The art of ebru (paper marbling) is the most attractive decorative art in terms of the preparation technique and the fact that an end product is rapidly attained. Although it is impossible to give precise information about the origin of this art, the presence of some works made on water, known as liu-şa-şien in China after the eight century, suminagaşi or beninagaşi in Japan after the twelfth century, which, in following centuries appeared in Turkistan, and were referred to as ebre in Chagatai Turkish, give us some vague ideas about the historical development of the art. From this point, the art made its journey down the Silk Road to Iran and earned the name of ebrî; in fact, this art form makes shapes that resemble clouds –hence its name, a Persian word that refers to clouds. The same name occurs in the Ottoman lands, but because of the difficulties in pronunciation, in the last century the word ebrî changes to ebru. Although not an accurate derivation, the fact that the Persian word ebru means eyebrow cannot be considered to be controversial, as eyebrow forms also appear in this form of art. Today, the art of ebru is known as ebr-bâd in Iran. The word ebruzen, created in Istanbul in the last two decades for the ebru artists is in fact a great error, as this word actually means “eyebrow maker, eyebrow stealer”.
In the middle of the sixteenth century, the art of paper marbling spread from India to Iran and then to Istanbul. At the end of the same century, ebru papers were taken by European travelers to their own countries and thus the art form became known there; these papers were adopted first in Germany and later in France and Italy, where they were known as marble paper or Turkish marble paper, even as Turkish Paper; they soon started to be produced in these countries. In time, Turkish paper spread to the UK and the USA, changing in accordance with the local art style. In addition, the different materials used in the art have also had an influence. Ebru is made by dropping paint pigments on a water surface. But certain conditions are necessary in order to attain a favorable result. Before explaining how ebru paper was prepared in Istanbul during the Ottoman Era, the equipment and materials used will be introduced.
Equipment and Materials Used in Ebru
All ebru equipment is produced in Istanbul; however, most of the materials are brought from Anatolia, or countries to the East or West.
Pigment: The pigment obtained from colored rocks and earth in nature is known as toprak boya (earth pigments) in Turkish; these are not soluble in water and do not have any oils. Some similar vegetable pigments are also suitable for use. First, the pigments are rendered into dust in a marble mortar, using a stone desteseng (pestle). Pigments used in classical ebru are listed below:
For yellow arsenic sulfur (zırnık); for blue, Lahore blue (lahur çividi), obtained from the indigo tree; the best type is found in the city of Lahore in Pakistan; for black wax soot (balmumu isi) or linseed oil soot (bezir yağı isi), which are also the basic materials for ink; for navy bedahşî lâciverdî, also known as lapis lazuli, from Afghanistan; for white, European white lead (üstübaç, frengî isfidaç), basic lead carbonate; for brick red, gülbahar (a type of pigment with a large amount of iron oxide) is used; and for maroon, lök (lac) a substance found on branches of some trees in India; for tobacco brown, earth from Çamlıca is used. Although the types of pigments are limited, new colors can be obtained by mixing them (for example, a combination of zırnık and Lahur çividi results in green).
Ebru vat: This is a rectangular vat, which used to be made from pinewood, the cracks of which were pitched; today the vats are made of zinc or are galvanized. The dimensions of the vat are according to the paper to be used, and is 6 cm deep.
Gum Tragacanth: This material is a secretion of an Anatolian plant known as geven; is irregular in shape and is used to thicken the water in the vat and control the viscosity of the water, thus ensuring the pigment that is sprinkled on the surface of the water does not sink. It is dissolved in the water at a rate of 1/100 into a consistency as thick thick as the boza drink (made of fermented wheat of millet). Then, it has to be filtered through a muslin cloth. One ebru vat filled with gum tragacanth water can produce approximately 600 ebru papers. Flaxseed, salep (derived from orchid root), quince seeds, hilbe (fenugreek) are also used for the same purpose in Ottoman ebru; in the Western world, an algae known as badderlock is used in the place of gum tragacanth.
Ox gall: The pigments that are sprinkled on thickened water should not mix. Ox gall, which contains bile acid, is used to combat the tension created by the gum tragacanth, thus allowing the pigments to spread a certain distance; a sufficient amount of ox gall is added to each pigment. The more the gall the more it spreads. In ebru, after adding one color to the design, the next color has a bit more gall added to it, thus allowing it to make room to expand.
Brush: The brush is made of horsehair, wrapped around a thin and straight stick, preferably made of a rose branch. It is not possible to get the proper results with modern brushes.
Comb: The comb is prepared by attaching thin nails to a wooden strip and this is used in the taraklı ebru (combed ebru). Combs can be wide or narrow.
Awl: A thin awl is used to shape the pigments and a thicker awl is used to dropping the pigment on the water. In the past, a single horsehair was used for this purpose.
Preparation of Ebru Paper
After filling the vat with the prepared and filtered water, pigments that have had gall added to them are dropped with the horsehair brush; the colors expand on the surface of the water like cloud-banks. Every new color creates room for itself over the other colors, according to the amount of gall that has been added; this kind of ebru is known as battal ebru. The style that looks like porphyry marble is known as somaki ebru.
In battal ebru, the ebrucu does not interfere with the pigment in the vat except to spatter or drop it in; he has to go with the flow of the pigment after the certain point. It is for this reason that ebru is considered to be a concrete example for the explanation of küllî irade (predestination) and cüzî irade (free will); dropping the pigment is cüzî irade, and the eternal image that appears on the surface of the vat is likened to küllî irade.
After the colors have been dropped for the battal ebru, if the tip of the thin awl touches the water, traveling from top to bottom or from right to the left, and then in the opposite directions with sharp and symmetric movements, this style of ebru is tarama (gelgit - tide) ebru; if the movements of the awl are irregular and round in form, this style of ebru is şal örneği (shawl ebru). If the awl is moved from the sides to the center in a spiral direction, this style is bülbülyuvası (nightingale nest) or according to a recently discovered source mutaf ebrusu. If the pigments are dropped as in battal ebru and then combed, with the nails going through the gummed water, this is taraklı ebru. If the work starts out as a tarama ebru at the beginning and is then converted to a taraklı ebru, more charming images can be acquired. By adding one last dark color that is left as drops on top of these ebru styles, then one has created the serpmeli (sprinkled) feature. If naphtha is used for the same process, there will be minor blanks on the surface of the ebru paper; these are called neftli ebru.
As the gummed water in the vat becomes dirty, the dropped pigment takes on other colors; and this technique is known as kumlu (sandy/dirty) ebru. When the dots are v-shaped, this is called kılçıklı (bristled) ebru.
When an ebru has a light color, it is known as a hafif (light) ebru. It has an appealing background, especially for ink calligraphy; to prepare the surface for easier writing it is coated with egg white.
There is another kind of ebru known as hatip ebru because it was first created by a famous ebrucu from the Ottoman State, the hatip (preacher) of Hagia Sophia, Mehmed Efendi (d. 1773). Here, bright pigments are dropped at certain intervals on a light-colored surface; optionally, more than one pigment can be dropped on top of each other. Using the thin awl, it is moved from right to left and from top to bottom several times, creating a swirl, a heart and star forms. Towards the end of the eighteenth century, flower patterns were attempted with the same technique. However, only in the later era of the Ottoman State (1917-1918) did the calligrapher Necmeddin Okyay (b. 1883/d. 1976) succeed in making life-like çiçekli (flower) ebru – creating tulips, carnations, pansies, poppies, rosebuds, chrysanthemums, and hyacinth); Okyay’s student, Mustafa Düzgünman (b. 1920 /d. 1990), added the daisy to these patterns. Flower ebrus are referred to as Necmeddin Ebru in art history.
Transfer of the Ebru to Paper
Once the ebru design has been completed in the vat, it can be easily transferred to the paper; the paper is put in either on the right or left side, and gently laid over the pattern for a few seconds. Holding the two closest corners the ebrucu pulls the paper up and then puts it on a wooden drying rack, leaving it to dry in the shade.
The designs in the vat can be transferred to only one piece of paper and cannot be used again. It is not possible to reproduce an exact copy of a previous ebru design, but similar designs are possible. In this regard, each work of ebru is a unique and irreplaceable work of art.
Another invention by Necmeddin Okyay for twentieth century Turkish calligraphy was the calligraphic ebru examples. After being written with an Arabic gum solution on paper and being left to dry, a calligraphic work is placed in the ebru vat; the parts covered with the Arabic gum do not take up the pigments, and the written section remains the color of the paper. In old manuscript books, akkâse is a term that refers to coloring the written part of the paper and the surrounding areas differently; such papers are referred to as akkâseli kâğıt. This masking process is applied to ebru. Moreover, in the seventeenth century in the Bijapur district of India, ebru paintings were made using this technique. Despite the fact that Necmeddin Okyay had never heard of or seen these paintings, he discovered that when Arabic gum solution is applied to the center of a lightly colored ebru paper, and if the paper is placed in the vat for the second time with darker colors, a new style, with two different sections of ebru appears; this is akkâseli ebru. This technique was also applied to yazılı ebru (written ebru) by Necmeddin Okyay.
Ebru Artists in the History of Istanbul
The earliest written Istanbul source about the history of ebru is Tertîb-i Risâle-i Ebrî, dated 1608; the text can be found in the work Türk Sanatında Ebru.
We have insufficient information about the practitioners of ebru throughout history. A brief list of Ottoman ebrucu are given below:
Şebek Mehmed Efendi: This personage is mentioned as merhum (deceased) in Tertîb-i Risâle-i Ebrî; it can be understood that Şebek Mehmed Efendi was an ebrucu who lived in the sixteenth century in Istanbul. His works are unknown.
Hatib Mehmed Efendi: The art of ebru reached perfection with Hatib Mehmed Efendi in eighteenth century Istanbul. One of the first names to be remembered in our history of ebru, Mehmed Efendi was the hatib of Hagia Sophia mosque; Mehmed Efendi died in a fire in his home in Sirkeci/ Hocapaşa district on March 30, 1773. All of his works also perished in the fire. In the era of Sultan Ahmed III (1703-1730), Mehmed Efendi made great contributions to restoring beautiful books with appealing ebru. In addition to his extraordinary taste in color and patterns for battal, şalörneği, tarama, taraklı ebru, he also created the hatip ebru, which is named after him.
Sheikh Sadık Efendi: Sadık Efendi brought the art of ebru that he had learned in Bukhara to Üsküdar, Istanbul, where he was the sheikh of the Özbekler Convent. Sadık Efendi passed away in 1846. Thanks to him, ebru returned to Istanbul from Central Asia. His sons İbrahim Edhem Efendi and Mehmed Salih Efendi learned this art from their father.
Hezarfen İbrahim Edhem Efendi: In 1826, Sheikh Edhem Efendi was born in Üsküdar, at the Özbekler Convent; he was known as hezarfen (master of a thousand arts) due to his extraordinary achievements in a large number of arts and crafts. Edhem Efendi dedicated the time that he was not praying to gaining knowledge and art; he specialized in joinery, carpentry, carving, engraving, calligraphy, engraving of seal, foundry, turnery, forging, fitting, printing, weaving, architecture, making machine parts and ebru. Three famous calligraphers, Sami Efendi (d. 1838/d. 1912), Aziz Efendi (d. 1871/d. 1934) and Abdülkadir Kadri Şeker (d. 1875/d. 1942) were his students; these individuals were engaged in ebru art while his student Necmeddin Okyay, a skilled calligrapher, took up ebru as a profession.
Necmeddin Okyay: As his master Edhem Efendi, Okyay was also known as hezarfen for his expertise in a number of arts; Hatip Mehmed Efendi played a spiritual role in the success of Okyay’s ebru. Necmeddin Okyay has the distinct honor of being the person who brought Ottoman ebru to the present day after thirty-two years teaching, starting at the Medresetü’l-Hattâtîn and ending up at the Academy of Fine Arts. His two sons (Sami, b. 1911/d. 1933; Sacid, b. 1914/d. 1999) and Mustafa Düzgünman are the first students whose names come to mind. Although many people learned ebru from Necmeddin Okyay at the Academy of Fine Arts, they did not further their education due to the lack of interest in the era. Apart from these people, one other ebrucu, Bekir Efendi, is known to have continued his profession in a workshop in Kağıtçılar Çarşısı/Vezneciler district until the beginning of the twentieth century.
Master Okyay stopped pursuing his art in 1962, preparing his ebru vat for a last time. But Mustafa Düzgünman continued making ebru with an increasing passion and enthusiasm from 1958 until 1989. After his great exhibition in Beyoğlu Yapı Kredi Sanat Galerisi in 1967, girls in Istanbul and Turkey began to be named Ebru; this art became famous with the new generation. His students continued to follow the lead of their master and today they still teach the art to enthusiastic youth.
Apart from the traditional approach in ebru, some have adopted modern painting principles and create their own style. Increasing interest in ebru today has brought forth a search for new materials; today there is a retreat from the classical approach of this art, something that we observe with great sorrow. The large number of successful and unsuccessful ebru artists that practice today will be evaluated when their time has passed.
Areas in which Ebru Is Used
In the Ottoman state, ebru was only produced in Istanbul. It was used as the inner pages of books for centuries in bookbinding; moreover, it was used on the margins of calligraphic writing, the part known as koltuk; many beautiful illustrations can be seen in museums and libraries.
Large scale ebru made on thick and durable papers from Italy (Alikurna – Leghorn) were used as covers for official books. But in the nineteenth century, imported print ebru papers both broke the spell and made it difficult for the local ebru artists to earn a livelihood.
From the seventeenth century on, many works were written on the art of paper marbling since 1646 when the first work that defined this art as “Turkish paper” appeared in Rome. Since then this art form has received attention of the Western world. Ebru is one of the rare Ottoman arts that is still performed enthusiastically today.
Necmeddin Okyay made it a tradition to put a flower ebru at the end of murakkaa (calligraphy album) that he created himself; Mustafa Düzgünman, following his master, added inner and outer margins in ebru and included different styles to the flowered ebru, adding gold lines; thus the tradition of framing these papers and hanging them on the walls began. Today, ebru works are mostly hung as paintings on walls.
Derman, M. Uğur, Türk Sanatında Ebrû, Istanbul: Ak Yayınları, 1977.
Derman, M. Uğur, Ebrû Sanatında Osmanlı Sultanları, Istanbul: Türkiye Cumhuriyet Merkez Bankası, 2013.
Özçimi, M. Sadreddin, Ebrû, Istanbul: Biksad, 2010.
Özçimi, M. Sadreddin, Levnî’den Ebrûya, Konya: Konya Valiliği İl Kültür ve Turizm Müdürlüğü, 2011.