Heather Large chats to a Shropshire artist who uses a Japanese method of paper marbling to create unique designs
As a young bookbinder, Sarah Amatt was fascinated by the decorative endpapers on the old books she was repairing.
These patterned papers were traditionally used to hide the lumps and bumps caused by leather turn-ins and cords and to keep the text safe from wear and tear.
Sarah was so intrigued by their beautiful marbled designs that she began researching the art in libraries in London and at Harvard University in Massachusetts.
She decided to try experimenting with the technique, known today as Turkish marbling, to see if she could recreate the patterns and papers she had seen.
The process involves floating oil paint on the surface of a bath of water solution.
The paint is then manipulated using tools such as combs to create distinct patterns and a print is taken.
“The process was controllable so many similar sheets of paper could be produced,” says Sarah, who recently moved from Ludlow to Herefordshire.
After a lot of practice, she began making and selling marbled papers in traditional Turkish designs, mainly to bookbinders but also to publishers and retail brands.
Over time she was drawn to another paper marbling technique – the Japanese art of suminagashi or “floating ink”.
It’s believed to date back to as early as the 12th century and later became popular with the Japanese royal court.
Unlike the Turkish approach, where the artist has more control of the finished design, suminagashi involves allowing the ink to reveal its design with just a few minor interventions by the artist, if required.
“It’s the unpredictable nature of the process which appeals to me,” says Sarah, who attended the first International Marblers Gathering exhibition and conference in Santa Fe in 1989.
“It’s more wayward, more fluid. Sometimes you know what the ink will do, other times it takes you in a new direction. You never get the same pattern twice, not that I would want to.”
Designs tend to be more minimal compared with those created using the Turkish technique.
To create her monoprints, she uses Japanese calligraphy ink and western printing paper.
She has a large trough of water and two brushes – one is to use with the ink and one with a soap solution which acts as a dispersant.
First, she dips a brush into the ink and drops this onto the surface of the water. Next, she dips the second brush into the soap mixtures and places this on the centre of the ink bloom.
This causes the ink to disperse and create a ring. The process is then repeated in the centre of the ring, with Sarah going back and forth between two brushes to create more patterns.
“You do this 30 to 100 times, depending on the number of rings you want,” she says.
Using her intuition to guide her, Sarah can make alterations to the pattern by gently fanning the air above the water or lightly blowing across the surface.
But it’s also important to know the right moment to stop and take the print.
“Like with most artists, you get to the point where you can stand back and look and know that if you do anything else, you will ruin it,” explains Sarah.
She is currently experimenting with different coloured inks and also homemade ink.
The latter is made using Japanese ink sticks which are ground and mixed with a small amount of water on ink stone called suzuri.
“They are blank inks, but you some with a brown hue to them and others that have more of a blueish tone. You get some subtle differences and that’s very attractive,” explains Sarah.
In Japan, Suminagashi patterns often reflected nature and that’s something that Sarah also enjoys featuring in her work.
“Sometimes I might do a busier pattern with more lines and other times it might be more pared back.
“Some of the patterns can be echoing nature like a wood grain or a river crossing through a valley,” she explains.
As well as monoprints, Sarah also creates a range of unique lampshades using prints made on traditional Japanese paper called washi.
“I use washi because it’s quite absorbent, it’s strong and it lets in light. It’s a very satisfying use of suminagashi because when you turn the lamp on, you get lovely light coming through the design,” she explains.
Sarah has also created a starter kit to enable people to try the craft at home and runs workshops teaching people the necessary skills to create their own designs with an understanding of the materials, tools and process.
It doesn’t take long for students to pick up the basic techniques and then they are able to try out their own ideas.
“I get a lot out of teaching. I enjoy seeing what other people do with the process, its always something different,” says Sarah, whose workshops were commended in Eventbrite’s Most Curious & Colourful Events competition.
“People always say it’s a calming process and how in the moment they are. They forget about everything else and they lose track of time.
“With suminagashi, you don’t need any artist training. You can just come along, be curious, play and you’ll get some amazing patterns.”
Sarah’s first workshop of the year will be held on March 11 at Culmington Village Hall, near Ludlow, from 10am until 4pm.