Marbling is a printmaking technique that basically looks like capturing a galaxy on a page, except it requires neither subatomic particles nor superhuman skills. Nowadays you can find video tutorials showing you how to marble everything from silk scarves to fingernails, but I primarily make marbled paper, which you can use as backgrounds for collages or photos, to decorate journals and notebooks, or to wrap small gifts. If I weren’t such a DIY advocate, I would probably buy a marbling kit with step-by-step instructions (and no disrespect if you opt for that!), but I prefer to experiment, because the results are more unpredictable!

What you’ll need:

  • A set of oil paints
  • Turpentine
  • A few sheets of uncoated paper—regular printer paper will work, as long as it isn’t glossy.
  • A shallow rectangular container (like a baking tray) that is bigger than the size of your paper
  • Smaller containers for mixing paint (like jar lids)
  • Rubber gloves
  • Utensils for mixing and spreading paint. These can be brushes or straws, or you can make your own marbling comb with toothpicks, cardboard, and scotch tape (see below). Just make sure the length of the comb is smaller than the width of your tray, because you’re going to use it to drag the paint across the surface of the water.

Since you’ll be working with paint, you might want to wear old clothes, and cover your workspace with newspapers or a plastic tablecloth to prevent stains. You’ll need relatively easy access to a sink for clean-up, and if you can work near a window, the fresh air will help with the drying process.

Now on to the marbling:

1. Pour about an inch of water into the tray. Then choose the colors you want to use, and squeeze the paint into small, separate containers (I used the lids of the paint jars). Add some white paint if you want to get pastel shades.

2. Add some turpentine to the paint and mix. I suggest doing this in a well-ventilated space and wearing rubber gloves (even though I didn’t), because you don’t want to breathe in the fumes or irritate your skin. The proportion varies depending on how much paint you are using—I use about a teaspoon of turpentine for every ½ teaspoon of paint. You want the mixture to become liquid and smooth, but not too watery, like so:

3. Now comes the fun part. Create your design by pouring your paint into the water. You can just dump it all in, or selectively distribute the colors where you want them. You can add more turpentine if you want to thin the mixture out in places.

4. If you’re happy with the design, you can skip this step, but otherwise, you can redistribute your colors by swirling the mixture gently with a toothpick, blowing on the surface through a straw, or using your marbling comb.

5. Carefully lay a sheet of paper on the water. To avoid submerging it, start at one end and move slowly down the length of the paper—don’t just plop the whole thing down at once. (It’s OK if the face-up side gets a little wet, but keep it as dry as you can.) Get ready to pick it up right away, because step six comes RIGHT ON THE heels of five!

6. Remove the paper as soon as it’s flat! Starting at a corner, gently lift it out of the water. Again, you might want to use rubber gloves.

7. Lay the sheet out flat on a clean, protected surface. Once it’s been drying for a while, you can lay a heavy book on top of it to keep the edges from curling (slide a piece of paper in between to protect your book).

One tray of water is usually enough for three to five prints. Each one will be different from and lighter than the last, as the paint dissipates. It can take a few tries to get the desired effect, but every attempt will be mesmerizing. When it’s done, you’ll have a map of your own undiscovered galaxy—or some decorative gift wrap. It’s whatever you choose, so enjoy! ♦