performed by Joszef Halfer and published by him in his book. There are geometrical mathematical principles known as the Navier-Stokes Equations, surfactant chemistry, colloid biochemistry and the physical phenomenon known as the Marangoni Effect. Some marbled designs resemble aspects of the mathematics of symmetrical chaos similar to fractal patterns of the Mandelbrot and Julia sets.

Q: Are marbled papers acid-free?

Our awareness of preservation has improved in recent decades and many wish to use archival quality materials when preserving historical books, documents, and artifacts. The term “acid free” is often used when referring to a paper with a minimum pH of 7.0 or “ph neutral” or anywhere above that. Archival quality papers are made using pulps of a pure standard, such as alpha cellulose sulfite or cotton. Archival papers often contain buffering with alkali; usually precipitated calcium carbonate (PCC) and some contain enough to raise the pH value to 8.5, and alkaline reserve to the paper. The term is widely used to market products for preservation purposes.

In recent years, as the public’s general awareness of preservation issues has increased, there now exist many widespread misunderstandings and generalizations about the archival quality of marbled papers. Some papers in the past were made with an acidic sheet to start with, and then subjected to marbling using unstable or even corrosive materials. Many having seen such papers think that all marbled papers are just as bad. Yet it would be incorrect to conclude that a paper has deteriorated simply because it was marbled.

What has largely concerned preservationists are forms of marbling that use a mordant, mainly alum or aluminum sulfate, to better bond the colors to the surface. Concerns about alum is derived from a well-promoted fact that alum-rosin sizing in papers is what caused so many historic 20th century papers to rapidly decay. However some have not stopped to compare the fact that high concentrations of alum, in combination with pine rosin, used to impregnate an entire sheet of paper when it was manufactured is a very different application from the methods of mordanting performed by most marblers.

Nevertheless, deterioration can be occasionally observed within the pattern of an old marbled paper. Often this is due to poor quality materials, such as cheaply made oil colors that have oxidized and effectively burned the paper surface over time. Some papers in the distant past were made with corrosive pigments such copper verdigris. Another factor in the deterioration of marbled papers over time are the acidic hide glues and primitive pastes used to adhere the sheet. The degraded leather on old bookbindings is highly destructive to paper, yet when first observed it can often lead some to incorrectly conclude that the marbled paper was of poor quality. If you observe the endpapers of such books, one can often see a brownish acidic stain developing along the edge of the board. That is where the leather was turned in underneath the paper, however if you look closely at the central area of the board, the marbled paper will seem to be fine. In short, a marbled paper deteriorates due to the synergistic effect of the paper it was made upon, the materials used to make it, and the glues used to adhere it, much less the influence of the environment and handling over time.

In view of the fact that the art encompasses so many facets, variant methods and approaches, as well as divergent applications, it is possible to find papers that contain no acidic mordants whatsoever. Forms of marbling such as Japanese suminagashi use plain water with no mordant, and very stable forms of ink. The most prized papers used for suminagashi marbling are similar to those used by paper conservators to repair valuable artifacts in museums and rare book libraries. Traditional Turkish ebru methods also do not require the use of chemical mordents. Today many professional and master marblers ensure that they meet high archival standards. Marbled papers can be found to meet very high standards for preservation purposes and are still suitable for use as book covers, boxes, portfolios, and for decorative matting.
Forms of marbling that do require mordanting with alum can be carefully controlled so as to limit the penetration of the mordant, by mordanting only one side of a sheet. After the paper is marbled, the surfactant used to float the color bonds with the alum, forming a new insoluble chemical structure. When traditional ox-gall is used the new structure is termed aluminum glycholate. This molecular structure is inert and when the paper is gently rinsed with distilled or deionized water, the majority of sulfate residues are removed from the upper surface of the sheet.

When dry, such papers consistently show only a very slight decrease in pH value. If desired, the paper can be chemically sized and buffered after marbling to raise the ph to accepted archival standards and increase the durability of a sheet. In addition to buffering, the papers can also be externally coated or sized, waxed, and polished to make them more resistant to abrasion. Efforts are underway to investigate alternatives to alum mordanting for marbling.

Q: What surfaces can be marbled?

The oldest form of marbling is paper marbling. In the 19th century, techniques for marbling textiles appeared in Japan and Europe. At the same time in Iran, marbling was applied to three-dimensional paper maché lacquered objects such as pen boxes, book covers, covered mirror cases. Today, some have explored a wealth of new artistic materials in an attempt to marble a greater variety of surfaces than ever before such as wood, paper maché, leather, ceramic, and glass.

Q: Is marbling difficult to learn?

Like many age-old artistic methods, the process of marbling can sound deceptively simple, and appear easy to learn, but in reality is often difficult to master. Depending on the specific medium used, and desired result it can require many adjustments to be successful. It is only through repeated trial and error that is one able to gain experience and basic competency in the technique. Some forms of marbling that are highly evolved can take years to effectively master. For such complex forms, even master marblers will reveal that they too can have frustrations at times with the process. Many marblers find themselves ensnared in a perpetual process of experimentation and discovery that is filled with mystery, and which for some never seems to end, nor ever ceases to delight.

Q: How can I learn to marble?

Internationally recognized marbling masters have published their secrets and share special tips in a number of books in various languages and a published DVD. In addition there are several web sites that offer a very basic introduction to various methods of marbling, including an introduction to suminagashi with Diane Maurer, and acrylic marbling using Deka marbling supplies. An Italian language lesson at the University of Colorado happens to feature short movie clips of Riccardo Squillone making marbled papers at the Il Papiro firm in Florence (Click on the “lezione” links). Australian marbler Georgie Sharpe has mounted a series of short clips. You can watch her make sizing, mix colors, create patterns, and finally marble silk yardage.

However the best possible way to learn how to marble is by studying with another experienced marbler. Established marblers in different regions around the world offer workshops, demonstrations, and lectures from time to time. Many individual marblers provide such information on their own web sites, so if you are interested in studying with a particular marbler, that is often a good way to see if they are available to teach. That said, not all marblers will offer to teach workshops. Another resource is the International Marbling Events Calendar on the Society of Marbling web site that lists events by region. Book arts centers and organizations on the American library Association web site and ArtSchools.com may also feature workshops in your area.

Even experienced marblers can learn a great deal more by exploring their local libraries, archives, historical societies, and museums, as well as by visiting antiquarian bookstores, and even private collections. A magazine devoted to marbling in the 1980’s and 90’s was known as Ink & Gall. This series contains a lot of valuable information for marblers, and articles can be obtained through interlibrary loan. Much work remains to better document the art of marbling, and it is only through patient and persistent efforts that interesting discoveries come to light. You never know what you might find, tucked away in a small town library, or found hanging in a historic home, for sale at a local auction, or even locked away in a vault at a public institution.

Q: Where can I buy marbling supplies?

Click here to go to the Marbling Suppliers List on the Society of Marbling Links page. This list will be periodically updated. If you are a supplier of any kind of material or tool that can be used for marbling, please send us your information and links.

Q: What kinds of paper and fabric work best for marbling?

The answer to that question depends on the form of marbling you want to attempt. Most instructional manuals and media available contain information on what materials are deemed most suitable based upon the experience of the author. This topic is of perennial interest to all marblers, and is a frequent point of discussion on the Yahoo Marbling Group. The archives of this list is easily searched for practical hints from master marblers covering nearly all of the variant forms of marbling known to exist.

Q: Are marbling supplies toxic?

Some styles are, some aren’t, and the reasons vary with the materials, their application, and their handling. All marbling supplies can still be mishandled or misused. Most marbling instructional literature provides many health and safety precautions for the various methods of marbling. Marbling suppliers should be able to supply Material Safety Data Sheets (MSDS) upon request.

Certain products such as the contemporary suminagashi kits made by Boku Undo are classified as non-toxic. Other colors are specifically marketed for use by children. Traditional watercolors and acrylics contain pigments that are rated for their safety in most artist manuals. Arts, Crafts, and Theater Safety is an organization spearheaded by Industrial Hygienist Monona Rossol. They offer a list of safety data sheets for pigments and dyes free of charge if you send them your postal address

Q: Do you have any troubleshooting tips?

Even highly accomplished master marblers encounter difficulties when marbling from time to time. Many of the problems can be corrected and are outlined in detail in the various practical instructional manuals and media available. Another terrific resource where marblers share their problems and solutions is the Yahoo Marbling Group. We welcome you to share any tips or solutions you may have found for a particular problem.

Q: Are children taught marbling as a classroom subject?

Marbled designs have long captivated all who observe them, and this is just as true of children as it is for adults. This curious art drew the attention of early philosophers and scientists such as the Jesuit scholar Athanasius Kircher, The English scientist Francis Bacon, and the America’s Benjamin Franklin. Like it did back then, marbling still provokes curiosity and stimulates creative imagination today, not only as an art, but also as a useful classroom educational tool. The late English master binder and marbler Sydney Cockerell first wrote a short manual entitled Marbling Paper as a School Subject in 1934.

Many parents know that one method of marbling a young child is often exposed to in the west is marbling hard-boiled eggs for Easter. In addition to being a pleasant family activity, marbling has been found to help children reinforce their understanding of difficult academic subjects. Many marblers who are also schoolteachers are members of the Yahoo Marbling Group. Let us know if you are a teacher who has successfully adapted marbling for your classroom or student project and if you have class syllabi you would be willing to share. You might be helping to train the next generation of professional marblers!

Q: Where did the art of marbling originate?

This “floating art” has a long and venerable history. A wide variety of methods, materials, and applications for marbling have evolved over time emerging as distinct traditions in Asia, the Middle East, and Europe. However different scholars are still uncovering the details and documenting examples. The advent of the Internet in the information age has made it easier for marblers and scholars to communicate new information as it is found. Each find leads to small readjustments of what we understand of the history, as it is very complex, even as it unravels in the hands of experts.

Many public institutions are mounting images of historic marbling, but the descriptions and labels with regard to the marbling are often found to be unsatisfactory. To assist both the general public and the institutions, an online collections list is currently being compiled. Please contact us if you would like to contribute links to images of historic marbling that you have found on the Internet, or have performed an initial collections survey and can supply item numbers and a cursory description.

Works Cited

An introductory general bibliography was compiled by Dolores Guffey and is available on the Book Arts Web. Plans for a comprehensive multilingual online bibliography in honor of the late Phoebe Jane Easton will be announced soon.

Credits and Acknowledgements

Text prepared by Jake Benson, updated 4-2006. The opinions expressed herein are those of the author and not the Society of Marbling as a whole. The many links included in the text were kindly supplied by members of the Yahoo Marbling Group. Special thanks to Dolores Guffey, Mary Shilman, and Ginny Kilander for taking the time to help edit the questions and links. Please direct any inquiries regarding the material presented to Jake Benson.