Wednesday, July 2, 2008

White, White or White?

I've always been a little puzzled by the many white paints available for use in watercolor and oil painting. Believe it or not, this is a topic of discussion among some of my artist friends. (Go ahead and say it, we're nerds.) After doing a little research, I found why choosing the right white matters.

The most common artists' white paint pigments are Zinc White, Chinese White, Titanium White, and Lead White. In each of the following posts, I will discuss the properties of each pigment. The last post will be a reference chart comparing the pros and cons of each paint.

Let's start with the oldest of the whites, Lead White (also known as Flake White or Cremnitz White). It dates back to the Ancient Greek and Egyptians. It was originally made by filling lead jars and pots with vinegar (which is an acid) and burying the pots in manure piles, an ancient source of generating heat. The lead disintegrated into a white powder that was white lead.

Lead White has great opacity and is known for it's buttery consistency. It produces very intense, warm color mixtures. The color and textural qualities of the "old masters'" paintings come from the use of lead white. The particular warmth of the works of painters such as Monet also comes from their use of Lead White and cannot be produced by any other white oil paint.

The pigment of Lead White is basic lead carbonate; it is very toxic. That is why you never see this color in water-dilutable paints; it would be too dangerous to use. However, when incorporated into an oil paint and used in a conventional manner, it can be used safely.

Because of its lead content, manufacturers have developed a white paint similar to lead white, but without its toxicity. Gamblin, for instance, has created flake white replacement, which has moderate tinting strength and maintains most of the working properties of flake white.
Source: Wet Paint Art


Abby Creek Art said...

So white is not white?!:) I guess I'm a nerd too...because this stuff fascinates me. I usually use Titanium White...but there are so many other whites you can come up with by mixing too. Subtle differences but enough to matter.

Manon Doyle said...

Hi Peggi,

Thanks for the kind comment on my blog! I browsed through your website and your blog and all I can say is ...Wow!! You are very talented. I love your work!
I usually use Titanium White like Linda an occasionally I'll use Zinc White. It's pretty interesting to learn about each color and it's origin.


Peggi Habets Studio said...

Linda and Manon,
Thank you both for the comments. I too use Titanium but after researching, I am itching to try the safer, alternative Flake white with my oils. I've used Chinese white with watercolor, but never quite liked the way it mixed with the other colors. Linda, you're right about mixing. A little cad yellow with titanium is nice.

Karine said...

How INTERESTING, about Lead White. I usually use titanium, myself. The one thing I will say about the few Gamlin oil paints I have tried is that they SMELL. And not in a good way. Perhaps they have improved upon that.

Thanks for bopping over to my blog. Your work is wonderful!

100swallows said...

An interesting post, Peggi. I think painters starting out are confused by all the whites for sale.
I see that the latest theory on Goya's mysterious illness, which led to his deafness, was that he slowly poisoned himself (without knowing) with lead white. That poisoning even has a name: saturnism. I don't know how seriously to take the diagnosis--after all, none of the painters around him seem to have gotten sick--his brother-in-law Bayeu or Mengs. But maybe Goya was more careless.

Peggi Habets Studio said...

Karine and 100swallows,
Thanks for dropping by. I love to hear other artists' opinion on such a detailed thing as white paint and brands. Karine, I haven't tried Gamblin yet, I always use W&N; the smell thing could really be an issue. 100swallows, great post you have on Goya and Spain: http://100swallows.wordpress.com/2008/07/03/goya-comes-to-madrid/. I'd like to here more about his illness.

100swallows said...

Thanks for the link, Peggy--I'm glad you liked the post. There'll be more on Goya. I saw that saturnism (lead poisoning) comes from the word (saturnus) the alchemists used for lead in the Middle Ages.