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What is Ebru? Learning the Ancient Art of Paper Marbling

What is ebru? Also known as paper marbling, it is the Turkish tradition of painting on water. This is how the ancient ebru marbling art is done!

ebru art

One of the questions I always get asked about one of my experiences in Turkey is “what is ebru?” Until I went to Istanbul, I had no idea ebru art even existed!

Well, to put it bluntly, ebru is one of the most bizarre forms of painting I’ve ever come across.

If I hadn’t done it myself I would’ve thought painting on water would have been impossible, but the ancient art of ebru has not only survived for centuries, it thrives in Turkey.

Let me say this now – I am disastrous at art. I was once told by my art teacher that if I took an art class and tried really really hard I might just pass with the worst grade possible. And that was my art career over aged 14.

When I found out that I’d be learning how to do ebru, the art of paper marbling, I didn’t hold out much hope that I’d be any good. The results? Jackson Pollock eat your heart out. I was so surprised that this marbling art was relatively easy AND it looked good.

If you’re interested in learning more about water painting youself, check out this incredible ebru workshop in Istanbul. Here you’ll get to practice water painting and even take one home as a souvenir. I would say this is a fantastic family activity too!

What is ebru?

Check out my video below to see what ebru marbling art is all about!

Ebru, also known as paper marbling, is a Turkish art from Central Asia that dates back to the Ottoman empire at the beginning of the 16th century.

It is an art form where you paint directly on the surface of water in a shallow tray. Once you’ve finished your design, you place a sheet of paper on the surface to transfer the design from the water onto the paper. The process sounds simple, and in practice it is, but the results are hard to master. Some ebru artists will paint for decades before they’re regarded as true masters of the art.

Back in the Ottoman Empire, the Ottomans used ebru to decorate the spines of books with intricate and colourful designs. Not only was this decorative, it was it was also used as a type of code. If the pattern on the spine was broken then you’d know some pages were missing from the book and someone had intercepted the message. How clever is that!?

What is ebru?

What is ebru? It’s the art of painting on water!

Paper marbling supplies – what do you need?

When talking about it, ebru can sound a little bit gruesome.

Because everything is so traditional in Turkey, ebru uses the same techniques as centuries ago. Nothing has really changed. This means that ox gall bile is added to the water to prevent the paints from all sticking together (I’m sure 99% of you have never smelled ox gall bile before but it stinks).

Also, some of the colours like the ruby red are made from boiling beetle wings and then grinding it down into a powder. You see, I said it was gruesome!

Obviously this is the very traditional way of ebru painting.

Today, there are some more animal-friendly alternatives. For example, photographic wetting agent can be used instead of ox gall bile. Another substitute is washing up detergent or dish soap – this spreads the paint soultion out on the surface of the water.

For the paints, you can use any type of acrylic paint that doesn’t use or harm animals. As I said though, if you’re doing this in Turkey, it’s likely they’ll stick to the traditional method for ebru.

Ebru paints used in paper marbling

The different colours of paint used in ebru

Paper marbling techniques

While I was in Istanbul with Lonely Planet, we wanted to find those local stories and those traditions you can’t find anywhere else in the world. That’s why I found myself at Mehmet Önal’s house, to learn ebru straight from the master.

Mehmet learned ebru from his dad and grandad, and he’s been practicing ebru for the last 60 years.

Not only that, but his daughter Nazan and granddaughter Sera are also ebru artists, so this really is a family tradition.

Ebru in Turkey

Learning the ancient art of ebru

It was actually Nazan who taught me the finer details of ebru.

The first thing you do is choose your base colours – these are the ones that create this beautiful marbling effect – and with two fingers you tap the brush to splatter the paint over the surface of the water. If you want big dots, you hold the brush closer to the water. If you want tiny dots, you hold it further away from the water.

Then, once your base layer is done, it is time to start creating a design. Because drawing on the surface of water is difficult, it is all very abstract. Most designs are of animals, flowers and stars, but it really is only limited by your imagination!

Marbling paper

Creating intricate paper marbling designs

What is marbling art?

What I loved about ebru is you can create beautiful brightly coloured designs fairly easily. I mean, I felt like the stuff I created was half-decent, and that’s really saying something.

Also, it’s all very interpretive. There’s definitely no right or wrong way with ebru – you just choose the colours you want to paint with, splash them on the water and then try and create something stunning.

I felt its beauty was in its simplicity. This is an ancient tradition that’s been passed from father to son, from mother to daughter, for centuries. I found it best to stick to the traditional patterns as much as I could to really respect this style of art.

Practicing paper marbling art

Trying ebru for myself (all while the cameras were rolling!)

After trying a few designs where I was let loose with my imagination, it was time for my final test to put into practice what I had learned over the day.

For this I was back in the hands of Mehmet.

Watching his every movement, I watched him create this ornate bunch of roses on a paper marble background. I think it had about nine different steps in total and I lost track of it all around step four.

Obviously I was set up to fail – that’s why we had a camera crew with us – but I think everyone was more than a little bit surprised with the final results. I mean, it wasn’t good by any stretch of the imagination, but you could tell it was a bunch of flowers, so in that respect I think I did well.

what is paper marbling

My final piece in all its glory

Trying ebru for the first time

The thing about ebru is it really puts you in the moment. From flicking the paint to drawing on the surface of the water, it requires you to really concentrate on what you’re doing. Because of that it’s incredibly calming and therapeutic. All that matters is that moment, and I love that.

I have to admit it was incredibly humbling learning the ancient art of ebru marbling from this family who were so keen to impart their knowledge onto me. I just hope I didn’t let them down.

It’s not every day you get to practice something such as ebru, and after 17 years it’s nice to prove to my art teacher that perhaps I can do art after all. You know, in an abstract kinda way.

Photos of paper marbling

My trip to Turkey was in association with Lonely Planet and Turkey Tourism uncovering some of the best things to do in the country. As always, views are entirely my own and without bias.

Have you ever tried ebru or paper marbling before? If not, is it something you’d like to try? I would love to hear your thoughts so let me know in the comments below!

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Painting on water

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