A Bit Of Marbling History

The art of marbling (or marbleizing) was started in the 1100's, either in Turkey or Persia, though the earliest marbled papers still in existence are Turkish ones from the 1400's. They were used for decorative purposes, and also as a background for official documents and signatures, to prevent erasure and forgery. The art was taken to Western Europe by the crusaders, and by the 1600's, France and the Netherlands had become well known for the quality of their papers. Their marbling became an essential part of bookbinding, with the papers being placed on the inside covers of all fine books, which is still one of the main uses of marbling today. The intricate patterns of the papers were used to cover the folds, strings, and glue marks of the bindings, and also to serve as an aesthetic transition from the dark leather covers to the white pages inside. The marblers' guilds were separate from the bookbinders' guilds, who were forever spying on the marblers, trying to discover the techniques of marbling to avoid the high cost of their papers. So for centuries, the marblers often had to do their work at night in secret laboratories, behind locked doors, and hardly anyone could hope to learn the art unless he was born into a marbling family. Even then, most apprentices weren't trusted with all the marbling formulas until they were into their 30's or 40's. 

As populations grew and became more educated, books were printed in ever larger mass quantities and also became cheaper, which inevitably meant fine bindings and marbled endpapers would soon become a thing of the past. By the 1890's, the art was considered quaint and old-fashioned, and was actually on the verge of death. At last a few of the remaining marblers started publishing their precious centuries-old family marbling methods and formulas, lest they be lost for all time. (Yes, these were the books I had to learn from.) And now, suddenly, 100 years later, (because of those of us who hung in there and taught the rest of the world), there are more practitioners of this beautiful art than ever before in history, though there are still very few who make a full-time living at it; most people do it at home as a hobby. There have actually been several International Marblers' Gatherings in the past decade, mostly in the U.S., though one was held in the summer of 1997 in Istanbul, Turkey, where it all started and where it never really died out -- a few wonderful marblers still work there using the ancient handed-down formulas.

Marbling Today

Marbling is a fun art; there is such an infinite variety of patterns and color combinations that it never gets boring. Even after doing it for over 30 years, I frequently amaze myself by coming up with new designs I never thought of before, and perhaps nobody else ever has either. And it's a fairly cheap artform too; the necessary supplies aren't nearly as expensive or as extensive as those needed for many other arts. It can be done in a garage or a small art studio or work room, or even (on a small scale) in a kitchen. 

Besides bookbinding, marbled papers can be used for picture framing, placemats, notecards, desk sets, collages, origami, lampshades, and for covering just about anything such as boxes and cans. Marbling on fabric was never very satisfactory until recent years, until the development of acrylic paints. The traditional marbling inks were just not durable enough to stand up to washing. Now, though, fine marbling can be done just as easily on cloth as on paper with these new paints, and modern colors are much more vivid and brilliant and long-lasting than ever in the past. The best fabrics to use are natural fibers, such as cotton and silk, since they will absorb the color better than artificial fibers. 

No, this type of marbling is not the same thing as faux marbre, or faux finishes (false marble). The faux techniques are used for painting a marble-like surface directly onto a wall, column, or piece of furniture, using sponges, feathers, and paintbrushes. A good, realistic faux finish takes a lot of work and skill, and is a very fine and beautiful art when done well, but that technique really has very little in common with paper and fabric marbling. The traditional kind of marbling, such as I do, works best on a flat surface such as paper or cloth, or even leather, smooth wood, or flat tiles, since the object has to be laid into a shallow tank of floating colors. It could be hard to do that with a building column. 

Actually, very few of the traditional paper marbling patterns even look much like marble at all. Some of the simplest patterns can look quite marble-like if the colors used aren't too weird, but really the majority make no pretence at resembling slabs of rock -- so the name "marbling" is somewhat a misnomer. Many marbling patterns have fanciful names like Peacock, Thistle, Fountain, Cathedral, Spanish Wave, Italian Vein, French Curl, Bird Wing, Whale Tail, Frog Foot, Fantasy Moiré, and Dragons in the Sky, though some have names that really don't tell you much at all about how the pattern looks, such as Gloucester, Stormont, Nonpareil, Gel-git, and Suminagashi. 

(How Marbling is Done).