Ugh! Marbling failure!

Our minor success of the afternoon!

Our minor success of the afternoon!

It’s a sad day.  We have utterly failed to produce what we wanted to today.  We have something to show for our efforts, and have added brief “how-to” section below, but… well, there’s always tomorrow.

Our aim right now is to create endpapers for a couple of books.  We love those beautiful combed pattern papers which you see in old volumes. I’ve made them before using commercial marbling inks, and it was super easy to achieve the effects which we wanted to reproduce today.  The little problem we had today was that we couldn’t find the inks – I’m not even sure if they’re in our house, at my parents, or the casualty of a house move.

Knowing that there are other options, we tried to marble without marbling inks.  This is good, we thought, because we’ll find a cheap alternative.  And honestly, do you really need proper marbling inks?  Unfortunately, it’s been a sorry mess (seriously, my hands are better marbled than the paper).

Even so, you can achieve results with perseverance – you just need to experiment a lot with consistencies and perhaps even with which paints you use.  I’ve got to say honestly that with commercial inks, you can at least just get on and experiment with design rather than simply trying to make it work.

We experimented with:

  • oil colour
  • acrylics
  • faux marbling using some gel colours for Easter eggs
  • nail polish (that actually worked – hurrah!)

Basic equipment (unless you do faux marbling):

  • a tray – shallow is fine for paper, and the size of your paper or a tiny fraction over
  • paper or object to marble
  • mixing pots
  • plastic tablecloth or paper
  • paper on which to dry your work

It would also help to have

  • pipette/dropper
  • an overall
  • gloves
  • lots of kitchen towel!

Marbling with oil colour


Basic oil marbling materials

The idea is quite simple.  Oil floats on water, which is exactly what you need – and aren’t “proper” marbling inks oil-based?  You can either go for an uncontrolled mix, filling the marbling tray with plain water for abstract designs, or a controlled option which is to use a carragheen moss size (seaweed).  We just opted for plain water, so we knew that we wouldn’t be able to do combed designs at this stage.

In addition to the basic gear above, you need:

  • oil colours
  • turpentine

Oil colours – ready to mix

You dilute some oil colour with turpentine and  fill your tray with water.  Then simply sprinkle the colour across the water and swirl it around to create pretty patterns.  Carefully lay the paper on top, wait a few seconds, then carefully peel away from the water and let it dry on your newspaper.

Diluted oil colour and straws pretending to be pipettes - it works!

Diluted oil colour and straws pretending to be pipettes – it works!

Of course, you can’t get turps these days, so you’ll need a substitute.  We had some white spirit in the cellar, which is the only available option here.  Tosh is now having a nap to try to sleep off the killer headache he got from that.  The marbled paper still stinks, and I guess that it will make a fantastic firelighter.

We also had a lot of trouble with the colour mixing.  The paint was pretty old and some had leaked out quite a lot of oil, so the mixed consistencies were very variable.  Even mixed, a lot of the colours simply sank, so we might try reconstituting them with a bit of extra linseed oil, then diluting for another experiment.  Oh, apart from the killer headache.

Moving on…

Marbling with acrylics

As well as the basic gear, you will need:

  • acrylic paints
  • borax

As acrylic colour is water-based, you need something to stop it from simply mixing with your tray of water.  Mix a tablespoon or so of household borax into the tray of water.  Borax is generally sold as an old-fashioned cleaning product, which is probably why I had some lurking at the back of a kitchen cupboard.  The borax changes the surface tension of the water (gosh, an educational bit!), allowing the diluted acrylic to float on top.  Maybe.  A lot of ours sank (this is becoming the main pattern of the day).  It also tended to mix with the water anyway, even when we mixed in extra borax.  We finally achieved some subtle swirliness, but it was definitely not what we were after.



Polka dot gel colours on clingfilm

Faux marbling

I found some gel colours in the cupboard, left over from Easter for decorating eggs.  After heating the little pipettes of gel in warm water to make them flow, the idea is to put some of the colours onto clingfilm.  When decorating a freshly boiled egg, you simply roll the egg around in the clingfilm held in your hands.  It dries quickly because of the heat.  When you try this on paper, it’s pretty much like creating a Rorschach inkblot test, in glorious technicolour.  It’s pretty; it’s not marbling.


Marbling with nail polish

You need

  • A small container for the water
  • nail polish in two or three colours

We finally achieved a minor success with nail polish, but you need to be really quick!  And it helps if you don’t want to decorate something much larger than a nail.  I was idly browsing YouTube videos and came across this nail art tutorial, so I decided to try it on paper.

It really works, but remember that as with everything else, you need to experiment with types of polish, as some don’t disperse well and will just leave a great thick blob.  Of course, quick drying polishes are also tricky.  The polish will start to dry incredibly fast once it’s just a thin surface layer on the water, so do any swirling as fast as you can and stop the second it resists, otherwise you’ll just pull the whole lot out.  It will still stick to the paper (or your nail) at this stage.

Here’s the result of the nail polish experiment.  It’s just, well, tiny!

The nail polish marbling worked, but you need to be so quick and can only do a tiny piece.

The nail polish marbling worked, but you need to be so quick and can only do a tiny piece.

Our experience today suggests that marbling with oil colours and acrylics is possible, but it’s not easy to obtain the sorts of results that you might hope for.  We’re going to keep experimenting (especially if we can find an odour-free turpentine substitute), but I think that we might also end up looking for our marbling inks in hiding!  We are also particularly interested in a Turkish method called “Ebru”, which uses mineral pigment dyes, gum tragacanth to achieve the right degree of surface tension and ox gall in the dyes.


About Musician Poodle

Freelance writer, translator and musician living in Germany.

One thought on “Ugh! Marbling failure!

  1. Pingback: Review: Marabu Easy Marbling on Glitter bunnies! | Art 4 Begonias

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