Magical Marbled Paper

Magical Marbled Paper

Bernoulli, Hydrodynamica, 1738 (French Curl pattern)

Bernoulli, Hydrodynamica, 1738 (French Curl pattern)

The Wenner Collection is comprised of brilliant discoveries made by physics pioneers. The contents of the books and journals are invaluable to anyone with an interest in the history of physics. While masterful, the works can be highly technical reads, especially to the layperson. The foreign language works (Latin, French, Italian, German, Swedish, and Russian to name a few) also add a layer of complexity to English readers. As I inventory this Collection, I routinely encounter one element that can be admired without a physics or foreign language background. This element is marbled paper. 

Popular among scientists and natural historians, marbled paper was once thought to have had magical qualities that placed it within the realm of alchemy. Fittingly, this magical paper is interspersed within the Wenner Collection’s scientific texts. While the Collection’s papers primarily depict European patterns from the 19th-century, marbled paper's history extends much further back. Some sources date the paper back to the Ming dynasty however, concrete examples start to appear in Japan around the 12th century.

Marbled paper has taken different names throughout its colorful history. Early Japanese paper marbling, known as suminagashi, roughly translates to floating ink- a delightful description of the marbling process. Turkish marbled paper, known as ebru, roughly translates to cloud art. Ebru served a practical purpose in addition to its aesthetic qualities. Its unique patterning was used to prevent forgery of government documents, as erasure would disrupt the pattern and become highly detectable.

The Marbling Process

Now I know I opened this post declaring,  "Marbled paper can be enjoyed independently from physics!" but that, of course, isn’t true. Physics is an all-encompassing discipline, and even magical marbled paper cannot escape its reach. Phenomena such as Brownian motion, colloidal systems, and capillary action all come into play during the marbling process. 

Richard Wolfe, author of “Marbled Paper: Its History, Techniques, and Patterns” defines the marbling process as:

“...dropping, throwing, or otherwise depositing mineral and vegetable colors upon a watery surface that has been ‘stiffened’ or made slightly thick through the addition of a starchy substance. This additive produces a viscous, less fluid medium which under proper conditions is conducive to the support of colors on its surface. A chemical substance of one sort or another is added to the colors beforehand to help sustain them on the surface by causing them to expand into thin films, and to keep them from commingling with one another. Finally, the resulting color pattern is absorbed onto paper.”

Marbler's studio in the Diderot-D'Alembert Encyclopédie

Marbler's studio in the Diderot-D'Alembert Encyclopédie 

To execute the process, one needs a few basic tools:

1) A marbling trough. This is a receptacle that holds the water, color, and dipped paper sheets.

2) Brushes. These are tools with bristles that drop color in irregular configurations. Brushes create highly concentrated colors. "Beating" and "sprinkling" are two common brush techniques. The beating method involves tapping the brush against a forearm or finger to release the color. The sprinkling method, what I imagine would be Jackson Pollock’s preference, encourages freely shaking the brush.

3) Quills, Styluses, and Pencils. These are tools with precise tips that allow the marbler to drop color with control. These tools distribute color more thinly than brushes.

4) Combs. Combs are long bars with attached teeth. Combs are dragged across the liquid surface to create patterns.

5) Skimmers. Skimmers are thin pieces of wood or paper used to clean the liquid surface of residue after each sheet of paper has absorbed the set pattern.

6) Drying Operations. After draining off excess liquid and color, papers are hung on cords in non-obtrusive locations to fully dry. After drying, vibrant colors are achieved by burnishing the paper.

For the visual learners; there are mesmerizing videos available online where you can watch the tools in action.

Now that we have had a brief introduction marbled paper, let's identify some patterns! Wolfe’s book is an excellent resource for pattern identification. I also highly recommend the paper patterns collection from the University of Washington. Both sources helped my identification of the Wenner Collection patterns in the image gallery below. Click through each image to enlarge the unique endpapers, pastedowns, and covers.



“Marbled Paper Patterns.” Decorated and Decorative Paper Collection, University Libraries, University of Washington,

Wolfe, Richard J. Marbled Paper: Its History, Techniques and Patterns. University of Pennsylvania Press, 1990.

Image Gallery
About the Author

Sarah Weirich

Sarah Weirich

Sarah Weirich was the library's Metadata Specialist. She earned a B.A. in Art History from St. Mary's College of Maryland and an MLIS from the University of Southern Mississippi. Her work at NBLA involved processing new acquisitions and works to increase the accuracy and accessibility of the library's existing catalog records. One of Sarah's favorite books in the library is The Graphic Work of M.C. Escher. In her spare time, Sarah can be found watering the disturbing number of plants in her apartment.

Caption: M.C. Escher "Relativity" 1953 lithograph

See all articles by Sarah Weirich

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