Don't let the intricacy of a marbleized design fool you. Those ripples of color may look hand-painted or machine-stamped, but they're actually...

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Don’t let the intricacy of a marbleized design fool you. Those ripples of color may look hand-painted or machine-stamped, but they’re actually created by liquid.

Take a closer look, and you’ll detect the telltale signs of motion: graceful swirls and dappling reminiscent of raindrops falling on a pond. In fact, all marbleized patterns begin as paint floating on water. A gentle current is the true artist here.

Marbleizing dates to the 12th century, when it was practiced in Japan and possibly China. Called “suminagashi” (which means “ink floating”) in Japanese, the technique involved using absorbent papers to pick up ink from a water bath.

Later, in Europe, the process of marbleizing was veiled in secrecy by guild members practicing the art. In the mid-19th century, however, their trade secrets were published, and marbleizing emerged as a popular pastime.

You can use the simple how-to instructions here to make your own rich designs. Marbleize paper to use as stationery and gift wrap — and for crafts.

Tools and materials

All supplies are available at art-supply and crafts stores.

• 1/4 pound alum (a mordant; makes paint adhere to paper)

• paintbrushes

• uncoated (nonglossy) medium-weight paper, or wooden objects, such as boxes

• clothesline and clothespins

• iron

• 1 bottle absorbent ground gesso (for priming wooden objects only)

• liquid acrylic paints (up to five colors)

• 1/2 pound methyl cellulose (a thickening agent)

• whisk

• two shallow 14-by-16-inch baking pans (use larger pans if you are using larger sheets of paper) or trays (such as photo-developing trays)

• knitting needle or skewer

• rake (handmade by sandwiching toothpicks taped at 1/4- to 1-inch intervals between layers of corrugated cardboard)

The technique

1. Preparing the surface

For paper: Dissolve 2 tablespoons of the alum in 2 cups of warm water. Use a pencil to mark one side of the paper, then brush that side with the alum mixture. (The pencil markings will indicate which side you prepared, as the solution will dry clear.) Hang on a clothesline (about 1 hour) to dry; when dry, iron sheets on a medium setting to flatten.

For wooden objects: It’s easiest to marbleize only one side of an object, because multiple dippings can result in messy-looking corners; prepare that side only. Brush the surface with absorbent ground gesso (if you want to paint the object first, mix the gesso with acrylic paint). Let dry, about 1 hour. Then coat with the alum mixture as described above for paper. Let dry.

2. Mixing the marbleizing solution

In a bowl, combine 1/2 cup of methyl cellulose with 4 quarts cold water, whisking to incorporate powder. When the mixture is free of lumps, let it sit about 1 hour, stirring at 15-minute intervals until it is syrupy. Pour the liquid into an empty pan.

Thin paints, until runny, with small amounts of water. Dip a brush into your first paint color, and hold it over the tray. Tap on the handle with a pencil, letting the paint speckle the mixture. Continue to add paint (use up to five colors), covering as much of the mixture’s surface as you like.

Leave the speckles as they are, or move the paint in spirals using a knitting needle or skewer for a swirled design. Or draw the rake through the paint — first along the width of the tray, then across the length — to make arches.

3. Embellishing the surface

For paper: Hold the paper by two corners, and lower it (prepared side down) so it floats on top of the solution. Let go of the corners, and smooth out any air bubbles with your fingertips. (Air bubbles are inevitable, so don’t fret if a few remain.) Let the paper float for a few seconds, then gently lift it from the solution.

For wood: Lower the edge of your object onto the surface of the solution, and coat it in one fluid rocking motion.

4. Rinsing and drying

Immediately after removing the paper or wooden object, place it in a pan, and pour water over it. Hang paper to dry; place wooden objects on paper towels to dry, marbleized side up. Don’t touch until dry (most objects will dry within 2 hours).

5. Storing and discarding

The solution can be kept in an airtight jar for about one week. To discard, pour the liquid into a resealable plastic bag and throw it away.

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