Art Culture Science
Time 45 minutes
Age 7 & up
Group Size 4 or more
Tags Art, Individual, Ink,   more...
Japan Marbles Paper

Suminagashi uses the unpredictable swirling of water to create one-of-a-kind images!

Suminagashi, Japanese for “ink-floating,” is a paper marbling technique that was practiced in Japan as early as the 12th century.  Creating these beautifully marbled pieces of paper encourages children to relax, focus and observe the changing swirls in front of them.  You will be amazed by the beautiful results!


It is very important that everything used in this activity (the brushes, trays and jars) be as clean as possible.  The trays or tubs you use should be at least 2 1/2” deep.  Tupperware containers and some aluminum pie tins will work.  Make sure that the paper you are using is smaller than the width and length of the trays.

Fill each tray with 2 inches of room-temperature water, making sure to keep the water free of dust, oil or soap.  Pour a small amount of sumi ink into each empty baby food jar, and have pairs of students share a jar.  Try this activity first before showing your students the process.


Suggested Materials

  • Clean, shallow trays or tubs (1 per child)
  • Clean paintbrushes with fine tips, or with wood skewers or toothpicks (2 per child)
  • “Sumi” Japanese calligraphy ink (in a green plastic bottle, found at art supply stores) (2 bottles)
  • Clean baby food jars (15)
  • A few bars of soap or dish soap
  • A variety of papers, smaller than the water tray
  • Newspaper and paper towels

Make it Matter

Opening Discussion

Ask your students if they know what a “swirl” looks like.  Where are some places that you might see swirls?  If they don’t mention it, ask your students if they have ever seen swirls in clouds or water.

Ask your students if they have heard of Japan.  Can they find Japan on a map?  What do they think it is like in Japan in the summer (or whatever season you are in)?  Tell them that they will be making a kind of decorated paper that people have been making in Japan for over a thousand years.

The Challenge

Create beautiful marbleized paper using this Japanese technique!


Make it Happen

Doing the Activity

  1. Make sure your hands and the water tray are CLEAN while you fill it with water. Keep the water and the papers free of dust, oil and soap.
  2. Find a steady place to lay your two brushes, wooden skewers or toothpicks.  Place one brush or skewer on the left side of the water tray and one on the right side.  Dip the left side brush or skewer into the ink.  If using a brush, you only need a little bit of ink!  The surface of the water will pull ink from the brush.  Too much ink will drop through the surface and pollute the water.
  3. Carefully touch the very tip of the inked brush or skewer just to the surface of the water in the middle of the tray.  You might see a grey circle widen where you touch down.
  4. Lay down the inked brush and pick up the other brush (the un-inked one on the right side of the tray).  Touch the end of this brush or skewer either to the side of your nose (your nose has lots of oil on it), to a bar of soap, or (just barely) to the top of a detergent bottle.  Touch the tip of this oily or soapy brush/skewer to the water INSIDE THE DOT of ink (or the center of the tray, if you can’t see the ink yet).  You might see the ink that is floating on the surface of the water move away from where you touched—cool, huh?
  5. Repeat, alternating between brushes, and always touch the brush tips in the middle of the ink circle on the surface of the water. You should soon see many concentric circles. Once you feel you have enough, you can gently blow across the surface of the water to start creating swirls (See Figure 1).
  6. When you like what you see on the water, pick up a piece of paper, holding it from the sides.  Bring the ends together a bit so the middle of the paper bends down toward the water—now you can lay the paper on the water, starting from the center and quickly laying down the sides and letting go. It may take some practice to get this to be a quick, smooth motion.  If you just drop the paper, you’ll get bubbles where no pattern appears, while hesitating while laying the paper down might interrupt the pattern.
  7. Now lift the paper off the water (if there seems to be a wash of “loose” ink on the surface of the paper, try gently, quickly rinsing the paper under the faucet). The ink that actually printed will stay on the paper.
  8. Lay the your print on the newspaper to dry.  Make another print – you don’t have to change the water!

Make it Click

Let’s Talk About It

Once your children have each made at least 1 print, bring them together to talk about what they’ve done.  Do they have any tips and tricks they’ve discovered that they can share with the group?  Did they notice any swirls?  How did they make them?  Any unique patterns they created that they could teach the rest of the kids how to make?  Point out that this is different from a lot of art where the artist controls the paint, the brush, etc.  With suminagashi, the water and the ink are in control—the artist simply captures “moments” in the swirling water and ink.  After 3-5 minutes of discussion, send them back to create some more.


Make it Better

Build On What They Talked About

Have your students continue to make suminagashi.  Try different kinds of paper to see what makes the best prints.  Ask your students about other kinds of art that other countries and cultures make.  Does anyone in your afterschool have some art that someone from their family made that they can bring in to share?


  • Every suminagashi that is made is one of a kind—no print has ever been made, in thousands of years, that looks exactly like the ones your students make.  So celebrate that uniqueness!
  • Try dragging a hair across the surface of the water, or fanning the surface with a paper fan to create different swirling effects.
  • Make a double print by laying a dry suminagashi print in the tray again.
  • Have kids use their creations to make a small book, a card or write a poem on it using ink.
  • You might also try color “marbling inks” (available at art supply stores), watered-down acrylic paint or even markers.  Experiment with different inks and have your children compare the differences.
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