papers for marbling

The choice of paper stock is essential to the success of a marbled print, but information on just which paper characteristics and brands to seek out is scarce. Today I’ve assembled twelve different papers to test in the marbling tray and shed a light on this topic! Some of these papers are my studio standards, some I know are favored by other marblers, and some I’ve chosen simply hoping they’ll perform well. While by no means an exhaustive trial, my aim is to find a few reasonably priced medium and heavy weight papers suitable for marbling with both watercolor and acrylic paints, and provide examples of what to look for in selecting and testing paper stock.

watercolor marbling on stonehenge paper

What paper characteristics to seek out

When you’re looking for a paper to marble, it should generally be an absorbent, lightly sized, uncoated stock. This may be a drawing, printmaking, or sketch paper. I’ve found that alpha cellulose, cotton, and recycled fibers tend to work well because they are absorbent but have decent wet strength. I like to print on a medium or heavy weight paper less prone to wrinkling at each stage of the process, but the thickness should be governed by the end use of the marbled sheet.

When judging a marbled sheet, look for even absorption of the pattern, crisp edges to the lines and forms, and good retention of dark colors. Any areas of negative space where the paper shows should rinse clear and bright.

paper test for watercolor marbling

Watercolor Samples

The examples above have been pre-mordanted with 2 teaspoons alum/pint of water, then marbled with watercolor paints.

  • A Super blurry, grainy, and the thin paper has wrinkled badly. This test is on Texoprint, which I know some marblers love, but obviously I haven’t figured out the trick to printing on it

  • B Somewhat blurry and wrinkled, even after pressing

  • C Slightly soft with a vintage look

  • D Lovely sharp edges, strong color retention, and crisp veins showing the clean white of the paper

The majority of the papers I chose to test marbled very nicely with watercolor paints in a medium value range. To really separate the wheat from the chaff, I chose to pattern my acrylic samples with a high contrast pattern. Printing dark or saturated colors next to bright white can be very tricky, and demands a more particular paper stock.

acrylic marbling paper test

Acrylic Samples

  • A Super blurry, grainy, and a fair amount of paint has rinsed off

  • B Somewhat streaky

  • C A bit of residual paint in white areas

  • D Sharp edges, high contrast, and crisp veins showing the clean white of the paper

The Results

Based on these examples, the following heavy weight papers are suitable for marbling in a moderate value range:

  • Classic Crest

  • Crane’s Lettra

  • Stonehenge

Theses papers are the best choices I’ve found for printing all patterns, including high contrast or extremely saturated designs:

  • Neenah Environment

  • Mohawk Superfine

  • Royal Sundance

I was impressed by the multiple size and weight options for this second group of papers, all at a very reasonable price point, as well as the option to choose post-consumer recycled fibers. Do note that to make a very saturated print, the paper may need to be left on the size longer than usual, about 30-60 seconds.

Most of the papers I chose to test are lightly textured and bright white. Of course there are many lovely toned and textured papers that also marble beautifully, with the base color or texture underlaying and unifying the pattern.

This is certainly not an exhaustive trial, and the availability of the recommended papers may be limited. There are many wonderful papers yet to try, and a perfect paper for every application. Please use the guidelines above to assist you in choosing your own papers for marbling, and feel free to comment here with your results!

Material Resources

spring + summer workshops 2019

Registration for spring and summer workshops is now open, including new courses on color theory and organic pigments! There are lots of offerings in NYC including a full week of Adult Summer Camp, and I’ll be hitting the road to teach student favorites and new syllabi in Tennessee, New Jersey, and western Massachusetts. New courses are listed below, and you can check out the full list and click through to registration here.

adult summer camp: from plant to pigment

Fabric Marbling

One-day Intensive
BareHands Artisans, Belmar New Jersey
Saturday, April 27

Fabric marbling is a wonderful blend of monotype printing, repeat pattern development, and color play! In this intensive one-day workshop students will learn the fundamentals of marbling, including how to select materials and manipulate the chemistry of the marbling tray. We’ll discuss the history behind European marbled decoration as we explore traditional techniques and combed patterns. Students will then develop their own palette and style to create a suite of designs on cotton and silk to take home with them.

Color Theory

After Workshop
Textile Arts Center, Manhattan
Tuesday, May 7

This course will inspire and inform students to get creative with color! Whether you don’t know the basics or your palette is burned out, we’ll awaken your color sense with a discussion of color theory and materiality. Each student will assess their color preferences and learn how to extrapolate their favorite color harmonies into endless palettes. An overview of pigments, dyes, and binders will give students a springboard for applying theory to practice.

Paper Marbling: Color Play

Snow Farm
Williamsburg, Massachusetts
May 11 - 12
room and board available

Marbling is a delighting blend of monotype printing, repeat pattern development, and color play. In addition to the fundamentals of paper marbling, this course will focus on color theory, the properties of various paints, and how to create unique color stories. Discussions on the history of European marbling will accompany explorations of traditional techniques, combed patterns, and troubleshooting. Students will develop their own palette and style to create a suite of designs to take home.

Bundle Dyeing with Botanicals

One-day Intensive
BareHands Artisans, Belmar New Jersey
Sunday, July 21

Join us for a relaxing and vivid afternoon of bundle dyeing to extract color and pattern from plants. Students will imprint fabric with the botanical dyes of petals, leaves, and roots. We’ll reveal the wealth of color hidden in common dye plants such as coreopsis, marigold, and cosmos. After dyeing a few swatches in a variety of colors, each student pattern their own silk scarf with this fun, ecologically friendly, and aromatherapeutic way to explore botanical color.

From Plant to Pigment: Natural Dye Explorations

Adult Summer Camp
Textile Arts Center, Manhattan
July 22 - 26
10:30 - 1:30, with extended open studio access

This 5 day intensive course delves into the world of beautiful, accessible, and sustainable natural dyes. Students will learn the basics of selecting and preparing fibers, and extracting color from a variety of fresh and dried plants. Special attention will be paid to the selection of mordants for lasting color in textiles and works on paper. After getting familiar with the best practices of natural dyeing, we’ll explore print and pattern opportunities. We’ll also produce handmade inks and lake pigment watercolors. This process of transforming the dye baths into lake pigments stabilizes and preserve the dyes for future projects and uses up every drop of natural color.

Class structure: Class will meet with the instructor Monday through Friday from 10:30am-1:30pm. This course encourages students to get creative and develop their artwork independently, with extended open studio hours after each class session. Your focus may be building a comprehensive swatch library, tackling a big project, or pure experimentation. On Friday evening from 7-9pm students are invited to share their work with the public during a show and tell session.

Natural Dyeing for Book and Paper Artists

Arrowmont School of Arts and Crafts
Gatlinburg, Tennessee
August 4 - 10
room and board available

This workshop introduces students to sustainable sources of color as they extract and fix natural dyes to paper, fabric and thread. You will discover the historical and material sympathy between natural dyes and traditional bookbinding fibers and pay special attention to the use of mordants for lasting color. After applying color and pattern to book materials, participants will move to the bindery to create structures featuring the dyed elements. Students will depart with thorough knowledge of the best practices of natural dyeing, the beginnings of a swatch library, and handmade books incorporating myriad botanical hues.

itajime folds

When I teach indigo and shibori dyeing courses, I make certain to include some basic itajime folds for students to experiment with. This Japanese resist dyeing technique involves folding fabric into a grid of repeating geometric shapes and applying clamps, which creates a beautiful tessellating pattern after dipping or submerging in dye. We usually learn three patterns in class, but I recently discovered a fold new to me, with the help of a student! Before sharing it here, I’ll give a quick overview of the basics.

itajime: six pointed star

Each of the itajime patterns begins in the same way, with an accordion fold to pleat the fabric into a long thin rectangle. The easiest pattern, sankaku, repeats the accordion fold in the opposite direction, making a grid of squares or rectangles.

The other three patterns I’m familiar with rely on pleated triangles. Below is a reminder of the geometry I’ll be referencing. Whichever of these patterns you are making, it helps to be as precise as possible when folding your fabric. This will give you a uniform pattern the dye can evenly penetrate. I recommend practicing with a piece of scrap paper before folding fabric. Then you can choose to fold your wet fabric, or iron it into crisp shapes before wetting and dyeing. I find it easier to flip the paper over after each step when learning a new pattern, but once I’m comfortable with the steps and move to fabric I hold it in one spot and pile the folds up on top of one another.

remember triangles?

The lattice pattern, gōshi, is made with a pleated right triangle (just like spanakopita, but with an accordion fold). This creates a grid of squares with diagonal lines running through them.

The tortoiseshell pattern, kikkō, is made of tessellating equilateral triangles. Together these triangles form a grid of hexagons. See in the diagram below that the first fold A forms only half of the equilateral triangle, which is a right triangle with its sharpest point nestled in the corner of the pleated rectangle. The fabric is flipped over and the second fold B creases at what is now the obtuse angle, aligning A exactly with one side of the pleated rectangle. The equilateral triangle continues in an accordion fold with no more half-triangles.

tortoiseshell itajime

tortoiseshell itajime

My new favorite fold is one that I cannot find mentioned in the texts I have on itajime. It creates a six pointed star just like the hemp leaf pattern I’ve seen in stitched shibori, asa-no-ha. This pattern begins with the same fold A as the previous, creating a right triangle. Fold B creases on the acute angle of the reverse, forming a long thin isosceles triangle.

hemp leaf itajime

hemp leaf itajime

Together folds C and D form only half of the isosceles triangle, then E and F continue with the full triangle. Every fold flexes at the acute angle, so keep it precise. This pattern has a very large repeat, so you’ll want a big piece of fabric to show off the full pattern.

hemp leaf itajime

hemp leaf itajime

I’ve tried my best with the diagrams, but there is no better way to figure this one out than by attempting it!


Further resources:

alum quantity for fabric marbling

In recent posts I’ve looked into the types of alum and the quantity necessary for marbling paper; now let’s turn to fabric marbling. There are a lot of different recipes for mordanting fabric prior to marbling, but with my natural dyeing experience to guide me, I’d like to share my method.

alum quantity for fabric marbling

Remember that alum is the compound most commonly used to mordant both fabric and paper. It bonds readily and permanently to other molecules, creating a link between fiber and marbling pigment. Our aim in mordanting is to evenly apply an alum solution to our fabric before marbling, just enough for a permanent print.

Fiber preparation

Firstly, choose an absorbent natural fiber or blend for your fabric. Thoroughly wash the fabric to remove any starch, sizing, or dirt from its surface - these will impede both the mordant and marbling from being absorbed.

Mordanting by weight

Using a metric baker’s scale, weigh your dry fabric (this can be done before washing).

  • For plant fibers (cotton, linen, bamboo, ramie, hemp) or fiber blends, measure alum equal to 15% of the weight of your dry fabric.

  • For animal fibers (silk), measure alum equal to 8% of the weight of your dry fabric.

Fill a clean container with enough warm water for your fabric to swim freely. This can be a bucket, plastic storage container, or your bathtub. Add the alum to the water, stirring until it is completely dissolved. Lower your fabric into the alum solution, swishing it around to release air bubbles. Leave the fabric to soak for 40-60 minutes, stirring every 15 minutes for even absorption.

Empty your mordanting container and fill with fresh water. Rinse your fabric 1-2 times by wafting it through the water to remove excess alum.

Hang the fabric to dry. Mordanted fabric may be stored for up to 6 months before use. Iron with steam before marbling.

Mordanting by volume

If you don’t have a baker’s scale, you may choose to mordant by volume instead of weight. It’s not quite as scientific for large amounts of fabric, but it works well for small projects.

Find a container large enough for your fabric to be fully submerged and swim freely when it is unfurled. Fill this with warm water, measuring as you go. For every quart of water, add 1 1/2 teaspoons of alum (that’s 2 tablespoons/gallon). Stir until the alum is completely dissolved, then lower your fabric into the alum solution. Swish it around to release air bubbles and leave the fabric to soak for 20 minutes.

Empty your mordanting container and fill with fresh water. Rinse your fabric 1-2 times by wafting it through the water to remove excess alum that is not bonded to the fabric.

Hang the fabric to dry. Mordanted fabric may be stored for up to 6 months before use. Iron with steam before marbling.

The dangers of poor mordanting

I’ve seen recipes calling for as much as 1 1/4 cups alum (20 tablespoons) per gallon of water. That’s a lot. The problem with mixing a very strong mordant solution by following a heavy-handed recipe or failing to follow any recipe whatsoever may not be immediately evident. But some problems might arise:

  • Alum is slightly acidic. You can over-mordant your fabric by mixing a very strong alum solution or leaving the fabric to soak too long. Over time, that acidity causes the fibers to become brittle and break apart. If your marbled fabrics feel very dry or brittle, or if they tear during washing or sewing, they are likely over-mordanted.

  • I’ve read that alum ‘eats’ or ‘decomposes’ fabric, and it should never be mordanted more than a few days prior to marbling. This is true only if you over-mordant and thus leave your fabric in an acidic state. Following a decent recipe will allow you to mordant fabric months in advance of marbling with no detriment.

  • Failing to rinse your fabric after mordanting can leave it with excess alum sitting on the surface that is not bonded to the fibers. If the un-rinsed fabric dries with any wrinkles, that alum can pool in the creases and give you a streaky print.

  • Fabrics that have not been rinsed can deposit excess alum into the size, degrading it over the course of multiple prints. Or worse, your print may bond to the layer of alum sitting on the surface of the fabric, then flake off during rinsing.

Unfortunately fabric that is over-mordanted cannot be saved; alum forms permanent bonds and cannot be removed. If you have a batch of fabric exhibiting any of the issues above, best scrap it and start fresh. Small amounts of mordanted natural fiber fabrics (not yet printed) can be torn into thin strips and added to the compost.


Further Reading

fabric marbling with watercolors

I’ve been marbling fabric with acrylic paints for several years, but must ask the question: Is it possible to marble fabric with watercolor paints? This question has arisen for a few reasons:

  • Historically, all water-based marbling was accomplished with watercolor or gouache paints formulated from natural pigments and binders. The colors of the historical, natural palette are subtle but pleasing.

  • Examples do exist of cloth marbled with watercolor paints, notably the cover of Charles Woolnaugh’s 1853 book The Art of Marbling. Hand marbled book cloth was produced beginning in the 1830s as a durable, inexpensive alternative to leather.

  • In search of the most ecologically sustainable practice, nontoxic naturally-derived watercolor paints are a great option. Together with carrageenan size, natural ox gall, and natural fiber fabrics they make a biodegradable toolkit.

  • Watercolor paints have a noticeably longer drying time and do not posses some of the quirks that give acrylics a different visual and working character.

Acrylic paints, made from synthetic pigments and a polymer binder, were first developed in the mid-20th century. They are water soluble when wet, but dry to a water-resistant plastic film. Most contemporary literature recommends acrylic paints such as Golden Fluid acrylics, Jacquard Dye-Na-Flow, Jacquard Marbling Colors, or Boku Undo inks (made with a PVA binder) for marbling fabric. The fabric must be pre-mordanted, and some sources recommend heat setting or curing the fabric after marbling to increase washfastness. Some marblers also add a binder designed for applications on fabric, such as Golden GAC 900, which requires heat setting. The color saturation, water-resistance, and flexibility of acrylic paints makes them a great option for fabric marbling. However, acrylics leave a slightly plastic hand on delicate fabrics, and they are not the most environmentally friendly choice.

watercolor marbling

We know that watercolor paints can be used to marble fabric, but how do they compare to acrylics? Marbled fabric was historically used primarily for book cloth, which requires durability but not washfastness. Continuing my informal marbling experiments, I tested both watercolor and acrylic paints on fabric for washfastness.

Process

Mordanted silk and cotton samples were marbled with watercolor and acrylic paints. One swatch was held back as a control, and a second swatch was run through the washing machine and dryer on a normal setting twice. I would usually hand wash or launder marbled fabric on delicate, and always line dry! But for the sake of this experiment, I chose to accelerate the wear and tear marbled fabrics are exposed to over repeated washings.

marbled silk samples

marbled silk samples

  • 1A Watercolor paint on silk

  • 1B Watercolor paint on silk after washing

  • 2A Acrylic paint on silk

  • 2B Acrylic paint on silk after washing

The watercolor paints printed beautifully. The slightly less saturated palette is due to my choice of historical pigments. But it is clearly evident that watercolor paints are not durable enough to withstand laundering. While the acrylic sample 2B has suffered somewhat in washing, watercolor sample 1B is much the worse for wear.

marbled cotton samples

marbled cotton samples

  • 3A Watercolor paint on cotton

  • 3B Watercolor paint on cotton after washing

  • 4A Acrylic paint on cotton

  • 4B Acrylic paint on cotton after washing

If anything, the results on cotton are more extreme. While the laundered acrylic sample 4B has faded only slightly, watercolor sample 3B has nearly vanished.

A note on heat setting

In natural dyeing, we often heat set dyed fabrics to catalyze bonding between the dye colorants and mordant. I had hoped that heat setting watercolor marbled fabric might likewise facilitate permanent bonding to the mordanted cloth. However, watercolor swatches heat set by ironing showed no discernible increase in washfastness in this experiment.

My recommendation

Watercolor marbling is perfectly adequate for fabrics that do not require laundering. Choose an absorbent fabric, then scour, mordant, rinse, dry, and iron it prior to marbling. Heat setting or curing the print is not necessary for fabric that will not be washed or subject to much abrasion (but it certainly doesn’t hurt).

Based on this experiment, watercolor marbling is not recommended for fabrics that need even infrequent washing.

Acrylic paints are the best choice currently available for water-based washfast marbling on fabric. To make your prints as durable as possible, choose an absorbent fabric, then scour, mordant, rinse, dry, and iron it prior to marbling. After marbling, very gently rinse the print to remove excess pigment and size. Hang to dry thoroughly. Iron to heat set acrylic paints following the manufacturer’s instructions, or allow to cure for 1-2 weeks. You may now choose to wash the printed fabric with a fabric softener to give it a soft hand.

Always wash marbled fabrics by hand or treat as delicate, and line dry. Even the most permanent marbled prints are subject to fading if washed often or treated roughly, as the fibers supporting the print are gradually broken down.

As always, please be in touch to share your marbling experience, recommendations, and resources!

overmarbling

An overmarble or double marble is created by printing over the top of one marbled design with a second print, allowing the two to commingle. These can be very beautiful and subtle designs, often relying on a lot of negative space or transparency in the second pattern for the first to peek through. Overmarbling can be risky- the second design can save a shabby print, or ruin an excellent print. Below is a lovely example by Don Guyot held by the University of Washington Libraries Special Collections, showing the first pattern alone and with the second laid over top:

Don Guyot double marble, University of Washington Libraries, Special Collections

Don Guyot double marble, University of Washington Libraries, Special Collections

I’ve read that overmarbling requires a second mordanting between the first and second prints, but I’ve have mixed results when overmarbling fabric. Continuing with my experiments into alum and alum quantity, I decided to test the assertion that a second mordanting is required for a double print.

Process

Using 1.5 teaspoons alum per pint warm water, I pre-mordanted paper and pressed it between blotting papers for 1 hour. After the first print with watercolor paints, the paper was rinsed, dried, and pressed again. Sample A was printed with a second design immediately, and Sample B was given a secondary mordanting and pressing before printing again.

overmarble with watercolor paints

overmarble with watercolor paints

  • A Preliminary mordanting only

  • B Preliminary mordanting & secondary mordanting prior to second print

As you can see, Sample B was able to absorb and retain much more of the second print than Sample A. While both are reasonably attractive designs, it is much preferable to have the control offered by a second mordanting in order to strategize the transparency and negative space in the second design.

It seems that, because alum readily bonds permanently with other compounds, it fixes a thin layer of paint and size to the paper with the first print. Gentle washing rinses off the excess, but even in areas of negative space a film of carrageenan remains bonded to the alum. This will hinder the second print from bonding, leaving only a faint image.

My recommendation: After the first print, gently rinse, dry, re-mordant, and press before each subsequent print. Follow a recipe when mixing your mordant solution to avoid overly acidifying your paper. I’ve made overmarbled designs four prints deep with this technique. With each re-wetting the paper is more likely to become damaged, cockled, or generally misbehave, so apply mordant and take prints very carefully.

Overmarbling Fabric

Double prints or double sided prints can be made on fabric in the same way. A double sided print on a light, diaphanous fabric has the lovely appearance of a double marble. Sometimes the second print will transfer beautifully without re-mordanting, particularly if it’s printed on the reverse of the fabric, which did not come into direct contact with the size. But to avoid the frustration of a sadly pale print, I recommend re-mordanting between prints on fabric as well as paper.

Remember, wet fabric cannot absorb a marbled print, it must be thoroughly dried and ironed between prints.

double sided silk scarf

double sided silk scarf

Note: Suminagashi

If you are creating suminagashi designs on washi, mordanting is not needed for the first or any subsequent prints! Washi is so absorbent it doesn’t require alum to fix the pattern. However, suminagashi on fabric does require the same mordanting steps as above.

maya blue recipe

After discussing Indigo as Pigment, I’ve had a lot of requests to share the process for making Maya blue. This recipe is based on the research of Michel Garcia, whose Natural Dye Workshop DVD series I recommend. To make Maya blue pigment at home, only two ingredients and a few tools are required.

  • Botanical indigo powder: This can be store-bought or home processed, and must be thoroughly dry and finely ground.

  • Clay substrate: Sepiolite, palygorskite or attapulgite will absorb the indigo when heated. You can purchase small jars here, or larger amounts here. If your clay is granulated of foraged it must be finely ground.

  • Mortar and pestle for grinding: This must be dedicated to crafts only, never food.

  • Dust mask: These types of clay can be irritating.

  • Small pot: Likewise dedicated to crafting.

  • Mulling slab and muller: For extra finely grinding the finished pigment and mixing paint.

grinding sepiolite clay

grinding sepiolite clay

Make certain that none of your tools have any water on them, as even a drop will spoil the reaction. After finely grinding, weigh 10 parts clay and 1 part indigo powder. I have used 30 grams sepiolite and 3 grams indigo. Combine these in a small pot and heat over a medium low flame.

Over the course of a few minutes, you will see the two powders combine and turn a uniform blue color. At 356 degrees Fahrenheit the indigo sublimates to a gas, bypassing the liquid phase, and is immediately absorbed by the clay. Remove the pot from heat and allow to cool. The color will have a violet tinge when hot, but turn turquoise as is cools. You now have Maya blue pigment, indigo locked inside and stabilized by the clay.

maya blue recipe
  • A Weighed indigo and sepiolite

  • B Mixed indigo and sepiolite before heating

  • C Mixture after heating: Maya blue!

Maya blue pigment may be stored indefinitely. To use as paint it must be finely ground with a mortar and pestle followed by mulling with a binder to mix the paint of your choice. Check out Kremer Pigments and Kama Pigments course offerings and videos to learn how to prepare your own watercolor, egg tempera, or oil paints.

mulling maya blue watercolor

mulling maya blue watercolor