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Marbling in the classroom: "Tradition" vs. "Dilution"

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  • Jake Benson
    I would like to express a hearty Thank You! to everyone who has responded to my query about marbling in the primary and secondary school classroom. This sort
    Message 1 of 2 , Aug 12, 2002
      I would like to express a hearty "Thank You!" to everyone who has responded
      to my query about marbling in the primary and secondary school classroom.
      This sort of discussion makes this list so worthwhile! It is a real
      pleasure to be able to benefit from all the combined experience that others
      have to offer. I only wish that we may have heard back from a broader
      audience, such as individuals on the list living in Japan and Turkey for
      insight into their teaching methods in a classroom setting. I know that
      Turkish students are often taught ebru in secondary school, but it is
      certainly an altogether different affair from studying with a master hoca...
      I also want to be clear that I was asking about teaching in this SPECIFIC
      setting, and not about what one would do for a workshop for adults. It is
      easy to take the time in an adult workshop to grind my sumi sticks on a
      suzuri ink -stone and give the participants the benefit of the "full
      experience". I can also justify using a simpler approach in a different

      I do agree with part of what Milena has mentioned: it is important to
      distinguish what we are doing, and if we are veering from what are
      considered "traditional methods". For instance, if I am to give a short
      presentation about suminagashi, I'd show historic examples such as the 12th
      century Sanjuroku nin Kashu, the 16th century Tale of Genji in the Freer
      Gallery of Art, and the lovely fan-shaped lotus sutra from the Shitenno-ji
      Treasure house in Osaka (Ann Chamber's Suminagashi- pp 18-19- it is unique
      in that the marbling is an element of a painting, rather than the usual
      calligraphy of waka poems). I would also briefly mention marbling accounts
      from historic texts, such as the "liu sha chien" or "drifting-sand
      notepaper" mentioned by the 10th century Chinese scholar Su I-Jian, as well
      the early waka poems that mention suminagashi. I would also bring along a
      couple of examples from my own collection of suminagashi papers from Japan.

      THEN I would delve into the technique used in the class, being very cautious
      to distinguish if it differs from a traditional method or not. Even using
      Boku Undo kits seems very contemporary to my mind, and it should be
      mentioned. I might bring along my ink sticks, ink stone, traditional
      brushes, and handmade papers to SHOW- (to illustrate the "Four Treasures of
      the Scholar's Studio) but not necessarily USE. These examples help the
      student to understand the difference between the time honored "traditional"
      approach and the "quick and dirty" method used that day in class. Taking
      the time to show a few historic images to the "wee ones" gives them a
      greater sense of how marbling is used in an historic context, and shouldn't
      be shied away from as being "boring": it only enhances their understanding.
      I believe it is possible to convey this information even if the specific
      techniques used in the class aren't EXACTLY traditional- And I would make
      very sure the students understand that!

      The same goes for a demonstration of traditional water-based marbling.
      Fortunately, historical European accounts on marbling offer clear
      descriptions of the techniques they used. If I were to demonstrate using
      acrylics on methyl cellulose, I would mention that these are modern
      materials that yield somewhat different results. I wouldn't call using
      methyl cell and acrylics "Ebru" and have them believe that they are doing
      something truly historic, for that is misleading. Opening the demo with a
      few illustrations such as the engravings from the Encyclopedie Diderot et
      d'Alembert, and providing some historic examples to look at would take only
      a few minutes and cement in the student's minds what something historic
      looks like. THEN go into the demo noting the differences in techniques used
      in the class from the older ones.

      So in short,

      Mention that the paints are MODERN, the paper is MACHINE MADE, and admit
      that it is something different...AFTER giving a short historical overview.
      That should be sufficient enough to distinguish what's done inside the
      classroom from the greater historical context. I think if the instructor
      proceeds in such a manner, they are able to effectively teach a class,
      without "diluting" the methods of past masters. If someone would like a
      purely "traditional" class, then that can be saved for another day as an
      "advanced" topic. Using the simpler and easier methods described by those
      who responded to my query is a valuable example of how to get "feet wet" in
      an introductory sense, without offending the complex sense of "tradition".
      So many of my workshop students have told me that they are surprised to
      learn so many historical facets of marbling. It only enhances the
      experience. Maybe it is only "Marbling 101", but they have to start
      somewhere. I also have to deliver something on a budget, a large number of
      students, and time constraints.

      Get them interested and excited, and then bring out the "traditional"
      methods when they are ready. I think it's all in how you present the topic,
      not in the specific technique used on that particular day. Trying to get a
      room full of children through the process is tough enough.... but a good
      presentation can head off a lot of misunderstandings....

      I think we have touched on a sub-topic here:

      Can we accept that the art evolves? Would techniques and materials also
      develop as part of that evolution? Well certainly, it does. Our
      understanding of marbling has greatly increased due to modern innovations,
      and historical investigations. Once again, The example of Christopher
      Weimann comes to mind. He was very devoted to understanding traditional
      methods, but he also developed the use of acrylics and methyl cellulose
      mixed with carragheen for size. Josef Halfer discovered a method of
      preserving carragheen , making it his preferred size for marbling, and
      manufactured colors using "new" pigments.

      Today, these may seem "traditional", but at that time, these were new,
      innovative, and exciting developments. Really, you could say this is true
      of all marbling throughout history, around the world. The tradition is
      really the establishment of a regular, even regimented approach based on
      what had been an innovation. Tradition is really an innovation that is
      found to be successful and becomes respected. In the end, when you take a
      close look, the tradition HAS evolved, and the Modern approach owes its very
      existence to the Tradition approach. Are these really opposing forces?
      rivals? or is it a MUTUAL Process... I like to think the latter is the

      In Turkey today, most of the ebruculer use a SYNTHETIC indigo pigment
      (lahuri ├živit), as the true indigo made from the indigo plant is expensive
      and difficult to obtain (though I will admit that many do not know this, and
      purport that they are using "real indigo" and continue to refer to the
      lahuri ├živit as "toprak boya", loosely translated as "natural
      material").... They also use primarily machine made papers. Most pigments
      are bought from a store, and no longer prepared directly from natural
      sources. All of these elements have evolved over time to meet the needs of
      craftsmen. Still, the debate over "tradition vs. modern" roils on! It
      seems a HUGE waste of time in view of these little facts. I've not even
      touched on the issue of what constitutes contemporary "Klasik Ebru" and if
      it really represents what Europeans first admired in the 16th and 17th

      All of this is to our benefit... and understanding these nuances is very
      helpful when teaching in any situation. Conveying these simple differences
      requires little effort and is easily comprehended even by the most "wee" of
      minds... If the technique I use on that particular day is "diluted" then, so
      be it! But at least my students would understand the difference....

      Jake Benson

      Benson's Hand Bindery
      Fine Custom Bookbinding & Conservation
      Hand Marbled Papers
      1319 B Summerville Ave.
      Columbia S.C. 29201
      Phone: 803.799.1853


      [Non-text portions of this message have been removed]
    • irisnevins
      A lot of great points, Jake. I think the tradition MUST evolve...but we should REMEMBER the old ways too, and use as needed. I feel, especially as a paint
      Message 2 of 2 , Aug 13, 2002
        A lot of great points, Jake. I think the tradition MUST evolve...but we
        should REMEMBER the old ways too, and use as needed.

        I feel, especially as a paint maker, that if you find something that works
        better....USE it. I feel the old-timers would have used the improved
        materials too, had they known about them.

        The decision to no longer use indigo was a hard one. I would still make up
        indigo marbling paints in bulk if requested, but the stuff RUBS soooooo
        badly. I have spent nearly 25 years trying to develop watercolor marbling
        paints that have little to no rub. This is so important when your papers
        are geared towards bookbinding. That is where nearly all of mine end up.
        The offsetting can ruin a rare book. Yes, you can spray them with fixative
        after....but it's a bit time consuming and toxic to have to do this to over
        100 papers a week. So I have my "Navy". it's not the same, but close, and
        doesn't cause trouble.

        Things like this....I think it's important to evolve in the tradition,
        materials wise, while still keeping a traditional looking product.

        Iris Nevins
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