Paper Marbling

As I explored the Whitney Biennial’s offerings for 2010, I came across the work of Roland Flexner. He is a French artist living in New York, and creates the most amazing imaginary landscapes using the ancient Japanese art of marbling, or suminagashi. This practice dates back to the 12th century, and involves floating ink on water or gelatin, and blowing on it to achieve a marbled effect.

By the 15th century, other types of marbling appeared in Central Asia and the Islamic World, finally reaching Europe in the 17th century. In Europe, the designs were typically used for book covers and end-papers, as shown in the photograph above. These books, some of which date back to the 1760’s, belonged to my grand-father and originated from France. They provided a more realistic source of inspiration than Flexner’s work; something I could actually hope to replicate. It took some experimenting but the results were extremely rewarding, and if you’ve never cooked moss before, now’s your chance.

I began by exploring the internet, only to discover that there were more ways of doing this than I had anticipated. Not only that, but certain key ingredients were clearly hard to come by. Ox gall anyone? I was definitely not going the shaving cream route, and floating diluted acrylic paints and inks on water ended in dismal failure. The paper didn’t pick up the pattern well, some colours sank, while others were not dark enough. There was no escaping the fact that I would have to make my paper “mordant” and I would have to make “size”. These instructions are based on trial and error, product availability, and a comparison of many instructions on the internet. In the end, it was a great learning experience and was well worth the effort. The papers look great and children will love the results.


  • black ink and other colours of your choice
  • carrageen/Irish moss (4 tbsp. to 1 gallon of water)
  • alum (100g to 2 cups of water)
  • sponge
  • absorbent paper, like watercolour or card stock
  • marbleizing tray eg. plastic or foil, at least 3″ deep
  • toothpick or skewer
  • paint brushes
  • newspaper strips (approximately 2” x the width of your tray)


1. Preparing your size and making your papers mordant will be easier if done the day before. Size is simply a marblizing base on which to place your paints or inks. It is thicker than water and will prevent your colours from sinking to the bottom of your container so quickly. I used carrageen moss, also known as Irish moss. It was easily found in bulk at health food stores. Several websites recommended not using the powdered version, so go for the bits instead. Bring 1 gallon (16 cups) of water to a boil and add 4 tablespoons of carrageen. Reduce heat and simmer for half an hour, stirring occasionally. Double, double toil and trouble…eye of newt, and toe of frog… Pour into your marbleizing tray through a strainer to remove the carrageen bits. Allow this to sit at room temperature for at least 12 hours so it can thicken.

Making your paper mordant simply means it will be better able to absorb the colours when placed on the size. Place 2 cups of cold water in a pan and add 100g of alum (found in drugstores and some grocery stores). Heat slowly and stir until the alum has dissolved. Allow it to cool a bit, then use a sponge to apply it to the paper you will be using. Coat the paper well, and make sure to mark the other side with pencil so you know which side has the alum. You may have to weight the papers down with books so they remain flat. This is really important for being able to pick up the inks evenly when you lay your paper on top of them. These papers can be kept for several days before using.

2. Open up the inks you will be using and provide one small, fine-tipped brush for each colour. I found #4 brushes worked well. I tried both inks and acrylics and had much better results with ink, so that’s what I would recommend. Mine were Windsor and Newton, but any brand will probably work just fine.  Take some newspaper strips and gently pull over the surface of the size in order to prepare it.

There are different ways of applying colour. One method is to create concentric circles by holding a paint laden brush with black ink  in one hand, and another brush with a different colour in the other hand. Briefly touch the surface of the size with the tip of one brush. Make sure you are holding it upright and not on an angle. The longer you hold it there, the larger your circle. Remove the brush and touch the surface with the other brush in the middle of the circle you just made. Continue alternating fairly quickly, always touching the centre of the circle you just made, until satisfied with the number of circles. You can start a new group of circles beside this one, and when finished, place your paper on this design without altering it. Or, if you prefer to achieve the marbled look, take a toothpick or skewer, and drag it through the circles until you are happy with the design. Be careful not to move the colours around too quickly or they will become muddy.

Another method of applying your colour is to ‘throw’ it or splatter it, creating many drops at a time. Once again, run a toothpick or skewer through your colours to create a pattern. Regardless of how you choose to apply your colour, it is important to work quickly but carefully, in order to prevent the colours from becoming muddy or sinking.

3. Once you have created a design you are happy with, pick up your paper at opposite corners and place it, alum side down, on the surface of your size. Allow your paper to remain for a few seconds, then carefully lift it up and set it aside. At some point, before it dries, you should very gently rinse it under a tap to remove the slimy film which comes from the carrageen. Careful not to overdo it, because some of your colour could also be removed.

If you place a second sheet of paper on top of the same design, it will still pick up, but the colours will be lighter. Between each new design, take newspaper strips to skim the colour off the surface of the size. This will clear it for new colours and patterns.

Overall, I found the most impressive patterns included black ink, which showed up better than other colours. I tried three types of paper: card stock, light-weight watercolour paper, and a heavier weight of 140lb. All picked up the ink very well, but a textured watercolour paper will always look nicer if you are making things like cards or gift tags with your designs.


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