Update — November, 2015
I’ve been thinking about updating this page for a while and am finally tackling it. I have changed many things in the past three years; brand of paint, type of trays, paper and some techniques. I also wanted to add information that would try to answer some of the many questions I have gotten. The complete original post is at the end of this update.
The most frequent questions I am asked are about the basic physical components of marbling – alum, carrageenan, paint and paper. I haven’t changed the first two at all. Marbling carrageenan (not the food variety) mixed at 2.5 Tablespoons per Gallon of water (I use distilled, bottled) and marbling alum (again, not the food kind) mixed at 1 to 2 teaspoons per cup of water. I mix my alum a bit stronger than some recommendations just because I find it works better for me. The carrageenan is mixed in a high-speed blender and allowed to sit overnight. I usually mix the alum at the same time just because it’s one less step to do in the morning! The alum just needs to be stirred a bit to dissolve.
Paints can be tricky and you need to be willing to play a bit to find the brand and type that suits your purposes best. I have been converted to Golden’s Fluid Arcylics. I think they are easier to balance, have great pigment integration and provide intense colors. However, like all paint, they can be highly individual in the way you mix them. I start my paints with 1 part paint to about 1/2 part water and add water gradually to find the right balance. Colors vary a lot – blues & greens need more water, reds and yellows need less. Unlike the paints I used to use, even the toughest of the Golden colors needs only 20 to 30 stirs to create a good suspension and most need way less. I took a class where the paints had been pre-mixed and even though they were the same base paint that I use all the time, the water ratios were very different and it took a few papers for me to adjust my style to the paint. The moral is play, test, try and play some more until you find what suits you and how you plan to use your paper.
I use a piece of dowel to mix the paint. It’s tempting to just use the eyedropper, but not wise. I used to use plastic spoons, but find that the dowel provides a better surface for reintegrating pigment that has fallen out of suspension. Some paints, especially yellows and reds, rarely fall, but blues and ultramarines have to be stirred frequently. Metallics need stirring before almost every drop and the dowel provides a pestle-like action that works well. I much prefer using cups to leaving the paint in the bottles. Bottles will develop a thick sludge of pigment on the bottom, but with the cups you can see and control the sludge formation. I’ve used both snap lid and twist on cups and prefer the twist closure. It gives a tighter seal and avoids the splash episodes when I try to open a stuck snap-on lid! You do have to take care that the twist is fully sealed if you are leaving the paint for any period of time.
What paper you use depends entirely on what you plan to do with your marbled paper. Always keep end use in mind. Most of my paper ends up in my books; that’s why I started marbling in the first place. Therefore, I use a lot of drawing weight paper (70-80lbs, 100 – 130gsm). I also use a lot of card stock (65lb., 167 gsm.) for cards and for some book uses, but it is too heavy for endpapers. I have some beautifully marbled sheets of very heavy weight paper and even watercolor paper (400 lb.) that I love, but have yet to figure out what to do with them. Many marblers love Texoprint paper, but I am not a fan, partially because I don’t like the way it pastes down. I have tried marbling everything from paper napkins to mat board. So try, experiment, play! If you are just beginning, I suggest either a 70lb. drawing paper or card stock as they are both easy to handle and have many uses.
Fun sources of marbling paper are everywhere – discarded books, maps, old magazines, sheet music, junk mail, community flyers. Just look around. Slick and glossy papers are harder to marble since both the alum and paint tend to slide off, but you can have fun trying!
Trays – I have been using acrylic photo frames for marbling for a while now. They come in an array of sizes, are about one inch deep and, best of all, inexpensive. Look for frames that wrap around the sides with no seams or edging. Here are mine:
Quick closeup of the combs made by inserting roller pix into drywall corner bead.
to be added ….. ….
Everyone has different way to set up a work space. Here’s mine. I work at a large bright yellow kitchen table in my basement. There is a large sink a few steps away to my right. Just to the right of the marbling table is a card table that I use to prepare my paper with alum. Six to eight pieces of alumed paper are stacked there under a light piece of press board. The board prevents the paper from curling and help keeps it slightly damp. The marbling table – from right to left – has paint cups, marbling tray, rinse tray. Combs and rakes start out above the trays, short on right, long on left. By the end of a session, they are wherever I dropped them. I also have a little red rolling cart that fits under the table which holds newspaper skimmers, wiping rags, shims etc. Most importantly, there’s a big trash can for used skimmers right under the table. I have double lines for drying the paper a few steps to the left. Even being in the basement with a concrete floor, I keep a dropcloth under the drying line. Carrageenan is very slippery!
Starting to Marble
Now that I have everything set up, I can start having fun. First move is to skim the carrageenan. No matter how carefully I skim, the first tray usually has some contamination and my first paper is a mess. I expect that. I also use the first tray to check on the paints – how they are spreading, if they are dropping out at all, basic colors, etc.
In the photos below, please note: the table is yellow and showing through the carrageenan, no yellow paint was dropped; the two horizontal white bars are reflections of my overhead lights; the brown rectangle on the left side is a shim under the tray to level it.
The first color I dropped was black. I like to do that for two reasons, I can see the paint more easily as it spreads (a light color tends to disappear) and it results in a fine black line that helps define the pattern on the finished work. As usual, there was some contamination at the bottom of the tray causing the jagged outlines on the circles. You can follow the results of the initial problem throughout the photos. As each succeeding color is dropped, it pushes the previous colors, concentrating them into smaller areas and making the paint denser and brighter. It’s important to plan ahead: the first color dropped will be the strongest on your finished paper. It may also have the narrowest line.
At one point a bit of the blue “dropped out” ending up as a glob of paint on the bottom of the tray. In this case, I think it was just a bit of pigment that hadn’t been thoroughly mixed. If the same color had dropped out in all the circles, I would have gone back and added a few drops of water and tried again. If the paint had continued to drop out, I would have added a single drop of Acrylic Flow Release. On the get-gel photos, I used a stylus rather than rakes and stopped halfway across the tray to take the photo. At the very bottom of this page there are two photos of me making the get-gel pattern with rakes. After the get-gel was completed, I raked the pattern once horizontally and once vertically. After laying down the paper, I stopped to take a picture. I don’t normally leave the paper sitting on the paint as the paint is transferred to the paper as soon as it touches it. Anything done after the first touch doesn’t affect the print. When I wash paper, I place the paper on the water face down and then gently swish until the entire back of the paper is wet. If the back remains dry, the paper tends to curl and dry unevenly which can cause problems. The paper is taken out of the water and hung on my line. In this case it is upside down as you can see from the placement of the white spots that were caused by the contamination in the tray. Those are areas of white paper showing through because the paint couldn’t float into that area of the tray.
Before dropping any paint for the second sheet of paper, the size must be skimmed. I use narrow ( c.2″ wide) strips of newspaper, but there are other ways to skim. To use a newspaper strip, hold a piece of newspaper the width of the tray between your hands. Place the ends (you can fold over any excess paper) in the two top corners so that about 1/4″ of the newspaper is on the size. Gently pull the newspaper towards the bottom of the tray, keeping it taut, but not tight enough to tear, by pressing the newspaper against the tray sides with your fingers. Your fingers should not have to enter the size. It’s harder to explain than to do! Here’s a photo of what I’m trying to say:
Another way of skimming is to lay a larger sheet of newspaper down on the carageenan, as if you were “printing” and lift it off.
Before and after skimming.
The first photo shows the paint left in the tray after the paper is printed. Ignore the straight silver line. It’s part of the table. After skimming, you’ll be left with some paint that has already sunk into the size. It will not affect your next paper and will cause more problems if you try to go deep enough into the size to capture it. The photo of the skimmer shows that there is no color left on the surface.
Dropping paint for my second sheet.
On this tray, I made the get-gel pattern using rakes instead of the stylus. This needs two rakes with the same distance between the teeth. One rake is an inch or so shorter than the width of the tray, the other is a bit shorter than the tray’s length. That’s in an ideal world! Since I’m using tools from disparate sources, they don’t quite match up. You can comb either direction first. If you are good at planning ahead, try to have the length of the pattern match the grain (not necessarily the length) of the paper you are using. To make the get-gel, place the short rake at the top of the tray with the tines about 1/4″ into the carrageenan. Don’t drag the tines along the bottom! With one hand on each end of the rake, slowly pull it toward you. When you reach the bottom, slide the rake over so that the tines are between the lines you have just made and slowly push the rake back to the top of the tray. Moving the rake too quickly can create a “wave” in front of it. Take the long rake and repeat, going from side to side. For this paper, I finished off with combing a vertical nonpareil pattern and then a wavy, side-to-side rake. The important thing here is to compare the raked get-gel to the free-hand stylus get-gel. The former makes a grid-like pattern that underlies any further raking or combing. The stylus method is freer and gives more of a stripe than a grid. I use both methods, depending on my mood and what I want for my final piece.
Third time pays for all.
After skimming, I started my third tray in my usual way, but ran into a bit of a problem when I wanted to drop some white. Yellows tend to be very strong colors in that they spread a lot and don’t let other colors spread. I was trying to drop white, but it wasn’t strong enough to spread against the yellow. I could have added more water or Flow Release, but if I did that, the white would be too strong when I went back to using it with the blues. I could have mixed two cups of white, one strong and the other normal, but that was too much work. I capitulated and just used another yellow instead of white. You really need to be flexible while marbling. The paints do have their own personalities.
I proceeded with the get-gel, nonpareil, and finished with a waved Gothic.
Laid down the paper, but as I lifted it I saw those tell-tale rings that I hate! Those rings on the size are the remains of an air bubble that formed as I laid down the paper. The bubbles created the white spots a trails on the finished piece. So much for a wonderful paper. At least there’s quite a bit of pattern that I can use.
Starting with Stones
Instead of using circles or eggs to get your paint onto the size, many marblers like to throw stones. It is a bit faster and much more fun! I like to use circles in the beginning because it’s easier for me to judge how the paint is spreading and the balance among the colors. Some patterns work better with the colors being more ordered, others with the randomness of stones. It’s all what you like and what works for you.
I did two similar black and white pieces. The first was just stones, the second combined circles and stones. I apologize for the bad photography. Several are out of focus and you can see my reflection on the bottom left of some. I need to go back and take better shots some day.
In spite of the lack of clear focus, I think you can see the results of using the stone technique of getting the paint on the size. There are several other ways of doing it – shaking bottles, blowing, using an atomizer – the goal is covering the surface of your size with paint that floats on the surface. As with so many things in marbling, whatever works for you is good.
Odds and Ends
Here are some more pictures of other pieces I did in this marbling session as well as shots of what my tray looks like after three days of marbling. Not quite as pristine as when I started. Some marblers have the ability to keep a really clean tray throughout, but I don’t!
Many thanks to all of you who have already responded with questions and comments. I hope this update has been informative and useful. If you have further questions, please ask. I’ll try to answer even though I’m not an expert on many phases of marbling. I just try to share what has worked for me.
Original post — May, 2012
My studio is in my basement, as you can see in the photos by all the shelves of stuff in the background. What you can’t see is the other wall which opens at ground level and has windows the full length of the basement. It gives great natural light and makes a very pleasant working space. Fortunately, I have a good sink, a washable table and a floor that I don’t worry about.
There’s a lot of prep work for a marbling session. The first task is to make the carrageenan which provides the “size” on which the paints float. Carrageenan must be made at least 12 hours before you want to start marbling. I make it the evening before in a high-speed blender and it takes that long for the foam and bubbles to dissipate. At the same time, I mix alum to act as a mordant so the paint will bond with the paper. I also like to mix the paint the evening before as it seems to provide time for the paint to have a more even consistency and eliminate flecks and spots. I use acrylic paints and they need to be thinned just a bit to float properly. I have well water which is chock full of interesting minerals – iron, sulfur and more – so when preparing the size or paints, I use bottled distilled water. Most municipal water can be used as is.
The trays I use are photographic developing trays, rather than true marbling trays. The largest size paper that I can use is about 14″ x 17″. The carrageenan is in one tray and plain water in the second.
First step in the morning is to coat several sheets of paper with alum and let them rest under a light weight, just enough to prevent them from curling. While the paper is curing, I hang up my line and spread a dropcloth under it, cut newspaper for skimming and make sure all the paints are ready to go.
During this session, I used eye droppers to drop paint onto the size. Sometimes I use broomstraw whisks which creates a “stone” pattern rather than the egg pattern shown in the photos. Using the eyedropper creates a more regular pattern and I find it easier to control. The whisk is more fun and gives more free form results. It is also faster. It depends on my mood as well as the results I’m trying to achieve which technique I use. I rarely use both just because there’s twice as much cleanup involved – both droppers and whisks can be a pain to clean!
Photos of the process
Added January 2015
I’ve found some photos that were taken last year by a student in my marbling class which show some of the processes that I couldn’t photograph while I was working.
The combs and rakes are home made from corner bead (from the hardware store) and pins for hair rollers from a beauty supply house. Invented by Pat Thomas and directions are on her blog.
There are many more posts about how I marble in my blog. You can find them all by clicking on “Marbling” or “Marbled Paper” in the list on the right-hand side.
Here are links to some of them: