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

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

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


marbling patterns: feather

Now we come to some exciting compound patterns in our series of marbling pattern tutorials. These rely on a series of basic patterns repeated one after another. For the most uniform results, use a set of marbling combs and keep your hand steady, with your eyes focused on the movement of just one tine through the pattern in the vat. Of course, you can achieve similar but more organic results by drawing with a stylus. Remember, the diameter of the stylus will impact the line quality, and the spacing of the pattern at each step will influence the outcome, so feel free to play with the scale along the way. And, lastly, remember to take your paper grain into account when planning out the pattern. The feather pattern begins with a getgel, continues with the nonpareil, and is completed with a widely-spaced getgel.

The getgel at left is followed by the nonpareil.

Then follows a widely-spaced getgel (about 3"), perpendicular to the nonpareil pattern.

Having completed the getgel, the nonpareil is now drawn with a stylus or a nonpareil comb.

Perpendicular to the nonpareil stripes, this is followed by widely spaced parallel lines.

In the spaces between these lines, another series of parallel lines are drawn running in the opposite direction.

And the feather pattern is complete!

marbling patterns: nonpareil

Today our series of marbling pattern tutorials brings us to the nonpareil pattern, from the French "without equal". Though truly the nonpareil is not one of my favorites, it is a step towards some further compound patterns whose elegant line quality depend on it. This pattern requires a nonpareil comb, whose tines have 1/8" or 1/4" spacing - but if, like me, you don't have such a comb you may carefully use a stylus. This gives a looser, less static quality to the pattern.

Complete a getgel pattern (at left above), then draw a series of tightly spaced parallel lines perpendicular to it.

The nonpareil pattern begins with a getgel, which may be repeated once or twice for finer lines. Remember before beginning to make a note of your paper grain direction, and do some strategizing so that the completed pattern will be oriented as you wish.

Working perpendicular to the existing pattern, pass your nonpareil comb through the pattern once or draw a series of closely spaced lines with a stylus.

I did not pull a print of this pattern, but continued working on it. However, below are some lovely vintage examples of the nonpareil from the digital collection of the libraries of the University of Washington, which also illustrate the effect of pattern orientation.