Paper marbling, whether created with great precision or done free form, is always fun to do because of its spontaneous and serendipitous nature. On the day four-year-old Joseph came to visit, I wanted to teach him to marble, help him create a Mother’s Day card, and, for myself, figure out how to make marbled borders for printmaking.
Summary for free form marbling: Apply an alum solution to the paper so the paints will stick to it. Dry the paper. Make a marbling bath with a size (thickening agent), so the paints will float on the surface of the bath. Mix the paints with water. When ready to marble, put the paint mixtures on the surface of the bath, put the alum-coated paper on top of the paint, lift the paper, rinse it with water, and then dry it by hanging it up or laying it on newspaper.
Additional preparation is needed if you plan to marble just on the borders of the paper. Soak the paper to remove any size. Dry the paper between dryer sheets and put a heavy load on top so that the papers dry flat. Use removable frisket to create stencils or the shape of the plate for printmaking. Apply the frisket to the paper. Apply the alum solution to the areas around the frisket. Continue with the marbling process.
-Smooth water color paper, 140 lb, 9″x12″. Other available papers may be used.
-Alum (food additive used in pickling and other food preparation)
-Methyl Cellulose (thickening agent used in food and drug industries). Generic name is methocel. Carageenan can be used but it is messy, must be prepared a day before marbling, and needs to be refrigerated.
-Loose plastic brushes (from old marbling kit) that look like broom bristles and tied together. Can cut broom bristles and use as a substitute. Put a rubber band around 20 or so bristles.
-Crayola Portfolio Series Acrylic paints (nontoxic) or other acrylic or tempera paints for children
-Containers for paints or muffin tin (used only for art)
-Containers for size bath and water bath (used clear plastic 11″x18″x2″ deep lids for baking pans). Helps to put white paper underneath so you can see the paint colors. You can use metal containers as well.
-Sticks and combs for making designs (optional)
-Hangers, wooden frame, or newspapers for drying
-Frisket (removable plastic with sticky backing) (optional) for stencils and covering the body of the paper so just the borders are marbled
-Acrylic flow release (optional)
-Wooden stick, about 1/2″ thick and 2″ high to clean the surface of the size bath
-Reference books: Wendy Addison Mediros’ Marbling Techniques and Galen Berry’s The Art of Marbling on Paper and Fabric. Galen Berry’s website is useful: http://MarbleArt.us.
Here’s a step-by-step procedure for free form marbling and marbling just the borders of paper.
1. Put the alum on the paper
Alum will prevent colors from running when rinsing the paper. Mix 1 rounded teaspoon with 1 cup of water and stir until dissolved. Sponge one side of the paper before marbling. Mark an “x” on the back of the paper. Allow the paper to dry and put weights on it so it lies flat. The alum-coated paper can be kept in a plastic bag for a few days.
(Skip to step 3 if you are not going to marble just the borders of the paper.)
2. For the papers that will have a marbled border:
2.1 Soak the watercolor paper to get rid of the sizing so when it is used in printmaking later on, it will be able to readily absorb the inks. Dry the paper between blotters.
2.2 Put the printmaking plate on the paper and mark 4 dots in each corner with 3/4″ top margin, 1/2″ right and left margins, and 1 3/8″ bottom margin.
2.3 Put the frisket on the back of the plate and use a knife to cut away the excess frisket.
2.4 Remove the frisket from the back of the plate and align the edge of the frisket by matching the top corners with the two dots on the paper.
2.5 Use one hand to hold the bottom of the frisket and another hand to hold the plate. Use the plate to push down the frisket on the paper without creating any wrinkles or air bubbles.
2.6 Once the frisket is completely on the paper, rub it down once more. Sponge the alum mixture on the border.
3. Prepare the size
Using methyl cellulose as a size is as easy as making gelatin. You will be mixing the powder with boiling water and then adding cold water. Since it will keep indefinitely without refrigeration, you can make this ahead of time. It takes about 10 minutes to make and can be used immediately. I used the recipe twice for the size of my container. If the size becomes too thick after it cools, you can add water to it.
Recipe (from Marbling Techniques by Wendy Addison Medeiros)
Makes about 1 quart for a 9″ x 12″ tray
Pour 4 cups boiling water over 4 rounded tablespoons of methyl cellulose powder in a bowl. Mix thoroughly without causing foam or bubbles. Add 4 cups of ice water with some ice cubes added to the mixture to thicken. As it cools, it will thicken like gelatin.
4. Prepare and test the paints
Put the acrylic paints in a muffin tin for easy access. Put in about 1 tablespoon of paint, fill 3/4 with water, and if necessary, a drop of acrylic flow release if the paints are sinking into the water. The paint mixture should remain on the surface of the bath. Depending on the paints you use, you will need to adjust the water, the amount of paint, and the use of the flow release.
Do a test of the paints by using a clean brush for each paint. Dip into the paint, get rid of excess, and gently tap the brush over the surface of the bath. After testing, clean the surface of the bath with the wooden stick by moving the stick from one end of your container to the other and then wiping the paint from the stick. Do this until no paint is left on the surface. Any paint that has sunk will not affect the marbling.
5. How to use the brush for marbling
Hold the brush in your left hand like you are shaking hands with your thumb on top and fingers curled under the brush. Holding the brush over the bath, use your right index finger to gently tap the end of the brush. You want small droplets of paint to fall into the bath so you do not have large pools of one color in one place. Move the brush over any area of the bath.
Select up to 3 to 4 colors to start. If you are using black, start with it first before adding other colors. You could do a marble test on paper and then adjust the colors later.
6. Design or free form?
There are many books and websites available about marbling and how to achieve various designs. I have found Wendy Addison Mediros’ Marbling Techniques and Galen Berry’s The Art of Marbling on Paper and Fabric very helpful. Galen Berry sells marbling kits and his book on his website at http://MarbleArt.us. If you are just starting out or working with children, just do free form designs and not worry about how the marble will turn out.
You can use wooden sticks or old chop sticks to move the paint around or side to side before putting the paper down on the surface. Various hair combs as well as marbling combs (pieces of wood with nails on them) can be used for creating intricate designs. Refer to Galen Berry’s website to see the various marbling tools.
7. Marbling on paper and rinsing
When you are done with the paints and moving them around, it is time to lay the paper down on the surface. Remember to put the alum coated side down (the “x” on the back of the paper does not have the alum). According to Galen Berry, you should hold the paper with two hands in opposite corners (top right with right hand, bottom left with left hand). The paper should be curved and the top left corner should touch the water first and then drop the paper at the same time on the surface.
Gently touch the edges of the paper all around to make sure the paint gets on the entire surface of the paper. Using your fingertips, take the bottom two corners of the paper and lift it off the size. Immediately, put it face up in the water bath and gently rub the paper to remove the size. Remove the paper from the water bath and hang it on a hanger or put it on newspaper.
After each marbling is done, you will need to clean the surface of the size to get rid of excess paint. With two hands hold a piece of wood (about the size of the width of your container) and glide over the surface of the size. The paint will stick to the wood. Clean the wood with paper towels or a rag and then clean the surface again until all of the paint is removed. Ignore any paint that drops below the surface.
When you are finished with marbling, you will need to safely dispose the size. Do not pour it down the kitchen or bath drain because it could potentially clog the drain. Soak it up with newspaper, paper towels, or rags and dispose of everything in your regular trash.
9. Dry the marbled paper
After the marbled paper is relatively dry, put the paper between blotting paper and then heavy books on top so that the papers dry flat.
10. Use the paper to make cards
11. Printmaking paper with marbled border
All photographs by Amy A. Rudberg unless otherwise indicated. Special thanks to Joseph who appeared in the photos of the marbling process.