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Suminagashi: Japanese marbling.

Suminagashi, an exciting marbling experience for students of all ages, was developed in Japan in the twelfth century. In the Japanese language, the word sumi means black ink, nagashi means floating.

I first encountered suminagashi at Haystack Mountain School of Crafts in Deer Isle, Maine. From the moment my ink-filled brush touched the water, I couldn't wait to teach my students this technique in the coming school year.

The technique for suminagashi is somewhat easier than for Turkish marbling. The inks in suminagashi are made to float on ordinary tap water. A chemical agent, called sumifactant, is added to the tap water which allows the ink to float. (For sources of suminagashi materials, refer to the listing at the end of this article.)

The three traditional colors used in suminagashi are black, red, and blue. Red and blue Chinese watercolor ink chips are dissolved in water and a few drops of sumifactant are added to this. Black ink is prepared separately by either grinding an ink stick or by using liquid sumi ink or black drawing ink; sumifactant is added to the black ink as well. Any palette-like container that will keep the colors separated, may be used. A section of this container should hold additional sumifactant to be used as a clear spacer between colors throughout the design.

One oriental bamboo brush is used for each color of ink, plus one for the sumifactant. Coordinating colored tape on each brush helps students keep the brushes in the proper color ink. A shallow tray is filled with tap water. The ink-filled brushes, held like chopsticks, are touched to the water lightly in a vertical position. This will produce a small drop of color on the surface of the water. Taking a fresh bamboo brush dipped in sumifactant, the student touches the center of the floating ink spot with the brush. Immediately the colored ink spot jumps, producing a ripple effect like throwing a stone into a pond. When a sufficient number of concentric circles are produced, the water is gently shaken either by blowing or fanning. This gives the circles a jagged edge.

Rice paper (washi) is then placed on top of the marbled water surface. The paper immediately soaks up the design. A wooden dowel is used to gently pick up the delicate paper which is put on newspaper to dry. If you are not using rice paper, a solution of alum water, (one tablespoon of aluminum sulfate to a cup of distilled water) should be sponged on the paper's surface for about ten minutes prior to marbling.

My sixth grade students were very excited about this process -- they had never experienced anything like it before. Easy to learn and highly successful, suminagashi designs mimic patterns found in nature, such as wood grain, tree rings and slowly running streams.

The students made covers for Japanese bound books by folding their marbled papers in half, adding folded rice paper pages and stiching the book together with embroidery thread. Suminagashi decorated paper books can be used for many interdisciplinary lessons. Haiku poetry may be written on the pages of the book or poems may be matted on the marbled papers.

Barbara Levine is Art Department Chairperson, Clarkstown North High School, New City, New York.
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Author:Levine, Barbara
Publication:School Arts
Date:Mar 1, 1992
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