When I first began working with decorative papers, I was familiar with classic European hand-marbled sheets, the kind of marbled papers you see as endpapers in books.
Handmade marbled papers are all born from the same process, despite strong differences between cultures in materials and techniques. Pigment is floated on liquid and manipulated to create specific patterns, then a sheet of paper is lowered onto the liquid’s surface and pulled away, transferring the pigments to the sheet. That’s why the designs look liquid, they were born on liquid! Of course, because of this process, no two papers are ever exactly the same.
The papers I knew were ones like these.
Pretty quickly, I discovered that there’s a gigantic world of marbling out there. First invented in China (or maybe Japan, they’re still squabbling about it), marbling took hold somewhere between the 12th and 14th Centuries. Below is Japanese Suminagashi marbling, where ink is floated on water. The technique is still in use today, as are all of the other techniques that follow.
About a century later, marbling showed up in Afghanistan and became a famous art form in Persia, settling in Turkey. Turkish marbling is known as Ebru and is world famous for its beauty. Here’s a typical Turkish sheet.
India began its marbling traditions at about the same time as Turkey. Bengali papers are especially bright and beautiful. Look at the fantastic balance between color, pattern and tone. Sensational!
These Nepalese papers are thick and rough, full of texture. They’re made from the Lokta plant, which has long, strong fibers and results in a soft, luscious sheet.
Here’s a different kind of Nepalese sheet, spare and minimalistic, but it still reads as marbled.
Marbling has strong traditions in many countries. Thailand has all kinds of marbled papers, strikingly different from one another. The Thai Momo sheets are some of my favorites; they’re intended to imitate fabric in their texture. Soft, thin sheets are crumpled up, then flattened out again before marbling. Momo marbles often incorporate gold pigment.
This crisp pattern is also from Thailand.
As is this softer approach.
You might have noticed how all of these non-European sheets have relatively simple designs compared to the two Florentine sheets at the beginning of the post. Chronologically, the techniques to create them came first. Once marbling made its way to Turkey, probably via the Silk Road, it moved into France, Italy and Germany in the 15th and 16th Centuries.
Whenever marbling came into a new country, the art changed as the local artists developed techniques and integrated their materials and cultural traditions. The marbling that emerged in Europe was technically precise, not to mention insanely beautiful. Look at these sheets! Would you think this is pigment pulled off of liquid?
All of these patterns use special tools in a specific way to achieve their look. The variety is endless, each more beautiful than the last!
In a future post, I’ll explain how these intricate patterns are created. Here’s a hint: artists use everything from combs, rakes and needles to cat’s whiskers, fans and blowing on the liquid’s surface with their breath.