Pastel, abstract and as fanciful as a cloud, marbled paper was at one time reserved for religious writings because it so enhanced the stately texts. Islamic law forbade its ripping, burning or otherwise unauthorized disposal. Marbled paper, in fact, was sacred.
Marbling is a wet surface finish by which the technician creates patterns similar to those of marble or other rocks. These patterns are made by floating colors of paint or dyes on the surface of water or a resinous solution, (this also known as glazing), and then applying these colors to a sheet of paper or fabric.
This type of ornamentation has been used throughout the centuries to decorate all kinds of surfaces. Each creation has a different layout and gives a unique character to the object it covers.
Although marbled paper, like nearly everything civilized, probably originated in China, the paper art called Suminagashi or “floating inks” has existed since the 12th century in Japan. The artist frugally dropped circles of Chinese ink mixed with gall of ox that floated in a bath. He then blew on the surface of the water to produce random patterns and spirals. Paper was then carefully slid onto the surface of the water. By absorbing these floating inks the pattern was transferred onto the sheet. Japanese paper is highly absorbent, so the end result was stunning.
In the 15th century, other types of marbled papers were developed in the Ottoman Empire and in Persia. It flourished in Turkey, where it was known as ebru, or the art of the clouds.
The marbled papers traveled to the west as souvenirs in luggage of people returning from the east in the 16th century, arriving in Venice and then settling in Florence where it survives today, almost exclusively.
With the revival of artisan workshops in Florence, especially in the charming Oltrarno neighborhood on the south bank of the Arno, the craft of Florentine marbled paper is flourishing.
The technique is still pretty much the same. Some artists now use both oil and water-based colors in the basin to create the swirling, rhythmic patterns that have enchanted the human eye for almost 2,000 years. Basically, a resin or glue is added to the basin initially to attach the floating pigments to paper. After the colored paper is lifted gently from its bath, it is patted, sponged, combed or brushed into patterns. . Besides his breath, the artist uses a whole array of combs, needles and droppers. Of the 200 or so sheets usually obtained from one basin, no two are ever alike. Each is a work of art that can then be cut and glued to agendas, blotters, pencils and a multitude of desk objects. And of course marbled papers make beautiful gift wrap.
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