Pattern Recognition and Paper Marbling at Maker Camp

Paper Marbling is the art of coloring on the surface of thickened water and creating patterns that are transferred to paper. It’s an ancient art, often associated with Turkey where it is known as Ebru. On a recent trip to Kuwait, I saw a woman from Istanbul demonstrating paper marbling and was fascinated by the technique and the visual patterns created by it. I wanted to learn to do paper marbling, and as I learned more about it, I understood that it once was a technique used in making books.

You can find old books that used marbling to create decorative endpapers. In my library, I have a complete set of books written by George Elliot, and marbling was used to create a unique cover and matching endpapers.

For tomorrow’s Maker Camp, I’ll be presenting four paper marbling projects, which can be considered variations on the basic technique. That is, we’re going to add paint to a surface, stir it around to form interesting patterns, and then transfer the paint to paper.

What I like about these techniques is they are open-ended — once you learn the technique, you can create an endless number of patterns. It doesn’t require any ability to draw, for instance. I’m partial to the idea that is art is fundamentally about learning to see. Paper marbling can help us appreciate very complex patterns. It’s also an opportunity to do something creative and fun without worry too much about the results.

The first technique is a black-and-white version of marbling using Sumi ink, an ink used in Japanese calligraphy, and we’ll allow it to spread over the surface of plain water before transferring it to plain paper.

The second project makes me think of Soupy Sales, a TV host famous for getting a pie in the face. I’m not sure if his pies were made of shaving cream or whipped cream. However, we’re going to use a bed of shaving cream, add food coloring and see what kind of patterns emerge.

The third type is called paste paper. We’ll be using acrylic paint but adding methylcellose to thicken it. We’ll apply the paint to paper and then use various odd objects to create patterns — bottle caps, sponges, netting, rakes, combs, and credit cards. (This technique thickens the paint, and keeps it from drying out immediately so you have time to create patterns.) However, we’re drawing on the paper itself, instead of transferring it.

The fourth is the ebru technique. We’ll thicken water, using methylcellulose again, and then place drops of acrylic paint on the surface. We can use a variety of techniques to spread and swirl the paint to create a pattern and then we’ll transfer it off on paper. (You can also do this project with fabric instead of paper.)

Each of these techniques produces a monotype print, a unique pattern that is created once. I like these patterns, both creating them and studying them. The human brain is wired to detect patterns and find meaning in them. Sometimes we create meaning even when the patterns don’t have any meaning. (Apophenia, according to Wikipedia, “is the experience of seeing meaningful patterns or connections in random or meaningless data.”)

I heard a story recently that the famous physicist Richard Feynman, when a child, dropped a glass bottle of milk on the floor. As his mother heard the crash and approached, he expected her to scold him. Instead, she pointed out to him the swirling patterns of the milk on the floor.

I’ll be posting the project tomorrow morning on the MAKE G+ page and I’ll be on the Hangout on Air at noon Pacific, 3pm Eastern. Just go to our MAKE+ page and hit the Follow button to “join” Maker Camp.

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DALE DOUGHERTY is the leading advocate of the Maker Movement. He founded Make: Magazine 2005, which first used the term “makers” to describe people who enjoyed “hands-on” work and play. He started Maker Faire in the San Francisco Bay Area in 2006, and this event has spread to nearly 200 locations in 40 countries, with over 1.5M attendees annually. He is President of Make:Community, which produces Make: and Maker Faire.

In 2011 Dougherty was honored at the White House as a “Champion of Change” through an initiative that honors Americans who are “doing extraordinary things in their communities to out-innovate, out-educate and out-build the rest of the world.” At the 2014 White House Maker Faire he was introduced by President Obama as an American innovator making significant contributions to the fields of education and business. He believes that the Maker Movement has the potential to transform the educational experience of students and introduce them to the practice of innovation through play and tinkering.

Dougherty is the author of “Free to Make: How the Maker Movement Is Changing our Jobs, Schools and Minds” with Adriane Conrad. He is co-author of "Maker City: A Practical Guide for Reinventing American Cities" with Peter Hirshberg and Marcia Kadanoff.

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