The Turkish art of Ebru (paper marbling) is the art of creating colourful patterns by sprinkling and brushing colour pigments on a pan of oily water and then transforming this pattern to paper. Whilst there are many variations of the Ebru art form, the traditional floral designs are instantly recognisable and evocative of the golden age of Ottoman era Turkish art and culture.
It isn’t clear exactly where Ebru art originated. There are suggestions that marbled paper may have been produced in China as early as the Tang Dynasty (618-907). There is a general understanding that the modern Ebru art originated in the Turkistan region of Central Asia around the 13th – 15th centuries and was propagated along the Silk Road from Persia to China, India and Anatolia. The earliest records of marbled paper being produced in Turkey date from the 15 century.
There is also a close affiliation between Ebru art and the Turkish sense of “mysticism” or “religious beauty”. Ebru artwork figures prominently in the Sufi flavour of Islamic culture.
My first encounter with Ebru art was a simple tulip design painted and gifted to me by a Turkish friend in London. I understood from the light in her eyes, and pride in her voice, that this was something special. I kept it safely. It was almost ten years later that I finally got around to creating my own first Ebru art, thanks to the guiding hand of an experienced artist from Kayseri, Turkey. Another simple, single tulip…now laminated and providing an occasional little sparkle of my own.
The impact of Ebru art to the individual is personal and difficult to put into words. Much has been written about the art, its sensory impact to the creator and to the viewer, its therapeutic applications and benefits, its mystical quality in expression of the soul, its symbolism, and its place in both Turkish and Islamic culture. Will it do anything for you? Try it.
Tools of the Trade
Creating Ebru art is not as straightforward as it may first seem. Looks simple enough – a tray of water, a few splashes of paint, some crafty swirly strokes and slap it on a paper, right? Wrong. The raw materials are quite unique, the tools carefully crafted, the preparation painstaking and meticulous, and the technical expertise taking years to accrue. All of which, to me, simply adds to the mystique, the challenge and the eventual gratification of this art form.
The marbling tray is mostly commonly rectangular shaped and made of stainless steel, although there are no hard and fast rules. I’ve seen plastic trays used and also a variety of shapes and sizes. The liquid poured into the tray is usually water thickened with either Tragacanth plant gum (kitre) or Carrageenan (seaweed extract, gawar). Ideally the water used should be calcium-free and ozone-free, such as distilled water. The paints are organic dyes, created by using a marble slab to grind natural elements such as types of soil to powder form, then mixing with water and ox-gall. Various utensils such as brushes (horse hair), nails and combs are used to create the Ebru patterns.
Traditionally, Turkish Ebru art was something of a mystical art form, learned only through a series of selective Master-Apprentice relationships and taking years to achieve competence. These days the term “master” is used more loosely. Many of the Ebru artists I’ve encountered, report having learned their craft under the tuition of a Turkish master. I’m still not quite sure what this means today. There does not seem to be any clear criteria, qualification, or register for “master” teacher status. I’ve been told that most of the City Councils in Turkey (Belediyesi) will teach Ebru art these days. Additionally, online video learning options, such as YouTube, have helped to expose Ebru to the world. One respected Turkish Ebru teacher I met recently confessed that he learned much of his skill through online videos and subsequent trial and error.
Future of Ebru
From its 15th century origins, Ebru art was traditionally used to uniquely identify the pages of official books and documents. As the art form developed and grew in popularity, both in Turkey and beyond, its intrinsic appeal as an art, mystical expression, and work of visual beauty took hold. To this day, the marbled paper designs themselves, as pieces of art, form the primary application of modern Ebru. Surprisingly, there appears to be relatively little penetration of Ebru art into the expansive universe of modern-day fashion, design and marketing. Only recently, I encountered my first examples of Ebru designs being used (digital imaging) on clothing, home decorations, ceramics and greeting cards. I also found myself wondering if artists around the world have experimented with paint sources other than the traditional Turkish soils. Enormous potential must exist still for this wonderful and creative art.
“Let yourself be silently drawn by the strange pull of what you really love” – Rumi.