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All works of ebru are unique. Similar works can be produced, but never one that is exactly the same. It is with this in mind that the ebru master wields his brush, creates his designs with the needles.
Some thirty years after the first Turkish tulip bulbs, carefully wrapped in gauze, were taken to Europe, the Europeans similarly became acquainted with the art of paper marbling, or 'Ebru' in Turkish. In those years, a German traveler by the name of Reinhold Lubenau, who happened to be in the Ottoman capital Istanbul from 1586 to 1589, saw and admired several examples of such work on sale in a shop. Dubbing it 'Turkish paper', he sent some back to the House of Hapsburg. Since it consists of designs made on paper, 'Turkish Paper', or the art of Ebru, has also been called 'Marbled Paper' or the 'Turkish art of paper marbling'.
Although it is not known with certainty when the art of creating designs on water originated, it does date back as far as the 8th-9th centuries. The Turks took up the art of marbling in Turkestan in the 15th century and brought it with them across Iran to Anatolia via the Silk Road. The word 'ebre' in the Chaghatay language of Turkestan means 'veined or water-marked'. In Persian, the word 'abru' means 'water surface', while 'ebri' has the meaning 'cloudy'. In the dictionary of the Turkish Linguistic Society, the word 'ebru' is defined as “a sort of water paper on which decorators produce designs in a variety of colors.”
Extant examples of old paper marbling can be seen today in bound volumes in libraries, as a decorative border around calligraphic inscriptions, and as a field for either calligraphic inscriptions or official documents. Lightly marbled paper was often used for official correspondence or documents in the Ottoman Empire since no changes could be made on it. The oldest such work is a book dating to 1539-40 by the poet Arîfî entitled Guy-i Çevgân, which has ebru on every page. The oldest book written about ebru is a treatise entitled 'Tertib-i Risale-i Ebri', dated 1608. Used then, the materials and techniques described in this book are still used today by ebru masters who employ the traditional methods, in living testimony to the continuing art of Turkish Paper.
The materials used in ebru include the basin that contains the water, the substances used as thickening agents (gum tragacanth, carrageen, sahlep root), ox bile, the dyes, which are oil-based and not water soluble, the brushes, and the needles of varying degrees of thickness.
But even if all the materials are ready to hand, a proper environment is still essential. The temperature, humidity, cleanliness and tranquillity of the place where the ebru is to be made aside, it is also important that the owner of the hand that is going to sprinkle the dye be at peace with himself. There is no point in sitting down at the ebru basin without a deep love of the art. No point in picking up the brush without reverence for the work to be done. No work of beauty will emerge from the ebru basin unless the artist is endowed with the patience of a dervish.
For the ebru artist, sitting down at the ebru basin is a ritual. For a loving discourse ensues between basin and artist. Many things go into the art of ebru: the angle at which the droplets strike the water, their size, large or small, the points at which they fall, the harmony and distribution of the colors, and the relationship between the different dyes. And who knows if it is the artist himself that determines these things, or the basin? For both exert their will. If there is harmony, then the works that emerge will be beautiful; and the ebru artist will reap the fruit of his love, his patience and his labor.
The ebru master knows that he cannot replicate the ebru that emerges. All works of ebru are unique. Similar works can be produced, but never one that is exactly the same. It is with this in mind that the ebru master wields his brush and creates his designs with the needles. Even a single mistake on the surface of the water may be irreversible, and therefore he must proceed cautiously. At the end of his labor, he will see on the water's surface a unique world, the dance of the colors on the water - colors that will appear as three different sets of hues at the three different stages of the process. Seen on the surface of the water before the paper is applied, the colors are different from how they appear later when the paper is removed, and something else again after the paper has dried. Experiencing this process and observing it in all its phases is an extraordinary thrill.
The basic design of Turkish marbling is the so-called Battal Ebru, and the ability to produce it is the test of the traditional ebru artist. Creating a Battal Ebru design requires using a brush made of horsehair attached to a rose branch. The artist has to know how to adjust the amounts of bile and water to the right consistency and when to sprinkle the dye. Besides Battal, there are many other types of ebru including: 'hatip', ebb and flow, shawl, combed, nightingale's nest, grain of sand, fishbone, light, floral and calligraphic.
Love of ebru is different from all other arts. Mehmet Efendi, a preacher ('hatip') at the Aya Sofya Mosque, who inaugurated a new era in ebru with the designs he produced using the traditional techniques, died in a fire in 1773 while trying to rescue his works from his burning house. The ebru he created came to bear his name, 'Hatip Ebru'.
An ebru artist should be well-acquainted with the sciences of physics and chemistry as well as with mathematics. Among the masters of the art, İbrahim Edhem Efendi, sheikh of the Üsküdar Uzbeks Dervish Lodge, and Necmettin Okyay were both known as 'Hezarfen' (knowing a thousand sciences) for their deep scientific knowledge. Okyay created flowers in his ebru, in a design known today in his honor as Necmettin Ebru.
Mustafa Düzgünman, an ebru master of the Republican period, occupied himself with other arts as well, including religious music, photography and the design of 'tesbih' or Islamic prayer beads. His herbalist's shop was at the same time a school for his friends, and his poem, 'Ebruname' or 'The Book of Ebru', is a delightful work describing ebru and the ebru artist. Following in the footsteps of his teacher, Necmettin Okyay, Düzgünman took the art of ebru to new heights through the works he created and the artists he trained.
Düzgünman's students, Fuat Başar, Alparslan Babaoğlu and Sabri Mandıracı, are continuing the traditional art of ebru today. Yılmaz Eneş, who works along the same lines, has added rose designs to the art of ebru and is therefore known as 'Gülbaba' or 'Father Rose'. Similarly, Hikmet Barutçugil, who has introduced innovations in the traditional methods, has added 'Barut Ebru' to the world of paper marbling. Interest in ebru and the number of artists practicing it are steadily on the rise, and works of ebru are beginning to take pride of place on the walls of Turkish homes today.
Ebru works by Dr. Yücel Barut