Maybe it’s how we’re wired as humans, but designs found in nature seem to be the most loved of all. Take marble for instance. It’s the darling material of high style kitchen renovations, and in a much less expensive media, adorns the surfaces of stationery, manicures, and wall art. I’ve personally been drawn to marbleized wall art recently, as you may have noticed in my Scout & Catalogue for Debbie Carlos poster seen in my living room here. Several of you were curious how to marble your own paper, and I was too! So I set out to learn a new craft, and failed a few times before I succeeded. Check out the different processes I tried below and see which ones I liked the best.
Skip down to Attempt #4 if you want to cut to the chase and aren’t interested in the problems I encountered along the way.
Marbling is achieved by floating pigment on water and laying paper over the water to transfer the pigment design onto the paper. It may seem straightforward until you consider buoyancy and other variables in the mix. My experience was certainly a comedy of trials and errors, but after a bit of experimenting, I hit my marbling sweet spot.
-medium-weight absorbent paper
-dropper or syringe
-coffee stirrer or spoon handle
-spray bottle, large brush, or sponge
Avoiding Potential Pitfalls
How do I keep the pigment from sinking into the water? I used methyl cellulose to thicken my water (see instructions later in this post), but still had issues with my pigments sinking. See what happened with each process later in this post, but I’ll tell you right now—oil paints are the best for floating on water, but I also recommend that you properly thicken the water.
How do I make sure the design I make in the pigment doesn’t float away as I lay down the paper? As I laid my paper across the surface of the water to transfer the design onto my paper, the water below shifted, and the pigments along with it. The best method is to make sure your paper is pliable (not stiff) and wrinkle-free so you can lay down the paper without disturbing the surface of the water. This will ensure the crispest transfer of your design.
What kind of pigment will attach to the paper the best? I found that oil paint created the boldest designs, but most importantly, your paper should be properly prepared first. After transferring the design onto the paper, you’ll actually need to rinse off the paper. Normally, this would probably cause the ink or paint to be washed off the paper as well, but if you prepare your paper with alum first, the design will adhere to your paper while the excess paint and water will be rinsed away. Read further in this post for best methods of preparing the paper.
Preparing Your Supplies
Preparing for marbling is very simple, though it does require a one hour wait time. You will need to thicken your water and prepare your paper, both processes requiring rest time afterwards.
Preparing the Water and Tray: If you are working with small scale paper, you can use a baking sheet with walls (such as a jelly roll pan) and just an inch of water. A jelly roll pan will only require about 1 quart of water to fill it, though you will probably want to prepare more water in case you have issues removing unwanted paint from the water between marbling sheets. I stored my excess thickened water in mason jars for later use. If you are using larger scale papers, you will need a large, shallow basin, such as an under-bed storage drawer, which is what I used. This storage drawer required about 3-4 quarts of water.
Thicken the Water: To thicken the water, you will need methyl cellulose, which is a powdery substance that mixes with water to create a consistency much like a thin gelatin. I prepared my water in a stock pot which has measurements marked out along the inside. Mix 1/4 cup of methyl cellulose with 2 quarts of water for the best marbling consistency. Use a whisk to stir the mixture and let it thicken for one hour. To ensure an even consistency, it’s best to whisk the mixture thoroughly every ten minutes, or you’ll end up with globs at the bottom of your pan at the end of an hour. After an hour, you may pour the thickened water into your marbling pan and begin!
Preparing the Paper: You will need to cover your paper with alum in order for the design to transfer from the water to the paper without getting washed away. You may apply the alum with a brush, sponge, or a spray bottle. Mix 1 tablespoon of the powdery alum per one cup of water, and then thoroughly wet the surface of your paper. Lay the paper flat or hang it to dry.
After the paper is dry (about one hour), you’ll want to iron it—yes, using an actual hot iron to make sure it is as flat as possible for the marbling process. You may have success with ironing a slightly damp piece of paper to prevent set-in wrinkles.
You may look at the above pictures and think, “Ooooh, this one looks pretty!” Well, that’s what I thought too. But when I tried to transfer the pretty design onto the paper, it didn’t go so well.
Method: I began with about two inches of thickened water and gently dropped ink directly from the bottle’s dropper into the water. I added a turquoise blue and an olive green ink, then swirled them around with the handle of a spoon to make my design. I gently laid paper prepared with alum onto the surface of the water, then carefully peeled the paper away from the water. Because the alum ensures the pigments’ adhesion to the paper, I then rinsed the thickened water residue from my paper and was disappointed to see only a faint marble design, as seen below.
Result: The ink was not staying afloat at the very top of the water, even though my water was thickened. You could still see the design in the water, though it was just below the surface. In addition, the pigment of the ink just didn’t seem bold enough to adhere properly to the paper for a crisp design. Maybe it was the colors I used, but I decided to give up on ink and try a different method.
Attempt #2: Marbling with Gouache Paint & Thickened Water
This resulted in such a similar fail as marbling with ink, that I didn’t even bother taking pictures of the results. My method was the same, only instead of using ink, I used heavy pigmented gouache water colors which I diluted to the consistency of cream. The pigments were still too soft and still wouldn’t stay on the surface of the thickened water.
Attempt #3: Marbling with Oil Paints & Non-Thickened Water
My main issue thus far seemed to be keeping the pigments floating on the water. To solve this, I switched to oil paints, since oil does not mix with water. Ideally, the oil paints would float above the water, so I wouldn’t even need to thicken it. Or at least, that was my initial idea.
Method: I filled a jelly roll pan with water and dropped diluted oil paints onto the surface with a dropper. I could tell as soon as I began swirling that I didn’t have much control over the design. I then carefully laid down paper which had been prepared with alum, but the paint was swiftly moving across the surface of the water no matter how delicately I laid down the paper. I tried one without preparing the paper with alum too (the framed one above), which didn’t turn out half bad. I did not rinse that one, but I did rinse the pieces which had been prepared with alum.
Result: The oil paint did float without the assistance of a water thickener, and did produce a much bolder design, but the design was very difficult to control as it floated on water which had not been thickened. This observation led me to my final, successful attempt at marbling paper.
Ding ding ding! We have a winner! Now I knew that oil paints were the best for floating on water, I just needed to control them a bit more. So I went back to using thickened water. This was my marbling sweet spot.
Method: I filled my large basin with about two inches of thickened water (see preparation instructions above) and used a decommissioned children’s Tylenol syringe to apply my diluted oil paints. I had diluted the thick oil paints with white spirit to get them to the consistency of heavy cream. After dropping the colors into the water, I used a coffee stirrer to swirl them around in a pretty pattern. This is where you can get creative and play around. Then I carefully laid colored paper prepared with alum onto the surface (see preparation instructions above), gently pressing along the back of the paper to make sure no parts of the paper were still raised off the water. I let the paper rest for several seconds, then gently peeled it off and rinsed off the paper in the sink to get off the excess paint and goopy water. I hung the paper to dry, then ironed it flat when it was just slightly damp.
Result: This method of floating oil paint atop thickened water created the most controlled and bold designs of any method I tried. It is tricky getting the excess paint out of the water in between sheets of paper (lots of sheets of newspaper to draw out the paint), but I loved the way each subsequent print turned out with this method.
Choose the right paper. The paper you use should be absorbent, but only moderately thick in weight. If it’s too thick, like high quality water paper, it will have stiff wrinkles after preparing the paper with alum. Even ironing out the dried paper before marbling will not remove all of the wrinkles and they will keep you from getting a smooth transfer of the floating pigments onto the paper. Colored paper is also a good choice because it already has a nice background hue before adding your marbled design. I was not happy with the performance of watercolor paper in my experiments, but I found that subtly textured art paper, particularly Canson’s Mi-Teintes paper, was my favorite.
Prepare plenty of paper before beginning the marbling process. You’ll probably mess up a few sheets of paper before you figure out the best paint consistency, paper laying/lifting method, marbling design for your desired outcome. I started out with plain white watercolor paper, but when I didn’t enjoy the results, I had to pause my project for a few hours while I bought more papers, prepared the papers, and waited for the prepared papers to dry before I could iron them and continue my project.
Marbling is such a free-spirited way of creating art. The results look abstract and natural, making a marbleized print the perfect addition to any wall gallery or even a great stand alone statement piece on your wall. And why stop at wall art? Marbled paper makes great gift wrap and greeting card material. –Mandi
Credits // Author and Photography: Mandi Johnson. Photos edited with Stella and Valentine from the Signature Collection.