A Brief History of Marblingg

The earliest existing examples of marbled papers are from 10th century Japan,called Suminagashi,  which means “floating ink”. The loose, flowing patterns obtained by floating inks on plain water are and were often used as backgrounds for calligraphy or text.  Early examples are shown below.

In the 17th century, when marbled papers made their way from Central Asia to Western Europe, their primary use was for book binding.  While the manner of printing adopted was similar to Ebru, the emphasis was on complex combed patterns, achieved using specific movements with specially designed combs and rakes.  Patterns were given names that are used to identify them even today.  The three images above to the right are early book papers from Western Europe.  All of the images above in the public domain were borrowed from the Paper Marbling section of Wikipedia,  which you can refer to for details of  each.  There are many examples of contemporary Ebru demonstrated on YouTube, as well as other marbled printing. methods.                              

American marbling followed the Western European tradition, with papers done primarily for book binding, until the demand for them diminished.  After decades of neglect, a resurgence of interest in marbled printing began in the 1980’s, resulting in a world wide practice of and appreciation for the art.  New chemicals and paints enabled commercial applications not possible in earlier times, leading to an increased demand for marbled patterns on products.  A surge of workshops and books about the subject resulted in greater public awareness of the medium.   While that level of interest was not sustained, there are still many devoted fans and professional marblers  who appreciate the beautiful, ancient marbling art.  The images below are adaptations of classical marbled patterns done with acrylic paints  by Katherine Radcliffe.               


While the Japanese method of marbled printing, called Suminagashi, is done on plain water, most other styles of marbled printing are done by floating paints or inks on a water surface that has been thickened with a gelatinous substance, which is then called sizing.   When sizing is poured into a printing tray, paints are applied to the surface that are then manipulated into patterns with special combs, rakes and tools.  Paper or fabric that is gently laid on the floating paints will absorb them instantly upon contact, thus creating a finished marbled print.  Shown below are some of the steps involved in the marbling process.  Photos by Kristin Jones.  

Paints are dropped onto sizing in a printing tray.

A stylus moved back and forth stretches the paints into lines.

A comb of evenly spaced metal pins was used to make the pattern shown above

A stylus is moved back and forth to draw wavy lines. is used

Finished print, done by gently placing paper on the paint surface that absorbed the floating pattern.  

Suminagashi 1
Suminagashi 2

Later marbling is said to have appeared in  Central Asia during the 15th century. In Turkey, where it is widely practiced today, marbling is called Ebru, translated as “cloud paper’’ or “cloud art”. Greater control of marbled patterns was obtained by adding a mucilaginous substance to water that thickened it into a sizing, and adding ox gall to pigments that enabled the paints to float.  Paints were then manipulated into floral, figurative, or combed patterns.  Islamic calligraphy is often combined with marbling,  as shown in the example below to the left,  produced commonly after the 16th century, CE. in Central Asia, Iran, India and Turkey.  This one is a verse from the Qur’an.   

Suminagashi fan
applying paint02
Starting a pattern02
Combed pattern
fine comb02
detail of comb02
Using a stylus02
detail of print02

Fine comb was drawn through the paints

Suminagashi Poem02
Finely combed pattern
English Marbled Paper a02
Blue swirls03
Bouquet s






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