Ebru: The Art of Paper Marbling

by Salim Ayduz Published on: 1st February 2006

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Marbling is an art form developed in the Muslim world, possibly with Chinese origins. Often it has been used to create colourful book binding inside covers. Here is a little history of this art.

1. Some history

Ebru The Art of Paper Marbling

Figure 1: A sample of Hatip Ebru made by M. R. Kileci. All ebru samples illustrating this article were created by Dr Mehmed Refi Kileci and published here by his permission. Visit: www.kileci.net

The word ebru (cloud, cloudy) or abru (water face) means in Turkish the technique of paper marbling. The term is derived from the word ebre which belongs to one of the older Central Asian languages and it means the “moiré, veined fabric, paper” used for covering some manuscripts and other holy books. Its origin might ultimately hark back to China, where a document from the T’ang dynasty (618-907) mentions a process of colouring paper on water with five hues. Through the Silk Road, this art came first to Iran and picked up the name Ebru. Subsequently it moved towards Anatolia. Specimens of marbled paper in Turkish museums and private collections date back as far as the 15th century, but unfortunately there is no evidence to show at what date the art of marbling paper first appeared in Anatolia.

Around the end of 16th century, tradesmen, diplomats and travellers coming to Anatolia brought this art to Europe and after the 1550s, booklovers in Europe prized ebru which came to be known as “Turkish Paper” or “Turkish marbled paper making”. In the subsequent centuries of modern times, it was widely used in Italy, Germany, France and England.

Many specimens in European collections and in the several album amicorum books are on show today in various museums. Early texts dealing with ebru, such as Discourse on decorating paper in the Turkish manner, published in Rome in 1664 by Athanasius Kircher (1602-1680), helped to disseminate knowledge of this kind of marbling art. There is agreement amongst scholars that the so-called Turkish Papers has a colourful influence on the book arts of Europe.

In the early examples from the 16th century in the Ottoman-Turkish era, ebru appears in the battal (large) form, namely without any manipulation. Interestingly, several variations developed over time, giving us types such as gelgit, tarakli, hatip, bülbül yuvasi, cicekli.

2. The technique

Ebru technique consists of sprinkling colours containing a few drops of ox-gall onto the surface of the bath of water mixed with kitre (gum tragacanth) in a trough. By carefully laying the paper over the bath, the floating picture on top of it is readily transferred to the paper; thus each ebru is a unique print. To obtain beautiful ebru results, one needs to have a light hand, refined taste and an open mind to the unexpected patterns forming on the water. Patience and a good knowledge of traditional culture are characteristic of ebru masters.

Since the art of marbling had a significant importance in Islamic art, it is essential to recall the basic principles of Islamic art in order to have a better and closer look at marbling and thereby reach a deeper understanding.

3. Ottomans and Marbling

Ebru The Art of Paper Marbling

Figure 2: A sample of cicekli ebru made by M. R. Kileci.

Ottomans adopted Islam with great zeal. They tried to express the beauty of the divine in all branches of art. We see them seeking to illustrate mystical beauties in architecture, music and ornamental art. During the period from the 14th to 19th centuries, many religious schools, especially Sufi sects, became a kind of “Art Workshop”, educating students by a master to apprentice method. Due to the modesty encouraged by dervish precepts, many works of art even had no signature on them.

Ottomans have also acknowledged calligraphy as one of the main art branches that created several forms to the Arabic alphabet. Meanwhile marbled paper has been used to decorate the scripts, either as a background or in the blank spaces left at the four corners of a page. This is clear evidence that the Turks envisaged marbling primarily as a work of art. The concept of coloured paper used in bookbinding was as an accessory, and works of marbling art were since olden times framed and nailed to the wall like oil paintings.

4. Marbling Artisans

As we mentioned above, it is not possible to tell exactly when people started painting papers using the techniques of ebru. Although it is possible to find ebru papers in the bindings of centuries old books, these cannot be used to date ebru papers as these books may have been restored years after they have been written and ebru papers on their bindings may have been used during a later repair. Only ebru papers with a written date on them can be used as evidence for their age. The oldest ebru papers dated in this manner are the papers used in Arifi’s “Gûy-i Cevgan” in the Museum of Topkapi Palace collection which is dated “1539, Sebek Mehmed Ebrisi” (with ebru of Sebek Mehmed). Three ebru papers with pale colors are used inside the book, and on the last page the date is given as “1004” H (1595 CE). From the sentence on the first page, we learn that the name of the marble master who has been mentioned as “Sebek” in the booklet “Tertîb-i Risâle-i Ebri” is Mehmed and the papers used in this book are made by this marble painter.

We cannot identify all of our marbling painters by name since ebru papers have not been signed. However, marbled paper was used extensively in the binding of books and within the calligraphic panels in Turkey.

5. Materials Used In Classical Turkish Marbling

Ebru The Art of Paper Marbling

Figure 3: Another sample of cicekli Ebru made by M. R. Kileci.

Gum Tragacanth (kitre): Gum tragacanth is obtained from the trunk of a thorny plant which grows naturally in the Anatolian, Persian and Turkistan mountains and is called “gaven”. The sap oozing from scratches made on the branches later dries and solidifies into bone white colour pieces. It is dropped in water with very low hardness at the rate of 20-40 grams/3 litres and kept for a while. The gum having dissolved completely is filtered through a cloth bag and poured into the basin. It should have the density of buttermilk. About 1 part of gum tragacanth should be added to 100 parts of water and the liquid should be left for at least one night to allow the gum to dissolve. The liquid then should be strained through a cloth and poured into the marbling tank. If it is too thick, some water may be added to thin it. The degree of viscosity should vary according to the darkness or lightness of the colours being used. Gum tragacanth keeps the dyes on the surface by giving body to the water and because of its transparent slightly sticky nature it forms a lacquer over the dyes. Gum tragacanth is widely used as herbal medicine (in throat and stomach diseases) and in the cosmetic and textile industry.

Dyes: The colours used in marbling are “mineral dyes”, as they are called in the classical method, and they are obtained from natural metal oxides. There are also a few vegetable dyes. Anatolia is a very rich country in respect of such natural dyes. Many kinds of soil can be first made into mud then filtered and crushed to form a dye. The dyes are ground into fine powder by crushing them on marble with a specially shaped mortar pestle made of marble. Each of these powdered dyes is placed in a separate glass jar to which a small quantity of water and five to ten drops of ox bile are added.

Paintbrushes: Marbling requires the use of special, coarse horsehair bound around a rose tree stick in a manner to form a circumference with a hollow centre. Rose tree is preferred because it prevents mould. Brushes of different thickness and length enable application and control of the dye. The length and degree of packing among the brush bristles is important.

Basin or Tanks: Tanks should be made of pinewood, zinc or galvanized metal and they generally measure 35 by 50 centimetres or 17.5 by 25 centimetres, larger than the paper size (to offset the dilatation of paper when wet). These tanks have a depth of about 5 to 6 centimetres (2 to 2.5 inches). Tanks made of other materials hinder the dispersion of the dyes.

Water: Water should be calcium free to avoid fading and ozone free to keep the gum tragacanth from foaming and deteriorating. It is preferable without hardness. The ideal is distilled water. In older times, rainwater was preferred but because of acid rain in our times it is no longer advisable.

Paper: Marbling can be done on all types of paper, cloth, wood, veneers, ceramics, pottery and glass using only mineral dyes and natural indigo and without additives. But the ideal paper is the one that is handmade, has a high absorption capacity and is acid-free. On account of its rarity and high cost we do not advise it for beginners. Instead any kind of non-glossy paper may be used.

Bile (Ox-Gall): This is the most important material for marbling. A marbling artisan must understand well what is gall and what are its functions. It can be said that the secret of the marbling lies in the gall. Because of these solvent-like and adhesive-like properties, the gall that is used in marbling prevents the dye from remaining on the surface of the gum tragacanth solution and avoids dispersion and colour mixing. Different types of galls are used to achieve different results. Ox gall allows the dyes to spread; turbot bile is used to achieve a “sandy” pattern whereas chicken bile stabilizes the white areas achieved with naphtha. Boiled bile will lose its properties. Therefore either fresh or pasteurized bile should be used. Its main functions are:

a. To ensure surface tension so that dye spreads over the water surface otherwise it sinks;

b. To prevent mixing of dyes. For instance when blue and yellow are simultaneously applied and mixed up as much as possible, green never appears;

c. To assist dye fixation on the paper;

d. To give different shades of the same colour and different size of patterns.

6. The Process of Making Marbled Paper

Ebru The Art of Paper Marbling

Figure 4: A sample of Battal Ebru by made by M. R. Kileci.

Marbling is similar to cooking, it is impossible to prescribe an exact recipe. Everyone has his own mixture of colours and patterns that he wishes to reflect to the world. The process of marbling begins with dissolving gum tragacanth in water. This water is then poured into the tank. Then the dyes to be used are emptied from the jars one after another using the brushes and are sprinkled onto the solution. Each of the dyes added, strewn one onto the other, produce attractive figures. A sheet of paper of the required size is placed on the marbling container and the image created by the dyes on the surface of the waters is impregnated on the papers. The paper is then removed and left to dry. The tank is then ready for another marbling operation.

Marbling results from the simultaneous operation of many accurate balances. Purity and application rules must be strictly observed. The density of the gummed water and the relationships between the water and the dye, the dye and the tensioning agent (gall), and the quantity of gall in the dye are all very important. It may take some time to establish the right delicate balance. But when everything is ready, marbling is easily and quickly performed. This property of the marbling makes it very suitable for a “therapy”.

Dyes are spotted on the surface of water by means of paintbrushes and on the basis of the quantities and colours desired. Dyes should not be too concentrated. Concentric, superposed drops thus applied form a pattern called “Battal”.

This pattern is the origin of almost all others. Now if this basic pattern is handled by parallel lines made by a thin pencil or chip moved back and forth, you obtain “the back-and-forth”. If this design is crossed out by means of a comb, a “combed-pattern” is obtained. In case the “back-and-forth” is diagonally crossed again, it becomes a “shawl” sample. Combed marbling may be made into a back-and-forth or shawl design. When a convolute line is applied from the outer circumference towards the centre, you obtain a “nightingale nest” (bulbul yuvasi).

When small colourful dots are spotted on the back-and-forth or shawl design, you get the “sprinkled marbling”. If instead you apply larger dots (which means a higher rate of gall contents), you obtain the “porphyry marble” effect which most resembles marble. Nevertheless, the above mentioned patterns may be diversified by selecting one of them as a basis and making concentric drops of different colours. The preacher of Ayasofya Mosque in Istanbul, Mehmed Efendi (d. 1773), was the first to form flower and other patterns which were subsequently called the “Orator pattern” (Hatip ebrusu). Later on, these patterns developed into flower shaped marbling.

The sheet of paper is laid from one side onto any of the above designs prepared on the gummed water in the basin. Now, this processing makes the dye fixed on the paper. The paper is then carefully lifted off the basin without stripping too much of the gum from the surface. In classic Turkish marbling, the paper taken out of the basin is not washed off. The thin layer of gum remaining on the surface forms a protective (fixing) coat. The paper is laid on a flat surface and allowed to dry.

7. References

The Art Of Marbling.

Ebru: Turkish Marbling.

Ebru l’art du papier marbré.

Kaya Koc, Cetin, Turkish Ebru.

Silver, Joel, Marbled paper, November/December 2005.


[Wikipedia], Paper marbling.

Wolfe, Richard J., Marbled Paper: Its History, Techniques, and Patterns: with Special Reference to the Relationship of Marbling to Bookbinding in Europe and the Western World. Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 1990.

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