A is fo Asphaltum, A-to-Z Challenge

W11 ANTIQUE MASON SPAN RED CHAIR MPFCI discovered asphaltum when I was conserving/restoring two dozen pieces of Mason Monterey furniture for the National Park Service.   Being a painter who up until that time primarily used acrylics, I had never heard of it before.

Asphaltum (also called bitumen) was once made of a broad range of naturally occurring substances, namely pitch or petroleum or bitumen of Jerusalem, and occasionally referred to a dark resin from the sap of trees, called burgundy pitch.

Artists were trying to find a good source of transparent black or deep brown oil paint, and generally used a mineral substance based on petroleum for the pigment.  The color produced was unreliable because the sources were so varied in mineral content.  Two common methods for creating the oil paint were to melt the asphaltum in spirits (turpentine), then add it to beeswax and boiled linseed oil.  This produced a paint that lacked body, and so many old recipes added more resins or mastic.  A second method was to burn the asphaltum until the highly volatile material was reduced to ash, further crush it into a fine powder, and then add it to the linseed oil.  This resulted in more durable and reliable paint.

These paints were typically used sparingly, for subtle shadow especially in nudes.

Mason used asphaltum as part of his glaze in the Monterey line.  Did I mention that asphaltum was and is also highly toxic, with lead and other poisonous minerals?  Even if I could find it today I was not able to use it in the historic hotel furniture!

I was very happy to find that Gamblin produced a wonderful non-toxic “Asphaltum” of Transparent Mars Red and Bone Black to use in the restoration of the hotel furniture.  For more information old masters and their colors, I recommend Robert Gamblin’s article on Earth Pigments, “Evolving Earth.”

As I move into painting with oils, I find asphaltum a wonderful pigment to use as a glaze, in place of the hematite or quinacridones I used when painting with acrylics.



I am now agreeing to the  Creative Commons Attribution-Non-Commercial 4.0 International License, which you can learn more about by visiting the site, or, visit my web page for a more user-friendly summary on my terms.  My images/blog posts can be reposted; please link back to dkatiepowellart.
Images courtesy of MPF Conservation (Mitchell and Kate Powell, Partners!)

About dkatiepowellart

hollywood baby turned beach gurl turned steel&glass city gurl turned cowgurl turned herb gurl turned green city gurl. . . artist writer photographer. . . cat lover but misses our big dogs, gone to heaven. . . buddhist and interested in the study of spiritual traditions. . . foodie, organic, lover of all things mik, partner in conservation business mpfconservation, consummate blogger, making a dream happen, insomniac who is either reading buddhist teachings or not-so-bloody mysteries or autobio journal thangs early in the morning when i can't sleep
This entry was posted in art, oil paint, painting and tagged , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

10 Responses to A is fo Asphaltum, A-to-Z Challenge

  1. slfinnell says:

    Beautiful work! And great start to the a to z challenge!


  2. Sammy D. says:

    What rich colors. It’s so interesting to learn how much the sciences and math (like chemistry and statistics) factor into the passions and careers we choose. Typically when studying in high school, I found them boring, meaningless subjects because I didn’t understand how they fit in the real world. Your explanation of the procedures to eventually find a non-toxic version give substance to chemical reactions.


  3. camibrite says:

    interesting technique, and nice job with the chair!


  4. Joy says:

    Beautiful work on those chairs!


  5. I hadn’t heard of this kind of glaze/paint before. Very interesting!


  6. Pingback: L is for Lead: A-to-Z-Challenge | Mpfconservation's Blog

  7. Pingback: New Hahnemühle Nostalgie Journal | D.Katie Powell Art

I love hearing from visitors!

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.