CONCORD, N.H. >> No matter how you swirl it, making marbled paper is messy. But not all methods are equal when it comes to cash outlay and outcome.
There are so many ways to use the colorful results of an afternoon spent swirling paint onto paper — elegant Valentines or notecards, wrapping paper, framed artwork. And from what I've found on the Internet, there are just as many different marbling techniques that promise to produce elegant results with minimal effort.
Here's what I found during my recent test of three tutorials, rated from 1 to 10 by cost, ease of execution and overall results (with 10 as the least expensive, easiest and best results).
Shaving cream method
This method is inexpensive, fairly easy and probably the most fun for kids. (My 11-year-old enjoyed squirting the shaving cream and told me, "All the good pranks involve shaving cream.") You might even have all the ingredients on hand. I used the instructions on the Meaningful Mama parenting blog (http://bit.ly/1BnV2Pc ), which call for spreading a thick layer of shaving cream on a baking sheet, using a dropper to scatter the surface with pools of watered-down food coloring and then swirling the colors together. A sheet of paper is then pressed into the mixture and peeled away. We were skeptical at that point, but scraping off the shaving cream revealed a mesmerizing pattern underneath.
Liquid starch method
This technique produced my favorite results, and the fact that it also was the easiest and cheapest was a bonus. I followed instructions on a blog called I Am Rushmore (http://bit.ly/1URHqEK ) and was pleasantly surprised at the outcome. This method involves pouring inexpensive liquid starch (look for jugs of it in the laundry aisle) into a shallow container, mixing even cheaper acrylic craft paint with a bit of water and dropping it onto the starch. The paint should be thinned to the consistency of milk, so it will float on top of the starch, and can then be swirled with a toothpick or comb. Lay your paper onto the paint, remove it after a few seconds, and run it under water or submerge it in a pan of clean water. The starch can be re-used for multiple prints, or you can drag a paper towel over the surface to pick up the leftover paint before adding new colors. Once the mixture gets muddy, dump it out and start over.
Alum/methyl cellulose method
The final technique, found on Martha Stewart's website (http://bit.ly/1mYegJ4 ), was a failure on all counts. First, it required purchasing two items that most casual crafters are unlikely to have come across: alum (a mordant that helps the paint adhere to paper) and methyl cellulose (a thickening agent). This method also was the most time-consuming, because an alum solution must be mixed, applied to the paper and allowed to dry, and the methyl cellulose must be mixed with water and allowed to sit for an hour before being used. From there, the technique was similar to the starch method in that watered-down acrylic paint is added to the solution, but my results were significantly less impressive. Instead of swirls, I ended up with spots and splotches. Still pretty, but not as nice as the other methods.
Clean-up is also a downside with this method. According to the tutorial, methyl cellulose can clog drains, so the solution must be poured into a container and disposed of in the trash.