For centuries, marbling art was an art form found only inside the covers of books. Contemporary artists and designers have rediscovered this versatile design motif, and marbled papers are now seen everywhere, in picture frames and lamp shades, wine labels and fine art. This ancient craft, named "ebru" (cloud art) by its 15th-century Persian practitioners, is now undergoing a renaissance.
By most accounts, European-style paper marbling originated in Persia in the 1400s. The name of the first marbler is a mystery. The invention was probably an accidental one, made by some observant artists who noticed that paints would float on water. The exact formula of the earliest marblers is lost; however, the process moved, city by city, through Turkey, Spain, Italy, France, and the rest of Europe, probably along the trade routes, over the next three centuries.
As it traveled, each country adapted the technique and changed the materials and recipes to accord with indigenous materials. Very few useful illustrations of these practices were ever made, and almost no instructions were written down in the earliest centuries of the craft.
In those days, a trader guarded such knowledge. Secrets wee passed on only to apprentices sworn to silence, or from parents to offspring. This general attitude of propriety still exists today. Most marblers are very, very reticent about divulging their processes, their materials, and their sources, which is a major reason that marbling has remained such an esoteric craft.
In the mid-1800s, there was a general revival of interest in marbling. It became the decorative paper used by bookbinders, eclipsing the use of printed papers, paste papers, Dutch gilt, and drip marbled papers. Much credit must be given to the English, who, in the mid-1800s, published several comprehensive books on the marbling process, thus boosting it out of its secrecy and guaranteeing that the art would never die out.
Over the centuries, the art of marbling has taken on many different forms. The Turks did not use marbled papers for bookbinding, but, by using stencils, made them an element of figurative art. They would lay down a cut-paper stencil or use a block-out medium, then marble different areas with a human figure or animal. They also very effectively used marbled patterns as a framing and bordering device. Another Turkish application that was quite different from the later European uses was to create figures, animals, and flowers directly on the marbling surface using a stylus.
As marbling moved into the Mediterranean countries of Spain and Italy, it began to develop into its present form. The Italians, and especially the Venetians, picked up the art of marbling and made it a wonderful process for creating repeated patterns. To this day, the Venetians and the Florentines are famous all over the world for their marbling. From lower Europe it spread into France and on into Holland and England. Along the way, hundreds of anonymous artisans must have sweated away thousands of hours over their marbling trays trying to re-invent the process, trying to eliminate exasperating problems and to find new and better materials and methods. This process is still going on.
The basic technique which, throughout all its historical variations, has never changed. The process is always the same: paints are made to float on the surface of water where they are manipulated into designs and then transferred to a sheet of paper. In order to make this happen, the artist must learn to control the behavior of the paint. The moment the paints hit the water, they will either sink to the bottom of the tray (and darken the marbler’s day), or magically float and spread, enabling the marbler to coax them almost effortlessly into liquid swirls. Then paper or silk is simply laid onto the surface where it instantly picks up the floating film of paint. Thus, each sheet is a unique design created in a transfer process in which the artist is working hand in hand with the happenstance and mutability of nature. And truly, the best marbled designs reflect the watery dynamics of this craft. I have included in the succeeding pages a master’s gallery of marbled designs, ld and new, to fire your imagination and to show you exactly how many different directions you can take with this process.