Body Marbling

Experiments in Body Marbling

Since I put up this page originally, videos of people marbling their arms have gone viral, and hence I have started to get quite a few enquiries about the technique. Unfortunately I have found the process very sensitive to relatively subtle changes in materials and techniques and so at present I am not in a position for this page to be a full tutorial yet. I hope to be able to do this in the fullness of time.

If you have arrived directly at this page from a web search, I would recommend also reading my gunge and slime page Gunge & Slime as this will give you an introduction to thickeners that can be used for the size bath.

One of my friends, Emily, shared a link to a video from BL visuals at a festival in the USA running a stand where participants were able to marble their arms.

BL Visuals

We both thought this would be an interesting artistic activity to try out- and so set a summer date.

I went away and carried out some research, but found no information on specifically how to marble body parts, although I did find more general instructions and bought a couple of books- between these sources I was able to work out a basic process that stood a chance of working, and so sourced the necessary materials.

During the experimenting we managed to get some good results, but there were a number of variables that we didn’t fully control or completely understand the implications of. We are therefore unable at this stage to write up definitive instructions that we know to be reliable, rather this page will detail what we did, which could form the basis of further experimentation.

Size bath
The marbling is carried out in a bath of a material known as size. This is essentially container of water with a thickening agent mixed into it. In our case the container was a 60litre plastic drum which enabled an arm to be dipped in to a good depth.

Marbling artists generally recommend either Methylcellulose or carageenen gum as the thickener, but as I already had a number of other thickeners in stock I decided to try them as alternatives. Initially I experimented with Xanthan gum, but the paint didn’t spread evenly on it so we ended up using Guar gum. We started by using a weak mix, but the paint tended to sink, so we thickened up to a mix of 0.3% w/w Guar in water.

Marbling artists pre-treat the materials that they are working on with a material called a mordant- this helps the colourant bond to the paper or fabric normally used. The normal chemical used for this is known as Alum (Potassium Aluminium Sulphate).

The material is dipped in a solution of alum and then thoroughly dried prior to marbling. In our case we made a weak solution in a dustbin of water (approx. 0.1% w/w).

The colourant needs to have a number of properties which include low viscosity to easily spread on the size, high pigment content so it can still colour effectively when spread thinly, and to be strongly adherent. The obvious option here is to use artist’s acrylic paints, watered down slightly to be less viscous. I have a range of acrylics from different manufacturers and in experimenting found that some worked better than others- particularly in how readily they spread.

Those carrying out marbling on paper and cloth also look at controlling the surface tension of the paint- we haven’t tried this yet, but it has potential to make a reasonable difference to the results as it potentially means the paint would spread to a more consistent film.

Other items
We used disposable pipettes to drop the paint onto the size, but squeezy bottles could also have been used.

We used a barbeque skewers to drag the patterns- any range of pointed implements, rakes etc could be used to produce patterns.

There is a need to skim paint off the size surface between dips- we used disposable paper towels, but other absorbent paper such as newsprint would also work.

A hair dryer, fan heater or similar would be good for speeding up the drying time.

We found a variety of scales, pots, plaster mixer, lolly sticks etc useful


We started off by preparing a batch of thickener in water and letting this stand for a while to fully thicken- I used a plaster mixer to make sure the mixing is thorough. We made sure that the surface was free of bubbles, lumps or any other floating foreign bodies before starting the marbling.

Whilst waiting we prepared a few colours of paint by watering down and ensuring thorough mixing so the resultant mix was lump free.

Skin need to be clean and free from excessive grease or sweat otherwise the coating becomes uneven.

Hands were dipped into the alum solution and allowed to dry thoroughly naturally.

The marbling bath was prepped by placing drops of coloured paint on the surface, and raking with a barbeque skewer to create patterns.

  Applying paint  Applying marbling paint
Dropping and then raking paint on size surface

Once dry, we dipped our hands into the fluid and withdrew slowly. We again let them air dry (although a warm air blower could probably be effectively used). It was possible to get 2-3 dips out of a single patterned batch.

Marbling Arm
Dipping an arm in the bath

After a couple of attempts playing with the amount of paint, positioning etc. we were reliably getting good patterns, as can be seen from the pictures.

Palm Marbled  Arm Marbled
The resultant effect

Full Body
Once we found we could reliably marble a small area of skin, we moved on to attempting to marble a complete person- to the best of our knowledge this is the first time this has been attempted.

I have a large plastic tub that one can almost lie down in, so we prepared this by filling with a size mix. Emily changed into a bikini and with a helper had an alum solution wash using a flannel and air dried (really needs to be a warm day to do this!).

Body marbling tank  Paint marbling  Marbled tank
The tank and the the marbled surface

We prepared the bath surface with a marbled pattern in the same way that we had for the smaller tub and Emily laid back into it.

The result was good on her back, but proved less so on her front. We attempted to re-marble her front, but this didn’t prove very effective.

Body Marbling Tank  Body Marbling Exit
Dipping into the tank

We later determined using the video we had taken that when laying a flat surface onto the bath, the paint is essentially trapped against the surface meaning when she laid back into the tank, coverage was good, but as most of the paint was trapped it didn’t wrap round to the front. This contrasts with dipping arms where the surface is vertical as it goes into the tank. This is therefore something that needs further experimentation on a warmer day!

Marbled back  Marbled leg
The resultant marbling

It is clear that the equipment needed should be clean, but needs to be free from detergent residues as this affects the paint properties.

The surface tension of the paint is very important- art marblers use modifiers to change the paint properties- we need to investigate this more thoroughly along with paint strengths and brands to get the best results.

We are sure that the skin needs to be clean and dry prior to marbling, but are unsure of the benefit of using Alum to fix the colour, or whether it’s use after dipping would be better- again we need to investigate this further.

Updates 2015
We have recently carried out another set of trials, successfully producing marbled patterns with fluorescent paints. We have learnt a bit more about process which we can now share.

The main thing we have found in doing the experiments we have is that there are definitely windows of optimum conditions and that going outside these leads to poor results. Unfortunately find the optimums is a bit of a challenge, therefore I strongly recommend experimenting with the exact materials before commiting to any projects.

UV Marbling
Marbling  Marbling
2015 Experiments

Size bath viscosity
When we initially tried with our first paint mix, the 0.3% w/w guar mix we had used previously wasn’t working effectively as the paint was dropping through the surface. We therefore increased the viscosity by going to 0.5% w/w guar which solved the paint dropping issue, but then created the secondary issue of draining off the skin very slowly, therefore not leaving a consistent colour film, and hence poor marbling. This demonstrates It is therefore critical to control the bath viscosity. We haven’t done any tests to see if the thickener choice can be improved- I suspect it can be. (N.B. 0.3% w/w equates to 3grammes in 1 litre of water)

Size Bath too Viscous

This time we used Reeves fluorescent acrylic paint, mixed with a small amount of water and a couple of drops of Daler Rowney ox-gall to improve fluidity. We did not make any measurements of the quantities. When we went to use the paint, we quickly found that the yellow sank, whilst green and orange spread on the surface as expected. Changing the yellow paint concentration we were able to get similar results to the other colours. This illustrates that the paint/ water mix viscosity is critical, as is its surface tension, as controlled by the ox gall. Unfortunately accurate viscosity measurements are difficult to make at home, and viscosity of the base acrylic paints will vary by manufacturer so it isn’t possible to give any recommendation here, other than trial and error with the exact paint you are going to use. It should also be noted that the mixing of the paint needs to be very thorough to ensure it is homogenous. Having said this we have noticed that the finished effect on the arm isn’t always easy to judge from the wet version- a couple of the attempts we had didn’t initially look too good.

I have recently found some better priced inks sold for this, and will give them a try as it may reduce at least some of the varaiables:

We tried dipping in alum both before and after, as well as no alum at all and found no discernible difference. It may therefore not be necessary to use alum, possibly as natural salts on the skin may be sufficient, (assuming skin is clean of excessive oils)

We used blacklight fluorescent tubes to provide the illumination used in the following photos. Whilst there is more we can do, we are happy with the results.

Marbling  Marbling   

   UV Marbling  UV Marbling
Successfull UV Arm Marbling

Marbling  Marbling  Marbling
The set up for Face Marbling

UV Marbling  Black light marbling

UV Marbling
The Final Result

Feel free to drop me a line about your marbling exploits.

Marbling Paper & Fabric
Carol Taylor
Sterling Publishing
ISBN 0-8069-8322-1
Gunge Index
(c) M.Pantrey 2014-2015