Skip to main content
Ebru or Water Marbling
Nov 1, 2009

After the “Sacred Word” was expressed in writing, it met with the refined taste in art. As a result of this meeting, some arts such as ebru, tezhip or illumination, and binding came into being. Reaching maturity in the sixteenth century, when Ottoman civilization was in its brightest period, these arts paved the way for the introduction of unique works of art.

As one of Turkish national arts, ebru is carried out by transferring onto special paper a design which is formed by scattering dye on dense water. It is argued that the root of the word “ebru” is from “ebr” (cloud-like), “ab-rû” (water surface) in Persian, or “ebre” (moiréd) in Chagatai. Owing to its moiréd appearance, it is called “marmor papier,” “papier marbre,” or “marbled paper” in European languages, and “waraqu’l-mujazza” in Arabic.

The art of Ebru, which is believed to have origins in Bukhara (a city in Uzbekistan, Central Asia) in the eighth or ninth century, reached Anatolia and Istanbul via Iran along the Great Silk Road. Ebru, like other book arts, continued to develop in Istanbul, reached maturity in the sixteenth century, and experienced its brightest period of time in the seventeenth century. The Ebru that was produced in that period in Istanbul was enough to meet the demand from Europeans.

The oldest example of Ebru ever known is in Istanbul University Library. It is estimated that it was made before 1519. Another piece of Ebru, which is believed to have been made in 1539, is kept in Topkapý Palace, in Istanbul. It is impossible to know much about early Ebru artists, (except those from the last period of the Ottomans) because there was no tradition of adding the artist’s signature to the work in that period. sebek Mehmet Efendi, Hatip Mehmet Efendi, seyh Sadýk Efendi, Nafiz Efendi and Hezarfen Ethem Efendi were famous Ebru artists who lived in the Ottoman period. Names such as Necmettin Okyay, Sami Okyay, Sacit Okyay, Abdülkadir Kadri Efendi and Mustafa Düzgünman were famous Ebru artists who lived in the early Republican period. Today, in Turkey, where the art of Ebru is becoming even more popular, there are a lot of contemporary Ebru artists.

Early Ebru artists produced almost all the equipment that they used. The materials which are used are paper, kitre (a gum-like substance made of cow’s gall), a table, naphtha, an awl set, combs, dyes, and brushes. The dye that is used in Ebru is water-proof. In traditional Ebru, soil pigments are used. The pigments are crushed on a marble base with a hand-carved stone called a “destezeng.” They are then put in a bowl, and mixed with water and gall. The mixture is left to stand for some time so that it reaches the right consistency. The period of waiting may be from several weeks to several years according to the type and quality of the dye. Owing to the difficulty of its preparation, this technique has almost been completely replaced with using readymade products.

Ebru is categorized according to the design and the motif used. By manipulating the dye on the surface of the water, different styles of Ebru can be made such as “the tide,” “the shawl,” “the striped,” “bülbülyuvasý,” (drawing spirals from outside to inside) “Hatip,” (drawing concentric circles with drops of colors) and “flowery.” Battal Ebru is made without manipulating the dye and transferred to the paper directly.

To judge the beauty of a piece of Ebru, three points should be taken into consideration. These are hav (the nap), the nimbus (hale), and the design. The nap is the height of the dye on the surface of the water. It feels velvet-like when it is touched with the fingers. The best nap can only be obtained with a soil dye. The nimbus is a white, glimmering circle around every drop of dye. It is achieved with the gall which is added to the dye. The design is the general appearance of the Ebru. It is composed of color distribution, coherence, form, and the location and size of motifs.

In the contemporary world, different schools of Ebru can be distinguished. The Turkish art of Ebru is one of these styles or schools. Hundreds of Ebru artists perform Ebru in their own way.

Today, most Ebru artists practice it as an independent art. In addition, Ebru is also used with miniature, calligraphy, tezhip, and other arts such as painting. The production of Ebru for book binding has declined in recent years.

There are different arguments about the relation between traditional and modern Ebru. While some artists are more sensitive about carrying on the traditional school, others are freer about the use of equipment and technique. It is useless to argue on which is better. There are already hundreds of Ebru artists around the world who deal with Ebru in the way they want. Whether the work is admired or not depends on art lovers. It is probable that a technique or a school which does not attract any attention today will be demanded more in the future.

There are too few Ebru artists who have received education and license to teach from the early masters. For that reason, the condition that every Ebru teacher should have a teaching license may restrict the art and artists. It can be understood whether one is really an Ebru artist or not, through one’s works, not just by looking at a person’s certificate. On the other hand, it would be beneficial if expert trainers could come together and determine some criteria.

The art of Ebru in today’s world has been experiencing a period of revival. Both in Turkey and in the rest of the world, there is increasing interest in Ebru. In tandem with the fact that many Ebru artists have been trained, there have arisen new techniques and schools.