[Student Projects, Pigments]

Paper Marbling

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What is Marbling and How does it Work?

Paper marbling is an ancient craft that originated in France, Italy and England over five hundred years ago. It is a form of painting that relies on the tendency of oil not to mix with water. The "size" or oil part of the process is usually Carragheen moss (Irish Moss from the Carragheen Sea). Then paint mixed with ox-gall, the bile from the stomach of an ox, is added to the moss. The paint not only floats on top of the moss but spreads, due to the ox-gall, in all directions from the contact point. By layering, dripping, and randomly dropping these paints on the moss a variety of color schemes can be achieved. Then the artist must manipulate the pigments to produce exciting results. On this page we will discuss basic marbling techniques, observations, and conclusions, so that you the reader, may learn about and perhaps adventure into the exciting world of marbling.


Marbling Made Easy:


10x15x6 bath with a lid
a tablespoon
6 tablespoons of Carragheen moss
3 gallons of water
about 7 small paint brushes
ox-gall and eyedropper
alum and sponge
sealed container for alum
wooden or plastic stylus

100% cotton paper (recommended 5.5x8)
25% cotton paper
Xerox paper
100% cotton white or cream cloth
50% cotton/50% polyester white or cream cloth
a light bulb
a glass or mug

water color
oil based gouache


The Carragheen Moss takes twelve hours to congeal, so begin by mixing the Carragheen in a large tray or bath. Add two tablespoons to every one gallon of water. To add, sprinkle the powdered Carragheen on the surface of the water and stir in (a blender would be perfect if one has access to it). Add up to six tablespoons of moss and three gallons of water for one bath, but it is acceptable to mix less than three gallons as long as the proportions are kept the same. After sitting for twelve hours in a room with a consistent temperature to that of the room where the actual marbling will be done, the mixture should be homogeneous (a greenish slime with a milk like consistency). Note that there are different preparations for the carragheen moss if you order it in its raw form; these directions only hold true for non-cook carragheen received in its powdered form.

To prepare the alum, mix 2 oz (50 grams) of alum to one pint of water. Bring the mixture to a boil and then allow it to cool. The alum should be stored in a jar with a lid. After several days, the solution may crystallize. If this happens discard the solution and make some more instead of trying to reboil the crystals.

There is no preparation needed for the ox-gall.

About ten to fifteen minutes before marbling, paint each of the pieces of paper or cloth that you intend to use with a coat of alum solution. A sponge works best for covering the paper well. Before painting it is recommended that a mark is placed on the side of the paper coated in alum because once it starts to dry, it is very difficult to tell which side has the alum on it. To dry the paper, stack it alum side to alum side. It is best to marble with paper that is not so dry that it is stiff, yet not so wet that it is too flimsy or drippy.

In this particular experiment we used several different types of paint.

For the hand-mixed water colors, we used the pigments: titanium white, vine black, iron oxide red, chromium oxide green, prussian blue, and lead tin yellow. To get the correct consistency in these pigments, we found that 1 gram of pigment mixed well with 25-28 drops of gum arabic and 2 drops of honey. The variance in these numbers depends on each individual pigment's reaction with the gum arabic.

For preparing oil paints, all that is needed is linseed oil, a dropper, and pigment. The pigments chosen for this part of the experiment were: iron oxide red, prussian blue, and vine black. For these add 32 drops of linseed oil for 1 gram of pigment and mix well.

The gouache paint came ready made and needed no preparation. The colors used were: permanent white, lamp black, mars red, verdinian, brilliant violet, spectrum yellow, and ultramarine.

The commercial water colors that we used were: lamp black, grumbacher red, prussian blue, emerald green, indian red, gamboge, and violet.

For whichever type of paint that is being used, one must add between one and three drops of ox-gall to each color per pinky-nail sized portion of paint. We found that three drops of ox-gall was appropriate for the goauche paints. The homemade water color worked best with two drops of ox-gall. In reality, determining the proper amount of ox-gall is a matter of experimenting with how much the paint spreads on the surface of the bath. If the paint spreads too thin, less ox-gall is needed and if the paint does not spread enough, more ox-gall is needed.

Throwing, Manipulating, and Pulling:

After one has attained the aforementioned supplies and prepared the Carragheen and Alum it is time for the fun to begin. Lay out the colors with individual brushes or application utensils. Break the surface tension of the Carragheen by running a paper towel through the bath a approximately .25 inch depth. Then quickly "throw" or place a small amount of the paint on the surface. The best way to do this is to touch the paint laden brush to the surface and hold there until the spread is satisfactory (about 2-3 inches in diameter). Next throw another color into the middle of the first, repeat this process until the general area of the surface which is to be marbled is represented in the bath. Below is a picture of the concentric circles created in this part of the process.

So once these circles have been created it is time to manipulate the paint to achieve that gorgeous marbled look. Using a stylus(the end of a small paintbrush is perfect), touch the paint floating on the surface of the Carragheen. Move the stylus through the paint, but there is no need to push the stylus far below the surface of the carragheen. The paint should move easily over the surface of the carragheen and produce beautiful designs. Be careful not to mix the paint too much or else the colors will lose their vibrancy and look dull and murky. The picture below shows this process.


Once the desired effect has been acheived by manipulating the paint on the surface of the carragheen, it is time to place the paper in the bath. Remember that the paper should not be too wet or too dry, and the alum side must go down to pick up the paint the best. Put the paper gently onto the surface trying to minimalize the shifting as the paper drops completely on the bath. The paper should float on the surface of the bath for a few seconds, and then you should pick it up at opposite corners of the paper and gently lift it out of the bath. If you place it or lift it too fast or unevenly, the force of the paper may push the paint away, causing blurs or empty white space and results like the ones in the picture below. Marbling takes practice, but anyone can do it, so don't get frustrated with the results from your first effort, see the oil paints for our first effort.

Paint Types and their Effectiveness in Marbling:


Oil Based Paints:

Oil based paints do not work for marbling. The oil paints that were used were mixed by hand using pigment and linseed oil. Through the course of our experiment it was discovered the hard way that oil paints spread ineffectively and most often sink in the size. Moreover, the lack of spreading causes the colors to be faint at best. These results are not surprising considering the reliance of marbling on the oil/water dichotomy. Nevertheless, below are two unattractive examples of marbling with oil paint; although indistinguishable, the colors used were prussian blue, vine black, and iron oxide red.

 Gouache Paints:

Much better than oil, gouache displays all of the proper floating and dispersing qualities needed for marbling. The one main problem with these paints is the lightness of color on the paper. An appeal darkness can be reached however, one must use more pigment than with watercolor. There is no real uniqueness to gouache colors so it is recommended that one use watercolor paints to save money and time. For an understanding of the lightness of gouache (left) compare it to its watercolor counterpart on the right (below).



Watercolor paint was the most effective type of paint used in this experiment. There were two different types of watercolor available:hand-mixed pigments and commercial paint. To mix the pigments by hand, use the desired pigment and add 20-25 drops of gum arabic and two drops honey per one gram of pigment. However, different pigments require slightly different amounts of gum arabic to achieve the same consistency. This is a problem since thickness of paint is directly correlated to spreading on the Carragheen; so thin paint will spread too much and be too light. There are two ways around this problem. First, one could experiment with the amount of gum arabic used with a particular pigment while keeping the amount of ox-gall controlled; once a satisfactory spreading distance has been achieved one could always use that recipe. The second option is to keep the amount of gum arabic constant and alter the amount of ox-gall until the desired spread was achieved. Either way homemade paints will require more time and effort than commercial watercolors. However, a certain satisfaction comes when working from "scratch" and if the raw pigments and gum arabic are available it is recommended that you try them.

There was much more freedom of color choice with the commercial watercolors and they were easier to use and store -- lasting for days unlike the mixed watercolors that dried out in several hours. Out of all the types of paint that were used, the watercolor paints (both homemade and commercial) spread the best on the surface of the carragheen and produce the brightest and most vibrant colors on the paper. Overall the commercial colors were the best choice for marbling. The picture on the left was produced using the hand-mixed pigments in the colors of Iron Oxide and Chromium Green. The marbling on the right was done with commercial paints. The colors chosen were: violet, ochre yellow, green, and white.

Types of media:

This experiment included the use of several different types of media. The paper used was 100% cotton, 25% cotton, or copier paper. There seemed to be little to no difference in the various types of paper used. Cloth was also used for two samples. One piece of cloth was made of 50% cotton/50% polyester and the other was 100% cotton. Cloth seemed to soak up the pigment too much, causing the pigments to be lighter and more dispersed than they appeared on the paper. Both types of cloth worked fairly well in terms of picking up the paint, but it is suggested that if using cloth, one make a frame to better grasp, keep rigid, and pull the cloth out of the bath. Below is an example of how the 50% polyester/50% cotton material marbled.

Finally, we tried glass and porcelain as a medium for marbling. As one might imagine, even with the alum coating, the colors did not adhere to the slick surface of either the light bulb or the cup that we tried. Overall, paper is the best medium for marbling to easily produce the brightest colors and most satisfactory results.


There are many great resources on the web for beginning marblers. Maybe you'll find some of these useful:

History sites:

19th century history

Old European history

Supplies sites:

Ordering a beginning kit

Marbling directions:

A great site for the how-to of basic marbling

Describing the process of marbling

Good description on supplies and how to use them


Chambers, Anne. Practical Guide to Marbling Paper . Thames and Hudson. 1986.

John Wallace, Erica Black, 1998.