Marbling in the classroom: "Tradition" vs. "Dilution"
- 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 çivit), 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 çivit 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....
Benson's Hand Bindery
Fine Custom Bookbinding & Conservation
Hand Marbled Papers
1319 B Summerville Ave.
Columbia S.C. 29201
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- 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.