Tar Art

Greetings Friends,

My friend Chris told me about a fascinating artist with an interesting story. The artist is James Griffith, and he creates amazing paintings using tar. But not just any tar. He gets the tar from Pit 91 at the La Brea Tar Pits in Los Angeles.

Griffith was looking for new materials for his work, and stumbled upon a container of asphaltum in his studio, a material used in printmaking. He tried using it as paint and fell in love with the rich sepia tones of the sticky stuff. He has a special arrangement with the museum to use tar from the La Brea Tar Pits for his work. One five-gallon bucket of tar lasts him a year.

James Griffith tar art

“Elegy for another Species #6″ 16″x12”, tar and titanium oil on panel, 2020

James Griffith tar art

“Crow with Tool”, tar on panel, 12″ x 16″, 2016

James Griffith tar art

“Cougar”, tar on panel, 16″ x 12″, 2017

James Griffith tar art

“The Sun and the Gravity of Radiance” tar on canvas, 36″x72″, 2019

I have a special affinity for Pit 91. It’s an active site where paleontologists dig through the goo searching for fossils every summer. I worked nearby for many years, and sometimes ate lunch sitting on a bench in the park in front of Pit 91 with my friend Ron. I wasn’t crazy about the job, but I have fond memories of Pit 91.

It’s remarkable what Griffith can do with just tar alone. He uses washes of tar and water for the lighter sepia backgrounds and scratches into the tar to create details such as whiskers and fur. I always enjoy seeing the work of artists who are using unusual materials.

Are there other artists you know of who use unusual materials for their work? I’d enjoy hearing your thoughts. You can share them with us in the comments section below.

With love and appreciation,



    1. Hi Cinthia. I hadn’t thought about it being stinky, but you’re right — it probably is. Maybe he seals it with a varnish to get rid of the smell. Can you varnish over tar? I have no idea!

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