A brief look at marbled paper

Earlier this month, Work of the Hand featured a post on paper marbling. Knowing next to nothing about what’s involved in creating marbled paper, I’ve never been particularly impressed by most of I’ve seen in old books, although admittedly this has probably been strongly influenced by color choice. That’s not to say that I didn’t think marbled papers were pretty; I just didn’t fully appreciate what goes into creating the various designs. However, after reading that post, I can now say that I’m heartily intrigued. In the past I’ve said that marbling is something I’d like to learn, but now I’m genuinely excited about it, even if it’s a long way off.

Beautiful marbling, birdwing pattern. (TXMagpie, "Marbled Paper - Birdwing," October 9, 2008, Creative Commons Attribution.)

Beautiful marbling, birdwing pattern. (TXMagpie, “Marbled Paper – Birdwing,” October 9, 2008, Creative Commons Attribution.)

I’m hardly in any position to say much on the topic, but I’ll offer a basic overview of how paper marbling is accomplished, which I’ve gleaned from various sources. First, water is poured into a tray. Paint is then added to the surface of the water, where it floats; from there, depending on the intended design, the paint is manipulated with various tools, altering the pattern. Next, a sheet of alum-treated paper is rolled down gradually into the tray until it is completely flat, floating on the surface. Finally, the paper is pulled out, placed on an angled surface, and rinsed with water before being set out to dry. Seems simple, doesn’t it? I’m sure it’s not, but I also suspect that after a few tries, the dipping/removal of the paper isn’t too difficult, and that the real difficulty lies in getting the paint set out the way you want it. Additionally, each paint setting seems to only be used once. Imagine trying to duplicate such an intricate design! Check out this narrated slideshow from MPR News for another helpful description of the basic technique.

Marbling tray, awaiting paper. (treviño, "The paper goes on," October 6, 2009, Creative Commons Attribution.)

Marbling tray, awaiting paper. (treviño, “The paper goes on,” October 6, 2009, Creative Commons Attribution.)

I mentioned marbled endpapers above, but the edges of books can also be marbled. Alternately, marbled paper can be featured on book covers, in both formal and more whimsical or modern designs, and can be inlaid into jewelry boxes to great effect. One of the books I’m referencing in my bookbinding journey also describes some basic box-making techniques; wouldn’t it be lovely if I could one day create a box that utilized my own hand-marbled paper?

Although there are probably many modern marbling styles, there is also clearly a long history of designs, many of which you’ve probably seen if you’re a lover of books as objects and haunt used bookstores for old books as I do. Some of the traditional designs are extremely intricate, even downright exquisite (Marble Art has samples of different marbling styles, although not all of these are traditional; at the very least, the page gives a good impression of what can be done)—and I can guarantee you that after having read about only the basics of paper marbling, I’ll never look at marbled paper the same way again.

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