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Is White Just White

 A Guide For Oil Painters

by Carmi Weingrod

No one knows better than oil painters about the peculiarities of different white pigments. Throughout history, they have used a variety of white pigments, reflecting both cultural changes and advances in color technology. With the wide assortment of whites now available to choose from, however, many artists wonder if they’re using the right white for the job.

There are only three white pigments used in manufacturing professional oil colors: flake white, titanium white, and zinc white. All of the whites you see in professional oil color lines are made with one or a combination of these three. Each has a different mass tone (the full-strength surface of a pigment when viewed by reflected light), tinting strength, opacity, fat content, and drying rate – which is why each looks and performs differently. White colors are all very lean by nature. Incidentally, a color’s fat content is the amount of oil it takes to sufficiently wet the pigment particles, information you need in order to paint “fat over lean.” While the three differ in their degree of opacity, white remains the most opaque color in an oil painter’s palette; you can’t make it transparent! On the contrary, you can use flake or titanium white to turn any color opaque.

Flake White

Flake white is the oldest white pigment, dating back to ancient Chinese, Egyptian, and Greek civilizations, and it was the only white pigment used by artists until the mid-nineteenth century. You may also know it as lead, Cremnitz, or silver white. Made from basic lead carbonate, the pigment has characteristics that many oil painters appreciate-and some simply can’t live without. For one, it has the warmest mass tone and a subtle yellowish undertone that becomes more apparent when you study it next to other whites or in grays made by adding black. But what really sets flake white apart is its extremely workable, ropy consistency, pearly opacity, and great covering power. It’s also the fastest drying of all the whites, making it a good choice for light under painting and working alla prima.

With so many positive attributes, it’s a pity that flake white has one major flaw: It’s toxic. While too dangerous to use in a water-based medium, flake white is safe in oils if you follow some precautions. Keep it away from your hands and clothing, for example, not just when it’s in paint form but also when it’s mixed with solvents or oils. Wearing protective gloves might be a solution. Needless to say, if you paint with children or animals around, flake white may not be the wisest choice. Brush cleaning and rag and waste disposal are complicated, and you don’t want to wash the stuff down your household sink either, especially if you’re on a septic system. (See “Methods & Materials: Shades of Green-Environmental Awareness for Artists, “American Artist, January 1995.) With these constraints, you can see why so many contemporary oil painters have abandoned flake white for titanium- and zinc-white mixtures.

One manufacturer, Gamblin Artist Colors, recently came out with Flake White Replacement, a lead-free substitute for those who like the working qualities of flake white but not its toxicity. “We wanted to produce a white that would attract our customers who bought other colors but wouldn’t veer from flake white,” explains Robert Gamblin, the company’s owner and paint maker. After running nearly a dozen test batches by several steadfast flake white users, he found the winning formula in a combination of titanium and zinc whites and an inert extender.

Zinc White

Although the French discovered zinc oxide in the late 1700s, artists saw the first zinc white as a watercolor in the 1830s under the name Chinese white. It took two more decades to make the pigment suitable for use in oil colors. The most naturally translucent of the three whites, zinc white also has the coolest, cleanest mass tone and a consistency much like that of freshly whipped frosting. As a result, it mixes well with colors to produce clean tints. It’s also the slowest-drying white and the least opaque-features that make it indispensable for glazing and scumbling. In fact, zinc white leaves a pearly translucent Film rather than the solid, opaque whiteness of either flake or titanium white. When scumbling, however, don’t forget that all whites are very lean. If you’re going to scumble over a glazed area, you’ll need to add oil to the white or you’ll violate the fat-over-lean principle and risk subsequent cracking.

Although zinc white has obvious advantages, it’s not flawless. It produces a harder, more brittle paint film than the other two whites and can crack with age. Mixing it with other colors, however, increases its pliancy.

Titanium White

Titanium dioxide was discovered in 1821 and became available as a pigment in 1870, but it wasn’t formulated into an artists’ color until 1919. Titanium white is the brightest and most opaque of the whites and has the highest tinting strength. In fact, it’s so brilliant- with a mass tone on the cool side – that some artists find it too overwhelming to use unmixed. In terms of its drying time, this white dries faster than zinc white but slower than flake white. Many titanium whites include a small amount of zinc white to improve the paint film and handling.

Some colors made primarily from titanium dioxide have unique names. One of these is Holbein’s Ceramic White, formulated with a strontium pigment to give it qualities not found in standard titanium white. The manufacturer claims Ceramic White has more tinting strength and covering power than lead or zinc white, is more transparent and faster drying, and offers better handling than titanium white. Chroma Archival Oils’ Pearl White is a transparent, iridescent white made from titanium-coated mica and, according to the company, can be combined with colors – especially transparent ones- to obtain a metallic effect.

The underpainting whites found in several oil-color lines are basically titanium white (often with a small amount of zinc white) mixed with a metallic dryer or fast-drying alkyd resin. One manufacturer, Holbein, even calls its version Quick Drying White. These whites dry faster and more evenly than other whites, remain more flexible with age, and won’t crack. You can also mix them safely with all traditional oil colors, including other whites, and they will speed drying time proportional to the mixture.

You should not use any other whites for extensive underpainting or for priming because they’re generally ground with safflower oils to prevent yellowing. These whites dry very slowly. If subsequent paint layers are applied before a safflower-oil film is thoroughly dry, cracking can occur.

Hopefully, some of this information will help you assess which situations call for the use of one white over another. Unfortunately, there is simply no perfect white pigment for oil painters. While titanium white is often called the artist’s all-around white, you’ll get the best results by using and mixing a variety of whites to achieve different painting effects.