I’ve always wanted to try paper marbling and knew there must be some science involved. So, we gave it a go, and the results were stunning!
We tried two methods: one with liquid starch (made from cornstarch) and tempera paint, and another with a marbling kit. Both worked well, but look very different.
The Science Behind the Fun: Water molecules like to stick together, a property which scientists call surface tension. This property allows very thin layers of ink to float on water, mixing in beautiful patterns when you break the surface tension with detergent, a tool like a paintbrush, or movement. To marble paper, you have to use dye or paint that floats on the water where it can be easily transferred to paper. Alternately, you can make the liquid underneath more dense than the dye or paint, to help the dye float.
When transferring the ink or paint designs, it helps to use paper that’s been coated with a chemical called a mordant, that combines with substances (usually dyes) to make large molecules that stay in one place. (Iodine is another mordant, which is used to stain bacteria.)
Here’s a video of my 10YO making designs using the pre-made marbling kit…(More info at the bottom of this post.)
Since I like to do experiments using non-toxic, inexpensive ingredients most people have on hand, we first tried a method that uses cornstarch to thicken the bottom liquid layer and tempera paint as the dye. It requires pre-treatment of paper, like inexpensive watercolor paper from Target, with the mordant aluminum sulfate (alum), which you can find at your local coop or grocery store.
-watercolor paper (cheap stuff from Target works just fine)
-two large, flat trays, like 9×13 pans
-2 tps. Alum (aluminum sulfate crystals)
-a sponge brush
-2 Tbs. corn starch
-tempura paint (the more colors, the merrier)
- Dissolve 2 tsp alum in 3/4 cup water. Avoid inhaling powder.
- Mark one side of your watercolor paper with an A and use a sponge brush to apply alum solution evenly to that side of the paper.
- Let the paper dry overnight, or speed drying with a blow dryer.
- Make a double recipe of liquid starch by dissolving 4 Tbs. corn starch in 1/2 cup cold water. Bring 6 cups water to a boil in a sauce pan. Add the cornstarch solution to the water, stir well and boil for 1 minute. Turn the heat to low and simmer for 2 more minutes, stirring occasionally.
- Pour 3 cups of the hot liquid starch into one 9×13 pan and let cool.
- Pour 3 cups of cold water into the other pan.
- Prepare paint by mixing tempura paint with water until it has the consistency of half-and-half or whole milk.
- When starch is cool, drip paint onto the surface of the starch using an eyedropper, or something similar. Rinse dropper between colors.
- Swirl paint, or use toothpicks to drag out patterns.
- Carefully place your paper on the paint, alum side-down. Let it sit for a minute or two.
- Carefully peel the paper off of the paint and gently place it, face up, in the water pan. Let it sink and move it back an forth gently to rinse off excess paint.
- Set the paper on a piece of newspaper to dry.
- Make more marble paper in the same paint pan. When you’re ready, repeat using the rest of the cornstarch.
The Innovation marbling kit (Boku-Undo Suminagashi) from DickBlick.com pictured below includes pre-made low density dyes that you drip onto a tiny floating disc of paper in a tray of water. It’s tons of fun and yields beautiful results. I got the kit at Blick art supplies, and used the paper they recommended, which may have been pre-treated with a mordant.