Many use holiday correspondence to stay in touch with faraway friends. Why not send your family news on a piece of hand-marbled stationery, using a technique called Suminagashi. "It means 'floating ink' in Japanese," explains Jake Benson, a bookbinder who conducts Suminagashi workshops at the Pyramid Atlantic Art Center in Silver Spring. Developed in the 11th century during the Heian period, the aqueous-patterned paper was "originally reserved for the nobility," Benson says. "Later in the Edo period, it was allowed for use by commoners -- typically for personal poetry -- and in bookbinding."
You can practice this ancient craft with modern materials at home. First, spread a generous layer of newspapers around your work station and an area to dry the papers. Next, fill a wide baking pan with water an inch deep. For the floating ink, use Higgins blue drawing ink or traditional Yasutomo calligraphy inks in black or red, available at art supply stores. For a broader color repertoire, Benson recommends Boku Undo inks produced in Nara, Japan, "which is a traditional inkmaking center. . . . They developed a set of colors specifically for Suminagashi." In addition to red, blue and black, the set includes yellow, orange and green. Put a teaspoon of each color into plastic cups. You can improve the ink's ability to spread by adding one drop of Photo-Flo, a film developing chemical produced by Kodak. It can be found at photography shops that carry darkroom supplies.
Next, make a "noncolor" agent by mixing one tablespoon of water with five drops of Photo-Flo. Take two soft paintbrushes and dip one with ink and the other with the agent. Hold a brush in each hand; gently touch the water surface in the pan with the tip of the ink brush. The color will quickly spread. Next, touch the ink pool with the other brush; the agent will radiate into the color. Touch the surface with the ink and the agent alternately to create a bull's-eye. For variety, you can switch to an ink brush with a new color or swirl the ink with a toothpick.
When you see a pattern you like, gingerly place a piece of paper on the water surface for a second or two to absorb the ink. Quickly peel it away and put on newspaper to dry. "If you're doing this with kids, you can use newsprint or construction paper," Benson says. "But if you want something more archival, for wrapping paper or a card you would save, you want to use rice paper." Benson recommends Aitoh rice paper, also made in Japan.
Before making another sheet, clean the water surface of all ink and agent by skimming it with strips of newspaper.
You can use the Suminagashi paper as stationery itself and dash off a haiku to a sweetheart. I like to decorate a box of plain cards with bands of Suminagashi. Measure and cut the decorative paper into inchwide strips. Dot the edge of the card with glue and carefully place the strip on the card's left vertical edge. Flatten the card by weighting it with a telephone book overnight. A set of Suminagashi stationery is sure to impress a friend or relative.
PAPER SOURCE -- 3019 M St. NW. 202-298-5545. www.paper-source.com. Open Monday-Saturday 10 to 8, Sundays 11 to 7. Boku Undo Suminagashi Innovation Marbling Set, $15.20. Aitoh rice paper, 48 sheets, $8.
PLAZA ARTIST MATERIALS -- 8209 Georgia Ave., Silver Spring. 301-587-5581. www.plazaart.com. Open Monday-Friday 9 to 6:30, Saturdays 9 to 6, Sundays noon to 5. Other locations in Bethesda, Rockville, Fairfax and the District. Higgins Drawing Ink, blue, one-ounce bottle, $2.95. Yasutomo Sumi Ink, black or red, two-ounce bottle, $4.15.
PHOTOGRAPHY CENTER OF BETHESDA -- 8216 Wisconsin Ave., Bethesda. 301-986-1829. www.photographycenter.com. Kodak Photo-Flo, four-ounce bottle, $3.90. Open Monday-Friday 10 to 7; Saturdays 10 to 3.