What is Marbling?
“Marbling” is the time-honored artist technique where thinned paints are placed onto a thickened “bath” usually made from carrageenan or methylcellulose. The paints float on the surface of the bath and can be manipulated into beautiful and intricate designs, then printed onto paper, fabric, or another material prepared with a “mordant”.
Marbled papers were an important bookbinding commodity for centuries. You can still find books where these imported papers were fastened to the inside of book covers. Therefore, each step was a closely guarded secret in marbling guilds and it took some time before this information become accessible. Lucky for you, there are many books explaining each part of the process.
A critical requirement for successful marbling is modifying the paints so they properly float and spread on the surface of the bath. You do not want them to sink down into the bath or aggressively spreading across the bath. One color that is overly pushy can ruin your design. Acrylic paints need to be balanced so that each color will behave like all of the rest. This article focuses on one way to attempt this.
Before We Get Started…
It is helpful to appreciate the science behind the marbling process so that the system of balancing colors proceeds logically. The main factor at play is understanding “surface tension”. The marbling bath needs to have a high surface tension to keep paint on the surface and not submerging to the bottom. Conversely, the paints should have a low surface tension. These differences create the dynamic of floating colors. Ideally we want a drop of paint to spread several inches in diameter, and every paint to equally spread out. If each paint isn’t in balance you will notice it causing problems that limit what you can do. However, a slightly pushy color can be of help sometimes as it concentrates the other colors in the tray and they will become more intense. The key word is “slightly” pushy, so that it will still play well with the other colors.
Gather These Materials:
- Acrylic Paints – Such as GOLDEN Fluid Acrylics
- Surfactant – Such as GOLDEN Wetting Aid
- Several gallons of drinking water (free of salts, excessive chlorine, etc.)
- Paper – get some decent quality copy paper for testing and use better paper for an actual project. Test papers do not need a mordant.
- Alum – used as the mordant to prepare the paper.
- Bath Base (Methylcellulose or Carrageenan).
- Small Trays – Shallow Plastic or metal that are between 1”-3” tall. Avoid deep or bowed trays.
- Drying lines/paper or clothes line clips, or some plastic sheeting to drape over tables and the floor.
- Rags and old towels. Marbling is MESSY!
- Toothpicks, paperclips, or similarly skinny items used to manipulate the pattern.
- If you have never marbled before, obtain a book or two. We also have an application sheet to help as well.
Factors that Influence Marbling Paints
If your paints are properly balanced, they will not push each other around and the color edges will be crisp and smooth. Take the time to try each color over the others to avoid incompatibilities. Some factors are almost impossible to predict or understand. Others are more noticeable the more marbling you do, but each factor will become apparent soon enough. Keep a notebook that lists studio temperature, humidity, the water (tap, bottled, deionized, etc.) used to make the bath and thin the paints. Don’t make big batches of paint until you get the idea of what it will take to make each color work. Use small containers or a plastic watercolor palette.
An experienced marbler has had plenty of failure and understands that good note taking and following recipes and processes is critical to repeated success. Even if eventually your goal isn’t traditional paper marbling, knowing how to control color in the tank is valuable information. It can be just as valuable to know when there are unusual but pleasing effects at play that may not continue into the next day or even the next hour. Sometimes the magic that plays out during a session may never be able to be repeated again, so strike while the iron is hot! But when you are first starting out, it’s best to just focus on making a balanced set of colors.
Some marblers prefer using Heavy Body Acrylics because they require more thinning, which in turn reduces surfactants and other additives present in the paint. These work better on thinner baths. Other marblers use Fluid Acrylics. I prefer Fluid Acrylics because they are easy to mix with less color globs. Adding water into the paint increases surface tension and makes the paints thinner as well. Lower surfactant levels provide more control when working with more aggressive paints., but if the paint is too thin and watery, it doesn’t behave as much like a paint, which can create a more transparent and blotchy color field. Overall, you can use whatever paints you want to use, but if you haven’t done much marbling it tends to be helpful to use just one type of paint and not mix Heavy Body with Fluids and High Flow Acrylics.
Color choices are your choice as well, but for the first time trying to balance colors, start with a small set of primaries. Once you get going, you can always mix additional colors to extend your color range.
It is important to appreciate that every paint color employs unique pigments and formulas, so do not expect them all to behave the same way as other colors when marbling. This can make it extremely frustrating trying to figure out what is causing the issue. If you find a paint color not working well and adjusting the mixture doesn’t seem to make any improvements, try a similar color and see how it goes. For example, if you find Quinacridone Red difficult to balance, try Pyrrole Red, or Naphthol Red, or even Quinacridone Crimson.
The Balancing Process
Begin by making a batch of bath. Companies that sell carrageenan and methylcellulose typically provide mixing instructions, so follow them closely. Make the marbling bath the same way as you intend to do for the larger actual marbling session, or pull a small quantity from the larger mixture that is freshly made to ensure the paints should work as they did during the balancing process. Pour the bath into the tray and let it rest while you start in with the colors.
Put some paint into jars, but no more than 1/3 of the jar. You may need to double the paint amount with water and/or Wetting Aid as you balance, so give yourself some room to stir and mix. Besides, a little bit of paint goes a long way when marbling. When adding water, I will use a marker to indicate the paint level and then eyeball the water amount. I tend to add water at around 3:2 (paint to water) to each color to start, and then see what a drop does in the tank.
Next, using an eye-dropper or a “pipette”, place just one drop of the color mixture onto the bath. And just observe.
A drop of paint should have no problem spreading on the surface, but the key is to allow the drop to reach its maximum diameter and then see if it keeps going, stops, or shrinks. A shrinking paint at this part of the process will very likely sink down into the bath.
Using a piece of copy/ink-jet/laser paper, I note the mixture, and pull the print from the surface. Note: This process is going to make a mess somewhere, so plan ahead and cover a decent sized table with plastic.
Then repeat the process with the next color: Quinacridone Violet.
Compare the spread diameter of each color by simply laying them out next to each other. As you can see, some colors are bigger than others.
Now we need to adjust. You have a choice to make as to which direction you prefer to go. I went with adding water into the Naphthol Red Light to see if I could reduce the spread rate.
Adding water increases the surface tension because water inherently has a high surface tension. As you can see, the diameter did not reach the same width as the original test. The Phthalo Blue (Red Shade) is the smallest, so we will use just three drops of Wetting Aid (a strong surfactant) into the mixture. Note that the diameter is wider and the color is lighter but also more uniform. You can choose your preferences that are most important to you, but that light blue should intensify when it comes time for actually marbling with the paint. Try to make them as close to the same diameter as possible.
Once the colors are all around the same diameter, begin the second phase of testing called the “bullseye” test. A color is applied via pipette as before, but upon spreading, another color is dropped inside of the first. An aggressive second color will push the first color into a skinny ring. A weak one will never spread enough and can even shrink (and drop down into the bath).
Repeat this testing until each color has been used as the first and the second drop. You may find the need to adjust the colors again, if one is being a bully and overly-concentrating the other colors. What’s going on with Phthalo Blue?
These colors are pretty decently even. If they were not, the second color would push the first color into a very thin band around it, or the first color makes it difficult for the second color to spread out properly. If this happens, it’s almost certain that the color that cannot expand will ultimately drop down below the bath surface.
The blue was acting weird, and needed additional adjusting until it developed smooth edges.
After you achieve colors that are balanced, it helps to then do some real-world marbling. If there are colors still not balanced, observe and make on-the-fly corrections. If the difference is minor, it might just be best to use it earlier, or later in the process. Sometimes that pushy color can be used near the end to concentrate the other colors really well, but it may not be a great option for everyone.
After doing some successful test pieces, you should be ready to get out the good paper or fabric and start your session. If you are not happy with the results, you may need to try a different color (I’m not particularly pleased with the Benzimidazolone Yellow, so I might try another yellow). These paints can keep for a while (a couple of months is about as far as I will go, but the longer thinned paints sit around, the more likely the pigment and other dense materials will separate and you might start getting odd results.
Older mixtures should be mixed really well, and even then test them. One last note: If one color just keeps evading your adjustments, try another color that you have. One big reason to start with primary colors is that you can also mix secondaries and tertiaries if a unique single pigment doesn’t want to play nice. Chromatic blacks might work when Carbon Black does not.
Let us know if you have any questions, or have your own method you’d like to share with others! Leave a comment or contact us at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Subscribe to the newsletter today!
Share Your Thoughts
Click here to share your feedback about Just Paint.
18 thoughts on “Balancing Acrylic Paints for Marbling”
Just trying to make sure I get this right: 1) you suggest to add 3 parts water to 2 parts paint? 2) when using GAC900 for textiles – do you recommend first mixint paint and GAC at 1:1 ration and THEN add additional water?
Thanks for your comment. The starting ratio is 3 parts paint to 2 parts water. Usually, it helps to gradually add a little water at a time, just so you don’t over add water and then have to add more paint to compensate. – Mike Townsend
Excellent information. Thanks for sharing…
Thanks for the cool article.
I would love to know how you made the top left pattern in the last photo.
Thank you for your kind words.
The last image was made by creating a bullseye pattern as seen during the testing, but continue on through several drops. Then I used a skinny piece of straw and drew 4 lines starting from outside the circles and ending at the center. Its pretty easy, actually. – Mike Townsend
I was excited to see this as I use the Fluid Acrylics for my marbling. After marbling primarily on paper, and just adding a little water to my paints, I had decided to try my hand at fabric. I purchased some GAC 900 to mix in, and found that the consistency was perfect, and I don’t even use much water anymore, if at all. I still use the GAC 900 with my paints even when marbling on paper because it works so well, and then if I decide to do some fabric, it’s already mixed in. I tried the wetting agent once early on, but found that it made everything spread way too much, and my colors came out very washed out, they didn’t have the punch I really wanted (but this was early on, and perhaps warrants another try). At any rate, I thought I’d share my experience with the GAC 900. Wish I could upload some photos of my work to the comment, and unfortunately I don’t have a website…
Thank you for sharing, Heather. I agree.
The use of GAC 900 is a great option without needing to also add water. – Mike Townsend
Thanks for your article
When do you run your test trials for paint spreading and getting circles even?
Obviously, after preparing size, but this sounds intense and can take time w patience needed
So, maybe the day you plan to marble or day before
You are most welcome! You can balance the colors earlier on, although the freshly mixed paints will be ready to use once you balance them. Just be sure to stir them well before use!
thanks for at very informative article – it helped med balancing my colors.
I would like to use some of the Historic Hue Heavy Body acrylics in my marbling. What would be the ratio to dilute them to use them on the vat. Water? GAC900? I’ve not had a lot of success in diluting heavy bodies as I usually use Fluid and High Flow.
The higher amounts of water needed to properly dilute the Heavy Body Acrylics can make them more washy and less stable than a thinner paint line that doesn’t require as much. If the paint is thin enough to spread on the surface, but not resulting in the right smoothness of color, try adding some acrylic medium like GAC 500 or High Flow Medium.
In the article titled “Selecting the Best Exterior Mural Pigments” from February 2014, you forgot to include an image of the unexposed/exposed lightfastness swatches of Bismuth Vanadate Yellow under the section titled “Ain’t Nobody’s Bismuth”. Could you please go back and upload it to the article?
We will review your request to add an image of Bismuth into this article.
Thank you for reading this article and for your suggestion! Both are very appreciated.
– Mike Townsend
I’ve watched dozens of videos and read several books and have wasted 4 large batches of carageenan watching my paints sink. None have explained how to do this as well as you have. I never thought to test like this. I was becoming disheartened but am ready to try again. Thanks so much.
Thank you, Lynne!
Marbling is simple to do but complex to truly control. There’s nothing worse than watching the paint drop sit there, then submerge into the bath. In Second place is the color that is the tank bully, pushing the other colors out of its way, and compressing them into tight bands that streak and ruin prints.
I wish you luck!
– Mike Townsend
Hi Mike, Great Article!
If I was going to marble on wood do you know if I would still need an Alum solution on the wood first? Any other suggestions for marbling on wood?
If you work directly onto wood, then you shouldn’t need alum, but after you print, do not try to rinse the piece of wood like you would with an object that has been prepared with alum or the print will wash right off. The dried piece with a thin layer of methylcel or carageenan shouldn’t pose a longevity issue. However, if you do apply a wood primer or gesso first, the use of alum will allow you to gently wash the piece to remove the bath layer. Even then, be extremely careful and gently pour water before allowing it to dry.
– Mike Townsend