Sunday, June 23, 2019


Have you ever opened an old book to see the beautiful swirling patterns of color? This was before computers and easy printing methods. Though I’d seen those exquisite papers in old books before, I never thought about how they were made. So where did all that gorgeous colored paper come from? Did an artist painstakingly paint each stroke of color? Or were there rare marble-paper trees that grew wood those colors? I’m just being silly. Of course, it was the hard work of an artist.

This post is going to touch on the history with splash of a craft at the end for you try marbling your own paper at home.

Paper marbling dates back two millennium or more and was considered a craft, now it’s an art. Marbling was a sought after skill. A paper marbler would have been a craftsman, like a woodworker, cobbler, or blacksmith. A skill that needed to be learned over time.

Suminagashi, or floating ink, originated in China over 2,000 years ago and practiced in Japan by the 12th century or earlier. It’s the process of transforming plain paper into a vibrant, colorful work of art with ink and water.

Paper marbling entered Europe first in Germany by way of the Ottoman Empire (present day Turkey) in the 17th century known as watercolor marbling or ebru.

A shallow vat of water was mixed with carrageenan (a seaweed derivative) to create a size (a thickened liquid) so paints would float rather than sink. The craftsman would drip drops of paint from a stick or dropper onto the surface of the size in a pattern, color after color until the surface was covered in paint. 

Another method of getting the paint on the surface is known as throwing stones. The craftsman would dip a broomstraw into the paint and flick the paint off onto the surface of the size in random, scattered patterns.

Once all the paint was floating, rakes and combs the width and length of the vat with varying tooth widths are pulled across the surface, one direction and then another, vertical and horizontal. Which rakes and combs are use and the order determines the pattern that will end up on the paper. 

There are cascade, feather, Gel-git, peacock, stone, and various other marble patterns. A stone marble is when no rakes or combs are pulled through the dots of paint. Stones can also be sprinkle on a pattern after rakes have created a pattern.

Then a sheet of paper nearly the size of the vat, that has been treated with alum, is laid gently onto the surface from one corner to the opposite one. The paper is lifted out and the paint sticks to the paper. The paper is rinsed and hung to dry. These elaborate marbled papers made beautiful additions, inside and out, to books.

The following video is an interview. Here are some of times you might want to skip to. 4:00-treating paper. 6:54, 7:15, 8:30, & 10:55-dropping the paint in precise places and watching the colors spread. 13:05-using the rakes and combs. 17:44-is transferring the colors to the paper.

If a publisher wanted to print a hundred copies of a book, each one would need to have the same pattern and color of endpaper for both the front and back of each book. That would mean the artist would be need to repeat the process over and over and over and over. So a craftsman would need to drop paint onto the surface of the vat in the same order, in the same places, use the same rakes in the same order, dozens of times. Though no two sheets would be exactly alike, they would be very similar.

Even a craftsman would have gotten a little tired of creating the same pattern so many times, but it was necessary to achieve the same look.

Many things other than paper can be marbled and some artisans create beautiful pictures on the surface of the size, but that’s not the focus of this post.

Paper marbling pretty much ended around the end of the 19th century, but it has made a comeback as an art form.

Now, the craft portion.
Here is a simple paper marbling technique that even a three-year-old can do. So if a preschooler can do it, I figured I could too.

Supplies: ~Paper
~Food coloring
~Shaving cream (not the gel)
~A stick (or something to pull through the colors to make designs)
~Squeegee (or something else with a flat side to scrape off the shaving cream)
~Container to hold shaving cream big enough to fit your paper (You can put the shaving cream directly on the table or counter but the food coloring may stain. You can put down a plastic table cloth and put the shaving cream directly on it.)

STEP 1: Set out supplies
STEP 2: Shake shaving cream and put about a half of an inch in the bottom of your container and smooth it out with squeegee.
STEP 3: Put several drops of food coloring on the shaving cream, use one color or several different colors.
STEP 4: Swirl the stick back and forth and/or around and around in the shaving cream to streak the food coloring.
STEP 5: When you are happy with the pattern, place a piece of paper over the surface and press it gently into the shaving cream.
STEP 6: Lift out the paper and lay it shaving-cream-side up on plastic and scrape off excess shaving cream with squeegee to reveal the marbling.
STEP 7: Swirl the shaving cream again and make another print. You can add additional colors and swirl and print over and over.

I found that the shaving cream didn’t stick to the paper, so I had very little to scrape off, but still created beautiful marbling. When I used index cards, the shaving cream stuck to those, so the reveal was more dramatic.

I had so much fun that I kept printing and printing and could have kept going.

Here are all the prints I made, and I still had shaving cream. If you want to see more of my prints, here is the link to my post on my blog on 6/18/19.

So much fun! More fun than playing in the mud as a kid.


THIMBLES AND THREADS: 4 Love Stories Are Quilted Into Broken Lives
When four women put needle and thread to fabric, will their talents lead to love?
Click HERE to order.

“Bygones” Texas, 1884
Drawn to the new orphan boy in town, Tilly Rockford soon became the unfortunate victim of a lot of Orion Dunbar’s mischievous deeds in school. Can Tilly figure out how to truly forgive the one who made her childhood unbearable? Can this deviant orphan-train boy turned man make up for the misdeeds of his youth and win Tilly’s heart before another man steals her away?

MARY DAVIS is a bestselling, award-winning novelist of over three dozen titles in both historical and contemporary themes. Her recent titles include; "Holly and Ivy" in A Bouquet of Brides Collection, The PRODIGAL DAUGHTERS Series, The Widow’s Plight, “Zola’s Cross-Country Adventure” in The MISSAdventure Brides Collection, The Daughter's Predicament, and "Bygones" in Thimbles and Threads. Shes an ACFW member and critique groups. Mary lives in the Pacific Northwest with her husband of thirty-four years and two cats. She has three adult children and two adorable grandchildren. Find her online:

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  1. Mary, What a great post. I love those marbled papers in old books but had no idea how they were made. Thank you for sharing.

  2. Nancy, You're welcome. I didn't either and hadn't thought much about them. "Oh, look at the pretty page. Next." I love it when I'm researching one thing and stumble across something else like this that is really fascinating.

  3. Mary, what a fascinating subject, and one I'd never have thought of! I love crafting, and I'm so glad you shared this in such detail. I'm going to copy this and give it a try. 😊

  4. Thanks for the post! Sounds like a fun thing to try!

  5. This was incredibly amazing. I've seen plenty of old books with marbling on the outer or inside covers, but I never really thought about how they were made. Those videos were fascinating. I love hand-crafted things and dabbled in stain-glass, so that's probably why this was so interesting. It made me wonder in historic wallpaper was created in a similar style.

  6. We take so much for granted! Thank you for this glimpse into an art I didn't even know existed.

  7. Oh, wow, Mary, thanks so much for this post. I always wondered how the beautiful endpapers were made, but never took the time to look it up.