Paper artist’s flowing patterns
From the swirling colours of the liquid in her marbling tray, Jemma Lewis creates an array of magical fluid designs
JEMMA LEWIS STANDS in her Wiltshire studio, absorbed in the delicate patterns floating across the surface of the liquid in her marbling tray. The silently swirling colours create a sense of calm, which is only broken by the gentle snoring of her dog, Finn, and the murmur of the radio. Above her, the wall is splattered with paint; to her side are shelves loaded with pots of colour. Along the back wall, a row of finished papers are hanging out to dry, while a line of marbled bunting is strung across the ceiling. The wooden studio is small, but it has been cleverly designed to maximise space. “We had the studio purpose-built, and carefully planned what we wanted where, so everything has its place,” explains Jemma.
Although she has been making marbled papers in her garden studio for the last 11 years, Jemma discovered the craft accidentally, thanks to a two-week temporary job. She had returned home to Wiltshire after completing a textiles
degree at Norwich School of Art and Design, and was offered what turned into a life-changing opportunity, working in an antiquarian bookbinder’s. “I was in the office doing the admin, and so all the books that needed repairing came to me first,” says Jemma. “They all had lovely leather bindings and marble endpapers, and this was my first introduction to marbling.” As a textile student, Jemma had been interested in surface pattern, and the marbled papers struck a chord; so much so that she ended up working there for seven years. Then, when the company wanted a volunteer to go to work at a marbling business they were investing in, Jemma immediately put her hand up. She was taught how to make these lovely hand-decorated papers by the retiring owner. “I took to the physical act of marbling pretty much instantly,” she says. “It was such a fun and creative craft.”
Sadly, seven months later, both the marbling business and the bookbinder’s closed, and Jemma faced a career crisis.
However, with the active encouragement of her father, she decided to set up her own marbling business at home. “I was not very confident, as I felt there was so much more for me to learn,” she admits. “But it was the start of years’ more experimentation and learning.” It was a gamble that paid off, and now Jemma makes her marbled papers not only for bookbinders, but also lampshade makers, furniture restorers and prop makers, with some of her work appearing in films.
She marbles all her papers by hand, following a process that has barely changed since the 18th century. “I love anything to do with history, and working in a craft with so much heritage makes it all the more interesting,” she says. However, Jemma does not slavishly reproduce historical patterns, although she is happy to do so if asked, but instead creates more contemporary-style papers using modern colours and freer, looser patterns. “When I worked at the bookbinder’s, the antiquarian books we were binding had marbled papers in very muted colours, but now I am using pinks and purples, and more vibrant reds and greens, as I want to move marbling forward and give it a more modern twist,” she explains.
Preparing the paper
The lengthy process starts with the preparation of the paper. Jemma uses Wibalin paper, which she likes because it is smooth and durable. It comes in an extensive range of colours, but her favourite is a shade of buttermilk. Each sheet measures 510 x 750mm and weighs 120gsm. The sheet size is dictated by the size of the marbling tray, and the weight
is the best for manageability: “If the paper is too thick, the bookbinder won’t be able to fold and cut it so well, and the paint doesn’t sit so well on the lighter papers,” says Jemma.
Each sheet of paper is coated with a fine layer of alum, using a small sponge. The alum is made by dissolving alum crystals, potassium alum, into water. The resulting solution acts as a mordant, or fixative, which enables the paint to stick to the paper. The treated papers are then placed in a press for 5-10 minutes to stop the edges curling. The press was made by Jemma’s father out of a combination of cardboard and MDF. “Most of the tools and things we use are improvised by us, as you can’t buy them off the shelf,” she explains.
Mixing the paint
The next stage is to mix the colours. Jemma uses Windsor and Newton designer gouaches, which she mixes in water to achieve a runny consistency. She checks the quality and consistency of her colours by painting trial swatches on paper. She normally works with approximately three colours per sheet of paper. “The more colours you put on, the richer and more dense they are going to look, but there is a limit to how many colours you can add, as too much paint will just wash off the paper,” she says. Her marbled papers come in a range of colours, but she prefers to work with different tones of the same colour, such as navy, sky blue and a super pale blue or maroon and then two shades of pink. “When you start using very different colours, it’s more risky, as they might not work together,” she explains. “You don’t know how something is going to look until you have seen it on a sheet of paper.” Changing the colour of the paper also adds another element to the mix, with a pattern marbled onto a pale cream paper looking very different from exactly the same pattern on a dark red or blue background.
After mixing the paint, Jemma adds a few drops of expander, or surfactant, to the solution. This is a compound that lowers the surface tension between two liquids and allows the paint to spread across the surface of the liquid in the marbling tray, rather than sitting in blobs. In the past, ox gall was used by marblers to achieve a similar result.
The paint solution is now ready to be added to the marbling tray. This is a low, flat aluminium tray into which Jemma pours a solution known as size, made by dissolving carrageenan powder in hot water. Carrageenan is a natural thickening agent made from seaweed; it is also used in some food products. It combines with water to create a smooth, viscose consistency, thick enough for the paints to float on the surface. Jemma drips the mixed paint onto the size using a brush. She normally starts with the darkest colour, then adds subsidiary colours, such as yellow and pinks.
“The purest and most thoughtful minds are those which love colour the most”
Once the colours are laid on the surface of the liquid, Jemma can start creating the patterns. If she is making a specific order, she will have a clear idea of what she is designing, be it a copy of a historic pattern or one of her own more contemporary designs, although it may take her several attempts to achieve the precise look she wants. At other times, she creates one-off designs, which are more experimental and involve working almost instinctively. “You can get lost in the motion of patterning, and I let the pattern and colours do their own thing,” she says. This freedom to experiment with the design is her favourite part of the process. “It’s the moment you can be most creative,” she adds.
The patterns are created either by mixing the paints with a comb or a stylus, or both. Jemma’s stylus is made out of an old knitting needle, and she uses it to gently swirl the colours round, creating swooping, curling patterns, full of movement and magic. Denser patterns are created using combs, which drag the colours over the surface in a more uniform pattern. The combs are homemade, using pins stuck into grey board. The distance between the teeth vary on each comb, with different sized combs producing different results: the finest combs make the most precise, detailed patterns. Jemma uses this technique to make more traditional patterns when requested by her clients, but when she is creating her one-off designs, she prefers the more modern ‘freestyle’ patterns created with the stylus.
Once she is happy with the pattern, Jemma deftly lays the paper into the marbling tray so it is floating in the solution
for approximately 20 seconds. She then gives it a little tap to release any trapped air before lifting it off the liquid using a wooden dowl. This is the big ‘reveal’ moment. “Sometimes, I can be quite disappointed, and other times, I can be rather pleasantly surprised, as there’s that element of serendipity, and you think, ‘Oh, that’s actually really nice’,” she says.
Washing and drying
The coloured papers are then hosed down with tap water by her husband, Craig, to rinse off any remaining size. “The paper is surprisingly durable, and you can be quite forceful, as the alum means that the paint sticks to the paper,” explains Jemma.
Once washed, the paper is hung out to dry overnight, before being put in a press for 24 hours. It is then finally ready for the client. The making process involves several stages, but once everything is in place and the colours are mixed, Jemma and Craig can produce approximately 40 sheets of paper a day.
Although she has been marbling for so long, it is something Jemma never tires of. “With marbling, there is an almost infinite amount of combinations to work with, using different base papers, different colour combinations and different pattern combinations. That’s my inspiration: to try to come up with as many new and different ideas as possible,” she explains. And judging from the array of glorious papers in her studio, this has proved to be a wonderful source of inspiration for Jemma.
Prices start at £9.25 for a 510 x 750mm sheet of marbled paper.