Painting on Water: The Art of Paper Marbling

What characteristics do you associate with an old book? A leather binding? Maybe gilt edges? How about marbled paper? While examples of marbled paper are extremely common, particularly in books from the 18th and 19th centuries, in fact the actual craft was a closely guarded secret of specialized guilds for hundreds of years. Bookbinding guilds were forever attempting to infiltrate marbling guilds to learn the secret of creating marbled paper, à la Charlie and the Chocolate Factory…

 

Paper Marbling. I made this example and am way more proud of it than I should be.
Paper Marbling. I made this example and am way more proud of it than I should be.

 

I’m going to follow in the tradition of those who broke the guilds’ code of secrecy and give you a short tutorial of this amazing book art.

 

Origin

 

As with many awesome inventions from antiquity, paper marbling probably first began in China. The earliest examples of marbled paper actually survive from the suminagashi process brought to its aesthetic peak in Japan. But, as with paper itself, the art of marbling paper arrived in Europe via the Middle East.

 

Suminagashi, this example one of a group that is the oldest surviving, from the 12th century.
Suminagashi: this example is one of a group that is the oldest extant, from the 12th century.

 

Date

 

It’s tough to nail down exact dates for the birth of paper marbling: the earliest specimens probably don’t survive, so scholars have to rely on written references to the art in books. It’s generally argued that the Turks developed a system of marbling (separate from the Chinese/Japanese style) in the 12th century or so, though certainly by the 15th century. Marbled paper didn’t make its appearance in Europe until the 16th century.

 

This design, created by manipulation with tools after the paint has been applied, is fittingly called Peacock. (I made this!)
This design, created by manipulation with tools after the paint has been applied, is fittingly called Peacock.         (I made this!)

 

Purpose

 

Marbled paper can be incredibly beautiful, and certainly that’s a purpose in itself. However, it was in fact used for a very specific purpose, possible because of the unique nature of the marbling process.

 

Marblers are the Heraclituses of book arts: they say that it is impossible to make the same piece of marbling twice. You see, to make this paper, each piece of paper is pressed into a solution of paint that floats above the surface of a thickened water solution. After a single pressing the paint will adhere to the (properly primed) paper, and a new pressing will require a new application of paint. No matter how one tries (and marblers do try!), the creation of an exact copy by hand is impossible.

 

My favorite piece of marbling that I will never, ever replicate.
My favorite piece of marbling that I will never, ever replicate.

 

Why does this matter? Because originally marbled paper was used for official documents, or essentially any document at risk for forgery. Because each page was unique, a forgery made to be an exact copy of the original would be impossible. In fact, Benjamin Franklin took advantage of this in the 1770’s by designing a Continental currency with marbled patterns on the reverse—specifically to prevent counterfeiting.

 

Soon marbled papers were appropriated for books, but most particularly for endpapers. The complex patterns achieved in marbling were ideal to mask the folds, strings, mull linings, and other more or less unsightly behind-the-scenes aspects of a bound book. This is why most marbled papers one sees are the papers that cover the inside boards (covers) of a book and its facing page.

 

Marbled endpapers.
Marbled endpapers. Not made by me (as indicated by the ridiculous beauty of this example).

 

Dangers

 

What, art, dangerous? For many hundreds of years the process of paper marbling was indeed considered dangerous because of the toxic elements and chemicals used in the various paints required for the process. It didn’t help that the ultra-secret nature of creating marbled paper meant working behind locked doors, likely with little ventilation. Speaking of which…

 

Secrecy

 

The marblers’ guilds relied on keeping the art of marbling secret in order to retain a monopoly on creation. Naturally this made marbled papers rather expensive, resulting in a constant tension between bookbinders (who needed the marbled paper for their endpapers) and the marblers themselves. To keep the secret, marblers would often work at night and behind closed doors—even within their own laboratory, so that apprentices could not learn every step of marbling before they had proved themselves by, oh, a few decades in the guild. In other words, unless one was born into a marbling family, it was very unlikely one would ever even learn the complete process of marbling. Even then, apprentice marblers might not learn the whole process until their late 30s or 40s!

 

I made this one, too. I admit...kind of ugly. But I made it, so there's that.
I made this one, too. I admit…kind of ugly. But I made it, so there’s that.

 

How to make marbled paper

 

Now let’s celebrate the fact that anyone today can make marbled paper, thanks to a few brave souls in the 19th century who published works revealing the secrets. There’s a great step-by-step description here, but the basic principles are startlingly simple:

 

  1. Make a water bath solution with some type of thickening agent (carrageenan is generally used today). This will cause the paint to lay on the surface when applied.
  2. Prime your paper with a solution (usually an alum solution) so that the paint will stick to it.
  3. Splatter your paint onto the water bath solution, working in layers of color. (This is the most complex part, as there are many ways to accomplish this and to manipulate the paint on the surface with tools, as well.)
  4. Place your paper gently onto the bath solution, smooth out the bubbles, pull the paper up, and let dry.

 

(A special shoutout is required here: I learned a good deal of this at a Paper Marbling seminar over at the UNLV Special Collections with Michael Frazier, where I made some of the examples shown above. Check for similar tutorials in your area.)

 

Like any art, there is a lot of nuance to great marbling, from the mix of colors, to the manipulation of those colors, even to the humidity of the environment and how it affects the paints. Not only is it fun to experiment and rewarding to create such beauty, but it’s exciting to think that you can practice an art that was kept secret at all costs for hundreds of years. Now, go, bibliophiles, and create!

 

 

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14 Comments Add yours

  1. vanbraman says:

    I have always like looking at marbled paper in books. I have a few good examples in my collection. Thanks for the great history and description.

  2. That is so interesting !! I have never heard of this before .. but what’s new? 🙂

    I would love to try making this sometime .. after reading the “instructions” over and over again ..

    May be my imagination .. but … I swear .. . I have seen this on some old books I have had .. SO … I am going to dig them out .. and check !!

    Thanks so much … you are .. quite the Marbler !!! your work .. really looks great .. really!

    Gary

  3. dadabliss says:

    That is so freakin’ cool!

  4. dadabliss says:

    I want to try this but I’m pretty sure it would go terribly wrong. I love weirdly specific information. Theses blogs are fantastic, Rebecca. Thanks.

  5. pretty interesting..!!!

  6. Bill Lochner says:

    Don’t lose your marbles !

  7. Michael says:

    Very interesting Rebecca. I took a class last year at NYU with Arthur Schwartz (it was the second part of a class he had previously taught on the history of the book). During the semester we visited a contemporary papermill right here in NYC at 315 W. 36th St. Introductory courses are offered for a fee. I really enjoyed taking something shapeless and molding it into a piece of paper. This would appeal to anyone interested in bookmaking or papermaking.

    1. That is truly wonderful, to have access to such courses so easily. You New Yorkers are spoiled when it comes to rare books!

  8. Matt says:

    I think I’ll stick with marbled cake and steaks. My colorblindness might very well create the most horrid “art” you’ve ever seen.

  9. brionne says:

    Mrs. Romney you have forever made a fan! Not only for your heartfelt interactions but also the light you have shown me on books deep to the core of their existence.You are the Rosetta stone I look to for book inspiration and direction.
    ps. all of your paper marbleizing were fantastic!

  10. billiescraftroom says:

    I saw some marbling recently and decided now was the time to give it a try. The more I see, the more I want to make some. They will look great on my handbound books. A very interesting article thank you for your research and for sharing your findings.

    Best wishes

    Billie

  11. chrisnicholas says:

    the one you made that you call “ugly” is actually my fave. it’s gorgeous, love those colors.

    1. Ha–thank you very much.

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