"The Art of Ebru Paper Marbling"
A Journey of Eastern and Western Encounters


"The Art of Ebru Paper Marbling" is now undergoing a renaissance. Learn how this art form was discovered by the Western world after it originated in Turkey and the East, and flourished in Europe before crossing continents to reach America. Ebru art is the unique story of how one-of-a-kind patterns are floated on a water-based viscous solution known as size, and carefully transferred to an absorbent surface.

In 2014, Ebru was added to the UNESCO list of "Intangible Cultural Heritage of Humanity."

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Discovery by Europe

History of Ebru Art

Map - Timeline & Geography

Glossary - Terms & Materials

Patterns - Techniques & Designs

Silk Road Encyclopedia 

About

Generally known as "Marbling," the designs and motifs often associated with Ebru marbling are blooming flowers, foliage, birds, ornamentation, calligraphy, latticework, and patterns which have been used for the decoration of endpapers and the traditional art of bookbinding. Historically, practitioners extracted colors from natural pigments, which were then mixed with a few drops of ox-gall before adding the colors onto a preparation of condensed liquid, from where the paint would float and be captured by absorbent material. Intricate and mesmerizing original artwork is created by the artist though a series of movements that manipulate the water. Various artistic techniques and tools have been used throughout the centuries. According to UNESCO, Ebru artists, apprentices and practitioners consider their art to be an integral part of their traditional culture, identity and lifestyle. Their knowledge and skills, as well as the philosophy behind this art, are transmitted orally and through informal practical training within master-apprentice relationships. The tradition has been practiced without barrier and plays a significant role in the empowerment of women and the improvement of community relationships. The collective art of Ebru also encourages dialogue through friendly conversation, reinforces social ties and strengthens relations between individuals and communities. Visit UNESCO

Art Transmitted and Transformed by 
Trade Routes

The earliest marbled papers still in existence are Turkish, dating from the 1400's. It was through Eurasian overland and maritime trade routes and the Silk Road, that the early process of marbling moved from city to city between Central Asia, India and Turkey, and later spread westward on to Germany, France, Italy, Holland, England, Spain, and the rest of Europe and America. Each country adapted different techniques and new forms using indigenous materials and tools, to form aqueous surface designs. Turkish and Ottoman patterns such as battal or gel-git, are still the basis of many contemporary marbling designs. These designs can be seen on museum manuscripts and miniatures, on fine woodwork as decorative panels, and are preserved in Ottoman books, official correspondence, gilded documents and illuminated imperial decrees. 

Outside of their decorative qualities, marbled paper was used to prevent forgery, since each Ebru is unique, like a fingerprint. Because important government documents and official communications needed to be unalterable, any change in the Ebru background of the color pattern would reveal if writing had been erased or altered. In pre-Revolutionary America, Benjamin Franklin proposed that the paper money for the new United States of America be edged with marbled paper to prevent forgeries, and in 1776 one of the short ends of a $20 bill was marbled (his concerns were evident in 1739 when Franklin used his Philadelphia printing firm to produce one-of-a-kind patterns for colonial notes as an innovative solution).

The first Europeans to encounter Ebru marbling were 16th century travelers to Istanbul - a unique city of historic crossroads that spans both the continents of Europe and Asia. Intrigued by this “cloud art” they sent home samples and descriptions of how the designs were produced. These papers became curiosities in Europe. Shortly after, tradesmen, diplomats and travelers returning from the Ottoman Empire brought Ebru artwork to Europe where it became prized and desirable as an import item. Hence, Western marbling was born. 

The development of marbling throughout the world has led to patterns known as the old Dutch Placard, the French Shell or Curls (Snail pattern), the Spanish Wave, the Italian Vein, the Bouquet or Peacock (a.k.a. Waterfall), or the Chevron pattern. The variety of patterns also includes descriptions such as: Gloucester or Stormont, Cathedral, Fountain, Thistle, Bird Wing, Whale Tail, Frog Foot, Dragon, Tiger Eye and the complex Fantasy Moiré. Many of these patterns and fanciful names emerged in Europe after the 17th century. The origin of the word "Ebru" is either derived from the Persian "Ebru" meaning cloud (or "Abru" meaning water surface), or from a Central Asian Turkic word related to abreh, meaning colorful or variegated.

For centuries few people produced marbled paper because artisans carefully guarded their knowledge, secret formulas, materials and processes. As a result, marbling was considered an esoteric craft.

Today, due to a revival in the interest in marbling, contemporary artists and designers have rediscovered the artistic essence of Ebru. This is partly because of interest in the restoration and preservation of hand-crafted old books. As a result hand-made marbling can be seen upon three-dimensional surfaces, lamp shades, picture frames, fabrics, glass items, leather, placemats, stationery, note cards, greeting cards, desk sets, and as in the 19th century used in fine art, bookbinding, or for lining antique chests and book shelves. In addition, "Faux Marbling," an attempt to imitate the appearance of marbling, is also popular.

This homage to Ebru cannot be complete without noting the importance of the invention of paper in ancient China. Furthermore, printing and papercraft art are also indebted to the Eastern world. The transmission of information from the East to the West has played a fascinating role in world history (European advancement during the Middle Ages and Renaissance was based on knowledge acquired from Islamic and Eastern civilizations). Thus, the meeting of the East and West has contributed to the greatest achievements of mankind.

Contemporary Ebru Marbling

Across the Atlantic, throughout the 19th century, American marblers were following their English counterparts in patterns and techniques. However, by the 1930s, only a small number of professional marblers were active in the entire Western world (though marbled paper was in demand in the East). A primary reason was because traditional hand-crafted binding of books was replaced by binding machines. In the 1970s, certain Western artists again began working with various styles of marbling due to their desire to discover art from distant parts of the world.

With inspiration derived from Ebru, newly emerging artists are exploring the application of painting techniques, and experimenting with gouache, inks, watercolors, acrylics, oil-based paints, and other materials, in addition to using Ebru as an element in collage and mixed media works. Interest in the Japanese method of marbling called suminagashi, meaning “floating ink,” has also redirected attention to the art of marbling (whether Ebru marbling is somehow related to earlier Chinese or Japanese methods has not been concretely proven). 

As marbled paper is making a comeback, and hand-made marbled paper is increasingly applied to a variety of surfaces, Ebru art is also gaining new dimensions. Due to the mystique related to the role water plays in the process of its formulation, this art form is also being valued as meditative water therapy. It seems as history and contemporary art meet, Ebru will be cultivated as an attractive art that nourishes both the creative and mental processes.

By employing imagination and artistic passion, Ebru offers unparalleled expression beyond any boundaries. The many forms and paths it takes enables its admirers to be enmeshed in a boundless, intricate and delicate aesthetic.

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