Learning Traditional Turkish Paper Marbling in Istanbul

Turkish paper marbling

When I travel, I am always on the lookout for new and unique experiences or classes, especially if they involve a creative element. So, when my friend and traveling companion discovered a class where we could learn Turkish Paper Marbling in Istanbul, I knew I needed to fit that into my Istanbul itinerary.

I booked the class online (Like A Local) the day before I was planning to participate. I quickly received a confirmation e-mail with directions to the class location. It was in the Sultanahmet area and not far from my hotel, so it was a brief 3 block walk, and very easy to find.

I met Betoul, the instructor, at her studio, and she took me upstairs to her cozy work space. I learned that Betoul had studied fine arts at University, specializing in traditional tile painting and paper marbling. She has been teaching these crafts to locals and tourists alike for 10 years, so I knew I was in good hands.

The tools used in Turkish paper marbling

Traditional Turkish paper marbling is called Ebru, and Betoul started by describing the equipment, tools and supplies. A solution of Carrageenan, which is a sea weed extract, is mixed with water to form a thickened, gelatinous liquid. A large flat tray is filled with this colorless jello like liquid. Pigments made from natural oxides in a variety of colors are made up using cow bile. The cow bile controls the surface tension of the pigments, and allows the pigments to float on the surface of the thickened water and also to be easily manipulated. It also keeps the colors from mixing with each other and helps the pigments to adhere to the paper. Betoul also uses special brushes made of horse hair and rosewood, and a variety of awls and combs to create the desired effect.

Betoul started the class by demonstrating the process. The first step was to use the brush to flick pigments onto the surface of the liquid in the tray. The key was to evenly cover the liquid in the tray with circles of color. This technique was the basis for all other Ebru designs that she showed me and is called Battal.

Once the Battal design was laid down, Betoul used an awl (a long metal pin with a wooden handle) to draw a line up and down the tray. This formed a feather deign which is called a Get Git pattern. She then made another design by moving a large comb over the Gel Git pattern which formed a pattern that she called Tarakli. She demonstrated how different combs resulted in varied patterns, ending up with a peacock pattern.

When Betoul was satisfied with the final design, she carefully laid a piece of paper on top of the paint, being careful not to disturb the surface, and then gently removed it by pulling it over the edge of the tray. She cleaned the liquid surface with a sheet of news print, and then went on to do another design.

Next, Betoul showed me how to make distinct flower and heart shapes. The paint used in this method is more concentrated and as a result, a drop does not expand as much and the colors are also more intense. Using a thicker awl, she placed a number of drops across the surface, and then added a second and third color into the middle of each circle. Then she used a fine awl to pull the paint in various directions, depending on the shape she wanted to achieve.

Betoul also took some time to tell me about the history of paper marbling, especially in Turkey. The art of paper marbling emerged in central Asia in what is now Uzbekistan. The Silk Road took it to China, Iran and Anatolia. The art continued to expand and develop in Ottoman Turkey. In the 17th century, Europeans traveling to the Middle East discovered the art and took it back to Europe where it also became very popular.

What makes Turkish Ebru unique is that the technique is also used to make flower shapes, which was the design that Betoul showed me next. She dropped some more paints on to the surface of the liquid, and then very deftly and gently moved the floating pigments with the awl until she had a tulip shape. In the next design, she made a tree with flowers on it. Clearly, the designs were just limited by the imagination.

It was my turn next. Betoul guided me as I repeated each of the different patterns that she had made. I was the only one in the class on that day, so I could take my time to decide on color combinations and play with manipulating the pigments across the surface of the tray. My final products were not master level art, but I liked them.

A collage of the Turkish paper marbling pieces that I made in the class.

I really enjoyed this introduction to Ebru, and I went home with a very personal souvenir from my visit to Istanbul. My favorites pieces will get framed and hung in my sewing room (hmmmm………this would be a really cool way to make fabrics for a quilt……….).

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