Lately, I’ve seen a number of cool videos where artists put an invisible layer of water down in the shape of a letterform, then drop ink into it. When the ink hits the water, the pigment spreads out rapidly and creates a neat gradient effect. It’s also incredibly satisfying to watch! I’ve been experimenting with this approach and I’ve discovered a clever series of techniques that will produce nice marble effect in your letters. I’ve been looking forward to sharing it here on the blog.

Example of a marbled effect using ink and water

Setting Up Your Workspace

Creating this nice marble effect is actually quite easy. It just requires a little patience and the right tools. Here’s what you’ll need:

  • Inks: The possibilities here are endless. In this example, I’m using red, orange, yellow, white, and a dark teal. But you can use whatever you want. I’d recommend having 2 semi-analogous colors (colors that are next to or near each other on the color wheel), a white, and then a color that is on the other side of the color wheel. In other words, you could have 2 lighter shades, white, and a darker shade.
  • Chiseled Writing Tool: In this example, I’m using an Automatic pen, but you can also used a chiseled brush. If you’re not after gothic letterforms, you can use a calligraphy nib or brush. However, this effect works best with gothic letterforms due to their thick bodies.
  • Eye Dropper and/or Separate Brush: You’ll use these to incrementally layer inks on top of each other. I would recommend the dropper for ease of use, but you can also use a brush. I like to use both; the dropper to apply the ink and the brush to move it around once its been applied.
  • Paper: The thicker the better. We’re going to be layering here. If you use thin paper, the ink will eventually bleed and/or warp the paper.I’d recommend a nice watercolor paper or a thick multi-media sheet that can hold wet media well.
  • Paper Towels (Optional): These are useful for soaking up accumulated ink and creating texture. More on this shortly. They’re also great for spills — if you’re like me.
  • Water: I would highly recommend 2 vessels. Keep one vessel for cleaning your pens and brushes, and the other that you only dip clean pens and brushes into. This way, you have a dedicated cleaning vessel which will inevitably become tinted with washed pigment and a vessel for perfectly clear water to be laid down on the paper.
  • Ruler (Optional): I like to use rulers to help plan my compositions.
Workspace shot with water, inks, paper, brush, and paper towels

Getting Comfortable with the Medium

Before you dive in and go crazy, I’d recommend playing around on some scrap paper as a warm-up. This will give you a good feel for the behavior of your inks as well as how liberally you need to be applying water given the rate of absorption by the paper.

Process shot 1

Set yourself up in a well-lit area and begin by dipping your chiseled instrument into the water and creating an invisible letter. If you’re having trouble seeing the letter, you might need to lean at some more extreme angles to see the light refract off of the wet surface of your letterform.

Using your eye dropper or brush, drop some ink into your invisible wet stroke and watch the ink spread!

Process shot 2

Do this a couple of times. You’ll want to get a solid understanding of how much water you need to load into your writing instrument. If you use too little, the line will dry quickly and prevent your ink from spreading. If you use too much, the edges of your letterform will look less sharp. Find a happy medium with enough water to not dry right away, but no more.

Creating the Effect

Time for the real thing! Lay down your letterform and begin dropping in ink. If you find that the ink isn’t making its way to the edges of your thinner strokes, use your pen or brush to tease the water/ink mixture to the boundaries of your stroke.

Process shot 3
Process shot 4

In the above photo, I’ve dropped in a fair amount of red and orange with a couple hints of yellow. Once you’ve saturated your letterform by adding a couple of colors, you’ll begin to see the lighter colors disappear into the darker colors. This is where our paper towel comes in.

Wrap a layer or two of paper towel around your index finger and gently dab the saturated areas of the letterform, soaking them up into the paper towel. Repeat this with a fresh part of the paper towel until you’ve soaked up the majority of the excess ink. Be careful not to press too hard as this will push excess ink outside of the boundaries of your letterform.

Next, add the white.

Process shot 5

The addition of white will begin to reveal the foundation of our marble structure. However, if you’re finding that the white is quickly disappearing into the other colors, it’s because you didn’t collect enough excess ink with a paper towel. No worries — just keep dabbing with paper towels until the white begins to stick.

When the white becomes more prominent, you’re ready for the darker color(s).

Process shot 6

Once again, I used teal ink. And you can see in the photo above that the teal gets warped into the colors, almost becoming a golden, rusty tone. The dark color doesn’t dominate too much here… instead it brings out other tones from the previously applied colors.

This is all about having fun and experimenting. Different colors, ink brands, and consistencies will all yield different results.

When You’re Done…

Let it dry! This ink will take a while to dry and you want to avoid moving your piece at any cost. If you’re not careful, the ink will dribble outside of your letterform as you tilt the surface. This will ruin your piece. Another way to ruin your piece is by blowing on it. If you blow too hard, the ink will spider off in different directions. Not cool — unless of course you’re doing it on purpose. Just be patient and let it dry.

That’s all there is to it! Enjoy!