Tag Archives: mistakes

Interesting Carrageenan Disaster

I’ve been marbling on a regular basis for seven or eight years now and I’ve never had problems with my carrageenan until last summer. Problems with paint, with paper, with alum, but I didn’t even think about the carrageenan; it was always reliable. Last summer I had minor problems with it starting to break down after only a day or two, but I blamed it on the heat and moved on.  Last week, I finally had time for my first marbling session in months and I was already to go when I hit a real stopper.

It went like this.  The night before, I set up my marbling space, hung my drying lines, chose my paints, mixed the alum and mixed the carrageenan, just as I always do.  Two and a half Tbsp. to a gallon of water, two gallons in all.  I use distilled water because I have an incredible amount of stuff – iron, calcium, sulfur, and more – in my well water.  As usual, I used the same blender to mix it and poured it into my marbling tray to sit overnight.

The next morning, I alummed some paper, mixed my paints and was ready to go. As soon as I skimmed the carrageenan, I could tell something was different. It was much thicker than it should have been and was very uneven. Using a stylus and my rake, I swirled them through the tray to try to even up the liquid.  I decided to throw some paint to see what would happen and this is what I got:

I rather like the wildness in the first two pieces, but it’s not exactly marbling!  As you might imagine, I was getting upset as skimming and stirring didn’t seem to help. Slowly I realized that there were big lumps of carrageenan throughout the tray and that was the problem. I thought about putting the carrageenan through the blender again or just tossing this batch and starting fresh the next day.  I tried breaking the lumps with the rakes and that helped and I found that dragging the comb from the top of the tray to the bottom caught the lumps in the tines, so I started straining out the lumps and bit by bit the carrageenan became smoother and smoother.

As I got rid of the lumps, marbling improved, but it was still very iffy.  I was able to pull some pretty good pieces, but I was still straining lumps out after every skim.  That created a problem of its own.  It was thinning out the remaining carrageenan and, instead of crisp marbling edges, I was getting very soft fuzzy borders.  I did finish up that day, but that night I took out an old packet of carrageenan from a different source and mixed a new batch for the next morning.

I still don’t really know why this disaster occurred.  It could have been that I lost count and added an extra Tsbp. It could have been mixed too little or too much. It could have been due to cold temperatures that night. It could have been some contamination in the carrageenan powder.  I just don’t know, but it was very frustrating!

Next morning I had brand new carrageenan and a brand new tray and marbling went well. In fact things were going so well that I kept on for another three days and I had lots of fun playing with overmarbling, ripples and got back in touch with marbling just for fun. Lots of pictures of my play.

In total I had almost 100 pieces – good, bad and indifferent – by the end of the session.

Now, I want to do it again!

But, before that, I have to have a bunch of plumbing replaced right over my work area.

NOTE:  Clear acrylic frames come in many sizes and make great, inexpensive marbling trays. Just remember to test how well they hold water before using.  If they leak, plumber’s Goop or other sealant will seal the edges.


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I’ve just updated my page on Building a Scrapbook and tomorrow, the books should be finished.


Textblock is placed inside cover

Textblock is placed inside cover

I’ve also written a bit more in the Problems of the Marbling Kind about paint

Getting the paints balanced perfectly with your size can be very tricky.  One of the most obvious problems is having the paint contract into a tiny ball and drop to the bottom of your tray.  This happens when the paint is too thick or heavy in relation to the size.  The solution is usually to add more water to the paint, a few drops at a time.  Alternatively, a surfactant can be added to the paint.  … for more see above link.

Silver granulation

Silver granulation

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Problem Encounters of the Marbling Kind

One of the most satisfying experiences I have when I’m marbling is hanging a finished sheet and realizing it is perfect.  It doesn’t happen as frequently as I’d like, but it does happen.  There are so many things that can go wrong and so many variants that sometimes it’s hard to figure out where the problem occurred. After all the papers are dry at the end of a marbling session, the first thing I do is to sort my papers into piles – saleable,  usable, disaster and that rarity, perfect.

For my own clarification and maybe to help new marblers, I am going to try to look at the places where marbling can go wrong and maybe how to fix it. This will probably take several blogs and may be interspersed with other commentary.

First comes the paper. You can marble almost any kind of paper, but the results will vary. I’ve only had two total disasters. The first was a very slick brochure, both the alum and paint tended to slide off . Some color did stick, but it was very messy.  Slick magazine pages are very iffy, they might work, but they might not. The second wipeout was a heavy “cloth-like” paper napkin.  It lay down on the tray well, but just wasn’t strong enough to hold the paint.  When I lifted it from the marbling tray, it shredded.

Different weight papers may require slightly different techniques. I tend to catch bubbles on heavier papers because they don’t roll down as smoothly. If I switch paper weights, I find I have problems with the first ones until I get into the right rhythm. With anything that doesn’t bend, like mat board, I dunk the starting corner to keep the rest going smoothly. Antique paper, like pages from 19th century books, can be marbled if you handle it gently. It may need to be laid flat on a towel to dry, rather than being hung. Hanging weak paper, of any age, may tear the corners. Although I always rinse my marbling before hanging, I’ve found that a residue of carrageenan remains on the paper  which seems to strengthen old paper. Another quirk I’ve noticed is that slightly acidic paper seems to produce brighter and crisper marbling. Almost all the the new paper I buy is acid-free, but I have stashes of print and watercolor paper that belonged to my Mother and they all have some acid content, as do the maps and book pages I use.

For my standard marbling, I use Strathmore or Canson drawing paper. For use in my books, I try to stay within the 90gsm to 120gsm range.  For cards, I use standard card stock.  I have some lovely pieces on very heavy weight paper, but haven’t figured out a use for them yet, other than framing! When I need a large colored paper, I use Pastel paper, either Strathmore or Canson Mi-Teintes.

I’ve read many times that you should not use grocery store alum for marbling, but only buy that expressly labeled for marbling.  Guess what? They are right.  I had to try some from a bulk food store that was just labeled “alum”, not “pickling alum”.  It did work, but I had a lot more papers that had alum streaks than usual.
Problems with alum are pretty easy to spot. If there are grainy, greyish spots or spots where there is washed out color, it’s probably due to an incomplete application of alum. The predominate problem I’ve had with alum, however, is user generated. I use the non-alumed side by mistake.

I’ve had few problems related to the carrageenan overall.  The proportions are important as is the blending time.  I use 2.5 Tbs. per gallon of water and blend for at least one minute. (I have very hard well water so I use bottled distilled water. Most people can use tap water.) It can last for up to a week, but I did have one batch that started breaking down after two days.  Sometimes it is hard to distinguish between a paint problem, a carrageenan problem and general contamination.  In one particular case, I’m pretty sure it was just the carrageenan, because I mixed a new batch and the next day the same paint was fine. Contamination in the tray can usually be solved by a good skimming.  Just be careful to skim only on the top. If you dip too far into the carrageenan, you risk recirculating all sorts of bad stuff that has sunk to the bottom of the tray. Since all marbling takes place only on the top surface, what’s underneath can’t hurt, usually.  You can tell that the carrageenan is “worn out” if the problems affect all the colors. It also seems to manifest with globs with squarish sides rather than the rounder dots from paint problems.  The only solution for over-used carrageenan is to toss it and start again.
By the way, dirty carrageenan is Okay. In fact, it seems to work better after having a bit of paint in it.

UPDATE:  See my blog on “An Interesting Carrageenan Disaster” for a real problem I encountered.  In hindsight, I think I must have mismeasured the carrageenan and added an extra tablespoon.


If you are planning to do a lot of marbling or marbling something special, it pays to start with quality paint.  I use Golden Fluid Acrylics because of their high pigment to carrier ratio. That means more intense colors even when the paint is thinned. They come in a wide range of colors and in several size bottles. Start with the 1 oz. size.  When you are using paint one drop at a time, you can do a lot of papers with 1 oz. Since you want the paint to float easily, avoid any “heavy body” paints. You should also avoid any paints meant for children. The cheaper paints have less pigment and can be unevenly blended causing problems for marblers.

Getting the paints balanced perfectly with your size can be very tricky.  One of the most obvious problems is having the paint contract into a tiny ball and drop to the bottom of your tray.  This happens when the paint is too thick or heavy in relation to the size.  The solution is usually to add more water to the paint, a few drops at a time.  Alternatively, a surfactant can be added to the paint.  I use Golden’s Acrylic Flow Release. Photo-Flo from Kodak can be used and marbling gall is used with watercolors.  Getting colors to spread instead of drop is usually just a matter of patience and trial and error.  I haven’t found a solution to the opposite problem, when a single drop of paint fills the entire tray! Reds and yellows are especially prone to spreading. To reduce the spread, you can try to add more paint, but I’ve found it’s easier just to start over with fresh paint and add water just a drop at a time until you have the right consistency.  I always mix very small amounts of paint to start so I don’t feel badly if I have to throw some out. Unlike painting, marbling is a matter of drops, not huge amounts.

Some paint will always drop out, at least it always does for me, but at the end of a session, the bottom of your tray should not be coated with a build-up of paint. Some scattered drops are normal.

A common problem I have is the paint granulating or stretching apart into tiny particles. This is especially noticeable when using metallics, but it happens with other colors. I haven’t found a real cure yet, but repeated stirring seems to help keep the pigments in suspension.  Just don’t stir so vigorously that you make bubbles. They are a real pain to eliminate.

If you click on the photos and examine the larger size, you can see where the paint has begun to break down. The finer I make the lines in the pattern, the more break down occurs. In some instances, like the silver and blue, the effect is gossamer, sparkly strands; in others, it is just a mess! The less you manipulate the colors, the less break down.


Of course the most frequent source of problems is just me, especially in laying down the paper. All sorts of messes can occur, but air bubbles caught between the paper and the size are my most frustrating problem.  I have a gorgeous pattern in the tray and then a big bubble ruins it.

Hesitation lines are another problem I have on a regular basis. The lines occur when your paper isn’t placed on the paint in a smooth motion. Where you hesitate or jerk your hands, a line of paint forms.  This can be a desired result when you are making a ripple or moire pattern. I frequently have problems with the last corner and there’s a little line right there.  Hesitation lines are one of the reasons I don’t usually work with paper larger than 14″ x 17″. I’m short, my arms are short and stretching over a larger tray with longer paper results in lots of dips and lines.

More examples to come.

To be continued …


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Playing with Overmarbling

A few weeks ago, I had a marbling session that wasn’t going very well, not really badly, but I just wasn’t thrilled with anything. So, I decided just to have some fun by pulling out some old pieces and seeing if I could make anything out of them. Some were decent, but boring, others  had flaws and a few were disasters that I’m not sure why I even kept! One of my favorite things about marbling is that I never know exactly what a piece will look like when I lift it from the tray.  Will it have a bubble? Will it have a hesitation line? Will it be perfect? Will the colors match what I wanted?

When I overmarble, putting one layer of marbling on top of another, all bets are off.  I can never tell exactly how the two patterns or the two sets of colors will react with each other.  Rarely, I have something amazing, sometimes it’s dreadful, but it’s always interesting.

Here are some before and afters for some of the overmarbling I did.

I want to try this technique on a bunch of other pieces.  One technical note, I forgot that some of my early pieces had been done with watercolors rather than acrylics.  This means that some of the original paint  smudged or washed off when I tried to alum the piece.  I usually use a sponge to alum, but I might have been able to reduce the problem by using a spray bottle.  I now test a corner first to make sure the paint won’t bleed or smear.

In other news, I was finally able to start work on my garden.  I usually have it turned over by mid-April.  It’s May and I’m just starting.  It’s going to be small this year as I still have pickles from last year!  Lots of other outdoor work to be done and not much time.

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There Are Days Like This

Two weeks ago it warmed up enough for me to contemplate descending into my basement, standing on a cement floor and putting my hands into water.  In other words, to do some marbling. I made my carrageenan the night before, set up all the trays, paints and paraphernalia, alummed my paper and dove in. I was planning on doing some large monochromatic sheets, like I had done last year with smaller pieces. Yellow and red were the colors I chose and planned to mix orange. Orange is the only secondary color that I have had consistently good results mixing for marbling.  Those were the plans, anyway!

The first sheet I pulled had some line problems, the second caught a big air bubble, the third developed alum striping — and on and on it went.  I know it had been a long time since I had marbled, but this was ridiculous. Of the eight or ten sheets I pulled that first day, only one or two were good.  On top of that, I wasn’t really happy with the color combinations.  The second day was a bit better, but still way too many sheets that had major flaws so on the third day I threw in the towel on my plans, moved to a smaller tray with smaller paper and grabbed the metallic paints and colored paper.  A background color can disguise a lot of problems!  Things started going more smoothly and I began connecting to the marbling, but I was still frustrated.  What I need right now are large perfect sheets, not more small ones. At the end of the session, I started playing.  Maybe that’s where I should have started.  Here are some pictures of the good, the bad and the ugly!

It’s turned really cold (0* to 10* above) again, so I’ll have to wait for another attempt.  Here’s hoping I’ll be right in the grove and pulling perfect sheets every time!

In the meantime, I’ve been playing with some boxes.  They are based on the clamshell box used for rare books and for archival storage. This is the first one I’ve finished.  I’ve inlaid one of the pieces I enameled last year on the cover. The inside is a four-sided box (book boxes only have three sides) lined with black velvet.

I’m planning a lot more of these as I have quite a few enameled pieces and other treasures for the covers.  I just hope people like them!

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Filed under Boxes and Towers, Craft design, Marbled Paper

Marbling Geography

Last March, I blogged about my love of  marbling maps.  Recently I bought a large old atlas in poor shape which I am in the process of unbinding.  The pages are large, about 10″x 14″ for a single page and 20″ x 14″ for a complete double page.  The uncut page is really a bit too large for my marbling trays, so you can see some funky stuff going on at the edges where there is barely enough room to lay the paper down.  Edges can always be trimmed!

Marbling these pages was great fun as well as a challenge.  The colors printed on a map usually give very interesting and sometimes surprising results. This page is a good example of the huge difference color makes.  These maps are on one piece of paper and marbled as one piece.  The right side is a map of the world’s vegetation, colored in browns and greens with the oceans left white.  The map on the left is Great Britain and Ireland with the land areas colored by political subdivisions and with the oceans and seas in blue.

If I’d separated the pages, it would be hard to believe that they were part of the same piece of paper. Although the marbling pattern and colors are exactly the same, the whole feeling is different.  The map of Great Britain also shows how “mistakes” can add interest to maps. The light streak going up from the bottom left is a hesitation line.  By happy accident, the crosses the compass rose and could be a soft beam of light illuminating the map.

Here are some more maps with happy and not so happy accidents!

When I started marbling this paper, I had some trouble getting a smooth “lay down” due to the paper’s size and stiffness.  Consequently, I caught a bunch of bubbles before I mastered the feel of this paper. As you can see, some of these bubbles ruin the piece, some are hard to find and some can be trimmed off.  Most of the rest of the pages were fine technically with different degrees of artistic merit!

I spent the last ten days at the John C. Campbell Folk School in North Carolina and had a great time enameling and learning about historical book structures and trying my hand at some of them.  As soon as I straighten out my photos, I hope to post a blog about my experiences.


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Quick “show and tell” of my last overmarbling

Why is it that when you really want spectacular results the souffle falls? At least it seems that way.  I was hoping that the few overmarbles I did in the last batch would be good demonstrations of how the technique can work.  Instead they are just some more examples of not-quite-hits.  It happens.   Next time …

Anyway I did promise to show you and here are the results, side by side.

Example 1:
The original paper is on the right, overmarbled on the left.

No alumNo alum - over

The original sheet either was missed in the alum process or was flipped and I tried to print on the wrong side.  Most of the pigment and pattern washed off in the water bath.  You can see a few traces of a nonpareil pattern on the left edge.  The remaining pigments left a pale wash over the paper.  The overmarbling used similar color in a wide, looping pattern that gained some resonance from the under pattern, but nothing outstanding. It’s a pleasant piece, but not what I hoped for.

Example 2:

Washed outWashed - over

This original piece was in pale, almost washed-out greens. This photo makes the piece look worse than it was.  It was nice, just rather wishy-washy.  I thought it might be a good candidate. I over marbled it with yellows, burnt sienna and oranges. Unfotunately, the burnt sienna granulated a bit and didn’t give the strong lines I was expecting. The undercoat gives interesting shadows and reflections, but not the “wow” factor.

Example 3:

PurplePurple - over

This piece was quite successful in bringing a rather namby-pamby piece back to life.  I’d had a problem with the yellow in the first piece pushing all the other colors and then disappearing when printed. For the over coat, I used the same colors in the same stone pattern without the yellow and obtained a very nice colorful piece.  This one is the most interesting to try and trace the under and over patterns. If you focus on the black, almost triangular shape a little to the left and above center in the first piece, you can see the same shape in the middle of a large purple stone in the second.  From there, you can trace many of the black veins and colored stones.

Example 4:

Green Green - over

This was my most successful piece of these four.  At least I think so!  The original piece was nice with a little bit of a ripple going on, but it had some flaws that would have made it hard to use.  For the overmarble, I used similar colors, but made them more intense.  I tired to echo the under pattern, without the ripple.  The ripple shows through and gives a very subtle motion to the piece.  The flaws tend to blend into the new patterns and make the piece very usable,

I’m hoping to start another marbling session this weekend and I’m excited to have just received a shipment of lots of new colors in my new paint.

In the meantime, I’m frustrating myself making some more Jacob’s ladders.  Preparing the blocks is a piece of cake.  Threading the ribbons is a whole different matter!  There always seems to be one that is not right – usually the broken rung is in the middle.  Will post more pictures when (and if) I get them right.  Doesn’t matter, I’m having fun.

Later posts on overmarbling:  Playing  Addendum


Filed under Craft design, Marbled Paper