Take a closer look and you'll detect the telltale signs of motion: tiny waves, graceful swirls and dappling reminiscent of raindrops falling on a pond. In fact, all marbleized patterns begin as paint floating on water. A gentle current is the true artist.
Marbleizing dates to the 12th century, when it was practiced in Japan and possibly China. Called "suminagashi," which means "ink floating" in Japanese, the technique involved using absorbent papers to pick up ink from a water bath. Later, in Europe, tight-lipped guild members who practiced the art and sold their wares veiled the process of marbleizing in secrecy. In the mid-19th century, however, their trade secrets were published, and marbleizing emerged as a popular pastime.
You can use the simple how-to instructions below to make your own rich designs. Marbleize paper to use as stationery and gift wrap -- and for crafts. Try adding distinctive swirls of color to simple wooden objects, such as little heart-shaped boxes to give to someone special. In doing so, you'll be witness to an age-old secret: Elaborate as it appears, marbleizing is easy.
All the supplies you need are available at art-supply and craft stores. You'll need 1/4 pound of alum, a mordant that makes paint adhere to paper; paint brushes; uncoated, nonglossy, medium-weight paper, or wooden objects such as boxes; clothesline and clothespins; an iron; one bottle absorbent ground gesso, for priming wooden objects only; liquid acrylic paints, up to five colors; 1/2 pound methyl cellulose, a thickening agent; a whisk; two shallow 14-by-16-inch baking pans (use larger pans if you are using larger sheets of paper) or trays (such as photo-developing trays); a knitting needle or skewer; and a rake, made by sandwiching toothpicks taped at 1/4- to 1-inch intervals between layers of corrugated cardboard).
To prepare the surface for paper, dissolve 2 tablespoons of alum in 2 cups warm water. Mark one side of the paper with a pencil, then brush that side with the alum mixture. (The pencil markings will indicate which side you prepared; the solution will dry clear.) Hang on a clothesline for about one hour to dry. When it's dry, iron sheets on a medium setting to flatten.
For wooden objects, it's easiest to marbleize only one side -- the top of a box, for example -- because multiple dippings can result in messy-looking corners. Prepare that side only by brushing the surface with absorbent ground gesso. (If you want to paint the object first, mix the gesso with acrylic paint). Let dry about one hour, then coat with the alum mixture as described for paper. Let dry.
To mix the marbleizing solution, combine 1/2 cup of methylcellulose with 4 quarts cold water in a bowl, whisking to incorporate powder. When the mixture is free of lumps, let it sit about one hour, stirring at 15-minute intervals until it is syrupy. Pour the liquid into an empty pan.
Thin paints with small amounts of water until they are runny. Dip a brush into your first paint color and hold it over the tray. Tap on the handle with a pencil, letting the paint speckle the mixture. Continue to add paint (use up to five colors), covering as much of the mixture's surface as you like.
Leave the speckles as they are, or for a swirled design move the paint in spirals using a knitting needle or skewer. Or draw the rake through the paint -- first along the width of the tray, then across the length -- to make arches.
To embellish the surface of paper, hold the paper by two corners and lower it (prepared side down) so it floats on top of the solution. Let go of the corners and smooth out any air bubbles with your fingertips. (Air bubbles are inevitable, so don't fret if a few remain.) Let the paper float for a few seconds, then gently lift it from the solution.
For wood, lower the edge of the object onto the surface of the solution, then coat it in one fluid, rocking motion.
Immediately after removing the paper or wooden object from the solution, place it in a pan and pour water over it. Hang paper to dry; place wooden objects on paper towels to dry, marbleized side up. Don't touch until they are dry, usually within two hours.
The solution can be kept in an airtight jar for about a week. To discard, pour the liquid into a resealable plastic bag and throw it away.