Contemporary Paper Marbling with Jones Violet
October 8, 2021
Every time I tell someone I do paper marbling they’re like “But how do you DO it???” Honestly it’s so simple—you float paint on water thickened with seaweed extract and comb it into patterns. Not to say it’s easy. It’s actually incredibly annoying and the materials are all really expensive, perishable, and poisonous, and I’ve burned my fingertips with potassium hydroxide too many times. But oh honey, it’s so fun!
I learned paper marbling as a 19-year-old in a retirement community in Florida. My mentor was Steve Pittelkow, a grumpy man I met in college who took me on as an apprentice. I would marble 6–8 hours a day, until I saw patterns when I closed my eyes. We would take lunch breaks at the local retirement potluck, where they served grape salad (green grapes with cream cheese and brown sugar—it looked like eyeballs floating in cream). Sometimes in the mornings I’d play pickleball with the retirees. In the evenings I biked on flat Florida streets to the beach and I’d stare up at the clouds and see marbled patterns—nonpareil, french curl, feathered chevron.
Being a trans paper marbler is a trip. I feel like I’m the only one, though I suppose there’s no way to know for sure. I started taking estrogen right when I got more serious with my art, and it’s really interesting to see how my art has changed since then. It’s gotten a lot bolder, a lot brighter. Sometimes I feel like the paper marbling world is stuck in the past—the same methods and pigments and styles passed down through centuries. From my experience, so much of the marbling world is older white men and women (but mostly men) trying to recreate antique papers. I really love that my papers look nothing like anything from the past. They’re queer in a literal sense, bright and bold and obnoxious.
Here’s some rules I broke:
- Don’t mix watercolor and acrylic paints. Well guess what, I did it and I’m never going back! You get all the benefits of watercolor marbling (ability to adjust chroma separate from spread-ability of paint on a surface, that ethereal transparency and grainy-ness of watercolor) mixed with the ease and durability of acrylics. Why did so many people tell me not to do this??
- Don’t try to prolong the life of your marbling size, it’s seaweed extract and it’s gonna spoil within a few days. This one took me years to figure out—I read in some book from the early 1900s that some marbler used to add formaldehyde to his marbling goo and it kept it from going bad…and probably gave him nose cancer. But modern formaldehyde-releasing preservatives do the same thing while keeping me cancer-free!
- Don’t use paper besides white or black cotton paper. Recently I’ve started experimenting with luster photo paper for paper marbling and it’s amazing. The paper itself shines through in little gaps through the pattern and the supernatural flatness of photo paper means the art has a palpable texture, little ridges of patterns you can trace with your fingers.
- And more!
There’s so much emphasis in paper marbling on production, on making editions of similar-looking papers to be cut up and bound into books. That’s great and all but really undersells the ability of paper marbling to be its own art. Lately I’ve been really into writing loud, angsty messages on my papers in liquid latex. I really like the idea that my art is screaming at you from on the wall, combining these bright swirling patterns with abrasive messages like YOU’RE A BAD ALLY! Recently my uncle told me that he had to stop following me because my art was making him uncomfortable. I felt so validated.
Me and my mentor don’t talk anymore. Sometimes I reach out but we’re not close like we used to be. I think our styles are just too different. And besides I feel too excited by the direction my own art is taking to really care that much. I want to keep writing weird shit, making papers that yell at people from across the room. And maybe I’ll make a few that say nice things too. You never know.
–Jones Violet is a social worker, comedian, and paper marbler living in Portland, OR. She likes to tend to her garden and play moody piano. Her Instagram is @marble.mistress, where she also sells her work.