“Floating Ink”

For December, I wanted our SEC scientists to relax a little and to get a chance to tap into their creative energies. Though I’ve never done this project as a full-sized program before, I couldn’t resist. While we normally keep most of our projects solidly in the realm of S.T.E.M. (Science, Technology, Engineering, Math), I let us expand to the realm of S.T.E.A.M. (includes ART) for this month’s exploration of the ancient Japanese art of Suminagashi (or “Floating Ink”).

We started our evening with a brief discussion about the art of Suminagashi and other forms of water marbling. Suminagashi is the art of floating special paints on the surface of water, and then capturing the patterns you create onto paper. Evidence of Suminagashi can be found in Japan as early as the 12th Century. Originally, Japanese artists would use mainly black and indigo inks, and with delicate hands, would gently place the paint onto the water in beautiful patterns. The paint was then captured onto an absorbent paper, like rice paper. Below is a video that I shared with our SEC scientists of a modern Japanese man using a Suminagashi technique.

Today, a budding artist can find specially prepared paints/dyes online or in art stores that make the process that much easier. While the “looser” paints (similar to liquid watercolor paints) can be created with a few artist supplies, I took the easy route and ordered some Japanese paints/dyes I have used in the past with home projects (more details on the supplies we used below).

There is another form of water marbling with paints that is more commonly done in America and Europe. It is called Ebru or “cloud art” (a Turkish word, even though the technique did not come from Turkey). There are some significant differences between the two techniques. With Ebru, the water in the tray is treated with a thickening agent, and then a layer of paint is splattered onto the surface as a base for the art work. Also, the paper used to collect the paint is ALSO treated with something prior to being dragged across the surface of the tray. Below is a video showing an artist using the Ebru technique:

One benefit to Ebru vs. Suminagashi is that it is easier to create intentional works of art – where a plain surface of water is extremely fluid and creates its own organic designs with the help of a little blowing or fanning, the “sizing” solution used in Ebru allows artists to delicately create very beautiful and sometimes intricate designs with detailed flowers, birds, etc. However, a downside to Ebru is that the paint is more likely to dry out on the surface of the solution if the artist takes too long with his/her creation, whereas the paints in the Suminagashi water bath remain endlessly fluid.



  • suminagashiSuminagashi paints (I purchased a set of paints/dyes created by Boku-Undo via Amazon.com)
  • White or clear trays to fill with water (I was lucky enough to receive a donation of trays from Whole Foods in West Hartford, CT; I simply put a piece of white paper beneath the half of the tray with water so that the paints would stand out clearly for each artist)
  • Paintbrushes of various sizes (ideally, you want fine-pointed brushes like these, but I bought a set of simple Crayola brushes from Michaels store that worked just fine)
  • Special paper [NOTE: Regular copy paper is treated to prevent absorption – you need a paper that will be able to easily absorb the paint. You can buy fancier art papers that work best, but I found that the simple white construction paper and the pad of Crayola water color paper worked really well.]
  • Paper towels (for blotting damp paper as it comes out of the water…and for any messes!)
  • Cups of water for rinsing brushes if reusing brushes in different colors
  • NOTE: I was able to put drops of paint on the unused side of our clear containers, but if you are using a single tray, you may need an artist’s palette or some small containers to put the paint in.

I talked with our group about how both the paints and the paper need to be a special kind for the Suminagashi process. The paints  – similar to liquid watercolors – contain additives or surfactant chemicals to help them float on the surface of the water. [Surfactants allow colors to both diffuse through the water AND remain separate like an oil.]  We also talked about the nature of the paper needed for the process. Traditionally, Japanese artists would use rice paper or a similarly absorbent paper. Many of our modern papers – like the paper we use for our printers and copiers – is treated to RESIST absorbing excess liquid, to protect against humidity, etc. So modern artists need to be mindful about the paper they use. You can buy some special art store papers that work wonderfully well with Suminagashi paints, but that can be cost prohibitive for most of us. After testing out a variety of papers to use in our program, I actually found that my favorite was simple, white construction paper. A close second was a very inexpensive pad of water color paper made by Crayola (50 sheets for less than $3).  I did buy some slightly more expensive water color papers to try out, but I didn’t like the results as much interestingly enough. I DID bring the additional papers into our program, though, in case we needed more paper for our projects.

sec floating inkPrior to the program, I cut up the paper into manageable squares that would fit nicely into the trays we were using. Each scientist had the following at their stations:  tray (with one half filled with tap water and a piece of white paper under the side of the tray filled with water); squares of paper for the artworks; paper towels; 2 brushes; a cup with a little water in it to clean brushes; and a recycled magazine to help keep prints flat while they drived.  I made the conscious decision to wait to pass out the droplets of paint to each scientist. This was both good and bad. I know that some of our scientists would have started playing with paint long before I was ready for them to; but I didn’t have a smooth gameplan for distributing the 6 colors of paint to my 19 scientists (yikes). Fortunately, I had a room full of parents who were happy to help distribute the paint, so myself and 5 volunteers each grabbed a bottle of paint and put no more than a drop or two of our chosen color on the dry side of each scientist’s tray.

The process of creating the works of art takes VERY LITTLE paint – just a dab will do. Our scientists had a great time carefully layering paints and creating “prints” on their pieces of paper.

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