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

alum quantity

When preparing paper for marbling, it is pre-mordanted with an alum solution. We discussed the role and varieties of alum in the last post, and let's continue with the question:

How much alum to use?

Marbling instructions vary greatly in the strength of the alum solution recommended to mordant paper. I've seen measurements ranging from 1.5 teaspoons to 5 tablespoons per pint of water. Let's investigate just how much is enough to make a successful print.

What can go wrong?

If too little alum is used, marbled designs made with watercolor or acrylic pigments cannot bond to the paper. Western-style papers used in the European marbling tradition are sized to improve their durability and slow their absorbency. Alum bonded to the surface of mordanted paper is the chemical helping hand essential for linking marbling pigments to the paper fiber, and stabilizing the colors for lightfastness in the long term. Any marbler who has accidentally printed on the unmordanted back side of a sheet is familiar with the disappointment of watching their design wash down the drain with the rinse water, having no alum to hold it fast.

However, if too much alum is used, crystals may build up on the surface of the paper without actually adhering to to the paper fibers. In this case a bit of the excess alum will dissolve into the size as each print is made. If the size becomes polluted with alum, it causes the paint to clump together in a very frustrating way, and must be replaced with fresh size.* If you can feel a buildup of powder on the surface of your paper or see white streaks on colored papers, you are using too much alum.

Additionally, alum is acidic, and using a lot will both waste alum and make the paper overly acidic. Over time, this causes the paper fibers to become brittle and crack apart.

Watercolor Pigments

Watercolor Pigments

Testing Alum Quantity

These samples, excepting sample A, were coated with a wash of aluminum sulfate dissolved in warm water:

  • A no mordant

  • B 1.5 teaspoons/pint

  • C 1 tablespoon/pint

  • D 2 tablespoons/pint

  • E 3 tablespoons/pint

As can be seen in both the watercolor and acrylic tests, unmordanted sample A is comparatively very pale. This was not a surprise, as it has no mordant at all. I was surprised, however, to find no discernible difference the in strength of the colors in samples  B-E. Any quantity of alum from 1.5t - 3T per pint acts as a successful mordant.

Acrylic Pigments

Acrylic Pigments

My recommendation: 1.5 teaspoons alum per pint water

I will continue using 1.5t/pint to mordant papers in future, the amount recommended in the first marbling class I took with Stephen Pittelkow. As alum is slightly acidic, I prefer to put as little as needed on my paper to get the job done. Pre-nineteenth century marblers used potash alum, but nowadays you can mordant with either potassium aluminum sulfate or aluminum sulfate - just mix it with warm tap water to ensure the crystals are fully dissolved. Some marblers soak their paper in a mordant bath, some apply the alum solution with a natural sponge or a spray bottle; I use a wide foam brush. As each sheet is coated I flip it over and pencil an X on the back. The whole stack of wet papers is weighted with a heavy board to stay flat. They can be printed in about half an hour when still slightly damp, or kept up to 4 days. I prefer to print papers within one day of mordanting.

If you've prepared your papers with mordant but the marbled design doesn't adhere, you may be using archival paper coated with calcium. Choose a different paper stock and try again.

*Of course, any mistake can become an interesting pattern when repeated intentionally! Mixing a little bit of alum into your gall water or one color of paint can give an intriguing, crunchy texture to a marbled design.

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.