Like many of my fellow bookbinders, I am mostly self-taught; we comb the internet for tips on binding techniques, sewing patterns and leather-versus-cloth options. This initial interest in book arts tends to begin with modern takes on traditional bindings. But after having bound a few works, it’s natural to want to move a bit further back in history, researching the origins and techniques of other book-related arts, such as marbled end papers.
There is a growing fascination with traditional paper marbling, perhaps brought on by the seemingly endless amount of marbled fingernails tutorials on YouTube and the results featured on Instagram feeds across the world. What I’ve found to be elusive are tutorials on how to actually marble paper — the original substrate for the marbling process.
Most paper marbling videos are not tutorials at all, but rather demonstrations of the real-time marbling process; as in, paint being dropped onto the surface of the size, then the rich colors combed and raked through to create ribbons of intricate patterns. By simply observing the video, we’re hypnotized, believing, “That’s easy, I could do that.” However, we don’t get a sense of the planning and preparation that goes into this process, which ensure that everything goes smoothly.
So, where does this leave you and me as far as learning goes? It seems although we’re in the age of the internet, to get any decent instruction on preparation and technique, you’ll need to go to (appropriately) your local mecca of books — the library. Or you could order a book from your bed and have FedEx drop it off. Maybe the internet is helpful in the marbling process after all!
Anyway, by the time I realized I really should have read the book on marbling, I was already knee-deep in carrageenan and trial and error. Let my frustrations save you some stress and maybe a few bucks. Here are some tips and information that most videos never mention.
- Purchase Lambda carrageenan. Many times, online retailers don’t specify which type of carrageenan they are selling, and not all carrageenan is the same. For example, Kappa carrageenan quickly turns to jelly, whereas Lambda can be left out for a couple days or refrigerated for up to a week; it will never set (after this point, nature takes course and it starts to break down). If you are purchasing from a seller whose sole business is marbling, you can trust that they offer Lambda. Purchasing randomly off Amazon? Be sure of what you’re buying.
- Instead of carrageenan, you can use methyl cellulose for your size. The benefit to using methyl cellulose is that it does not spoil over time and can be left out indefinitely.
- Carrageenan needs to rest for several hours so the bubbles will dissipate. Why care about bubbles? No one ever talks about that part. Bubbles in your size won’t allow the paint to spread out properly and will break up your color. If you’re impatient like me, you can scrape away the bubbles using your cleaning tool.
- Sponge alum onto your paper for preparation instead of using a spray bottle. Spraying creates an uneven application which can cause portions of your print to wash away during rinsing. Natural sponges work best.
- Use high quality acrylic paints (I prefer Liquitex Heavy Body), but thinned with a small amount of water. Make sure the pigment is thoroughly mixed, or you’ll have chunks on your size and the color will not spread.
- If you store your paints in screw lid canisters, stir your paints instead of shaking them. It seems obvious, but it’s natural to want to shake a container before use; this creates bubbles that will transfer onto your size, causing your colors to break and spread unevenly on the surface.
- Avoid transparent acrylics, or your seemingly intense red will turn into a delicate pink once transferred to your paper. Typically, the back of the paint tube states whether the paint is opaque or transparent.
Marbling Gall (‘Ox Gall’)
- Traditionally, genuine ox gall was used for the marbling process but in these modern times, it is not strong enough for acrylic paints (acrylics are a relatively ‘new’ invention). Instead, a wetting agent such as Kodak Photo Flo can be used. You can purchase a large bottle for around $10; this will last for years. It can also be used in Suminagashi marbling as well.
- Sometimes, thinned acrylics do not need anything added to help them spread. To test, first drop color onto the size to see if it readily spreads across the surface. If not, then marbling gall is needed.
- For certain designs (ex. Italian vein), you’ll use thinned marbling gall dropped onto the size. Having done this, additional colors dropped on will not spread, so make sure this is the last element of your design. As accordingly, a paint with too much ox-gall will not allow other colors to spread atop it. Only add small amounts of marbling gall a time so you don’t accidentally ruin your paints.
- The placement of paper on the size is extremely important. The paper must be laid onto the surface in one smooth motion to prevent bubbles and lines. Do this by holding the opposite corners of your paper, creating a sort of canopy, then lay the paper down on the size. You can watch videos of professional marblers doing this, but it’s something that takes practice and patience to eventually get right.
- After rinsing, do not touch the print as the colors will not be permanent until the print has dried.
I hope these tips help you during your first marbling sessions. Now get out of bed and start marbling!
Crystal Shaulis was first introduced to bookbinding three summers ago in Venice, Italy, where she studied the art and history of traditional books. She is currently Intern Coordinator and an instructor at the Kalamazoo Book Arts Center in Kalamazoo, Michigan. You can see her work at CrystalShaulis.com
All images provided by author.