True transformations rarely take place before our very eyes. That’s mainly the reason weight loss companies still depend on not-very-subtly Photoshopped before-and-after photographs to advertise their fat burning capacities, why flowers can only be seen bursting from bud to bloom in warp-speed stop motion videos.
Though there’s an art form quite like alchemy that many in the West know little of, which morphs obscurity into images that dance merrily until frozen into place at their creator’s command.
Ebru art, or the Turkish art of marbling, involves applying natural dyes to a basin of oily water with coarse brushes and many practiced flicks and turns of the wrist, creating delicately clashing abstract patterns, then transferring them to absorbent paper.
Marbling is believed to have originated in thirteenth-century Turkistan, after Islam took hold in the region and calligraphy became a rather big deal. Soon religious texts, important correspondence, poetry books and court proclamations from Anatolia to China, India and Persia were being fluidly embellished in the Ebru style.
Traditional techniques involve dissolving tragacanth in water, a native white plant gum that adds viscosity, and pouring the mixture into a vessel to achieve a depth of roughly six centimetres. Crushed and powered earthen dyes of many colours are quarantined to separate jars, mixed with a dash of water, sprinkled with up to ten drops of boiled ox bile (chemical equivalents, like Kodak Photo Flo, are preferred today!) and get applied to the gummy-watery canvas with small tufts horsehair bound to thin rosewood twig handles.
The various colours rush together, mingle at the edges, but never usurp one another, producing elegantly chaotic motifs rich in texture. When the time is right, the artist presses a sheet of paper — sized to fit the painted-in container— into the floating image to suck up its whirls of hues. Once fixed, the paper is peeled away and set aside to dry, allowing the whole process to begin again.
To better illustrate my slippery description of Turkish marbling, enjoy this video by talented Ebru artist Garip Ay. Beginning with a blackened bowl of H2O, he dabs, spatters, drags and swirls thin glots of blues, whites and yellows into buoyant replicas of Vincent van Gogh’s Starry Night and iconic self-portrait — all set to Beethoven’s silky Moonlight Sonata.
As he finally skims the paper away, revealing his version of the now-famed Dutch master’s face, it’s gladdening to see an old, noble Eastern custom not only preserved outside museum settings, but elevated and able to pluck at the heartstrings of Western art history. Beauty busting boundaries, that’s what I like to see.
Sources: Antika, The Turkish Journal Of Collectable Art, Issue 14, May 1986
Derman, Ugur M., Türk Sanatında Ebru