by Tracy Cook
Paper marbling can be summed up as the “method for producing colored designs on paper or on the edges of books in which liquid colors are first suspended upon a liquid surface” (Wolfe, 2[i]). The liquid bath is typically thickened with Tragacanth, a natural gum, before ink or paint is dropped into it. To create the patterns, one may use a variety of instruments such as brushes, styluses, or combs to manipulate the paint or ink. The paint is then transferred by absorption onto the paper by placing the desired portion into the liquid bath.
If you would like to view an example of paper marbling by The Folio Society, click here.
Paper marbling was mainly used in book binding and calligraphy in Europe after the 17th century, with its peak popularity for book binding and wallpaper falling in the 18th century. Today, paper marbling is still used for book binding, among various other things, but are printed more often than created. Paper marbling was not just used for looks though, it also ensured authenticity because creating an exact duplicate is basically impossible. Creating the patterns is extremely difficult and mistakes cannot be undone.
With a steady hand, various sized brushes, styluses, and combs, and numerous colors of paint or ink, a variety of patterns can be created. Since there are so many patterns of paper marbling, we are going to focus on some of our favorites that are held here in the Special Collections and University Archives.
This is possibly the oldest known paper marbling pattern, dating back as early as the 15th century. This is one of the basic patterns created when multiple colors are dropped onto the surface using a marbling brush. The colors will continue to constrict as more colors are added leading to the beginning colors appearing as veins and the later colors appearing as “stones”, or large spots. This pattern can be utilized as a base for other patterns.
1. Investigation of the assassination of President John F. Kennedy. Vol. 10-12, United States. Congress. House. Select Committee on Assassinations. Washington : U.S. Government Printing Office, 1978-1979, 12 vols.
2. Byron, George G, Baron. Works of Lord Byron. Vol. 3, London, Murray, 1833, 9 vols.
3. Carlyle, Thomas. Thomas Carlyle’s Collected works. Library ed., vol. 13, London, Chapman, 1871, 34 vols.
This pattern follows the same process as Turkish, except bronze must be the first color dropped in to create the effect of the gold veins running between the stones, which gives this pattern its name.
Argued to have been created in the mid-19th century, this style begins with a Turkish base before a brush or stylus is drawn twice vertically through the bath with the second pass halving the first. Repeat this step horizontally. Then, draw vertically in wavy lines that emulate the way a snake moves.
Bridges, Thomas. A burlesque translation of Homer. 4th ed., vol. 1, London, G.G. and J. Robinson, 1797, 2 vols.
One of the other basic marbling patterns, named for the French word meaning “matchless” or “unrivaled”. The desired colors are dropped in regulated sizes before a comb is drawn through the bath horizontally twice. Then, a smaller comb is drawn across vertically, although it can also be done horizontally. Multiple, contrasting colors can be used to make this pattern really pop. This pattern can also be utilized as a base for other patterns.
After creating a nonpareil pattern, a wider comb is drawn once more through the bath which causes the arched lines to become separated into arched columns. The new columns can either be straight or manipulated further into waves.
Phillips, Richard. Addisoniana. Vol. 2, 1803, 2 vols.
This pattern can be created using any base, but bases with multiple colors will work the best. Once the base is completed, a stylus or brush is dipped into the bath and swirled, creating the curls that this pattern is named for.