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Choosing the White that's Right in Oils

  Artists' Oil Colour Whites  
Often the visual differentiation between the various whites available to artists is less easily discernable from the tube than with colours such as reds or blues.  However, since white often comprises the largest volume of colour in most oil paintings, the right selection is really important to achieve the desired effect.

Winsor & Newton offers a wide variety of whites in three conventional oil colour formulations, plus one water mixable format;

Artists’ Oil Colour
Winton Oil Colour
Griffin Alkyd Fast Drying Oil Colour
Artisan Water Mixable Oil Colour

In pre-historic times, the first whites were from chalks taken from the earth; very early in the history of colour, bones were also used for making white. Choosing a suitable white required little education as few options existed and artists simply used what was on hand.

Today the whites available offer a wide array of characteristics in differing degrees of opacity and consistency, and are suited to preliminary underpainting, for tinting colour, for highlighting, or for broader heavier applications of mass colour. This article highlights these sometimes subtle differences to help choose the white that best delivers the desired results.

A 1920’s addition to the artist’s palette, Titanium White is probably the most widely used white today. It is the brightest, most opaque and covering of all whites and is a good mixing white when opaque applications are desired. Due to its strength, it may overwhelm weaker, more transparent colours; when this is evident the addition of Flake White for warmer tints, or Zinc White for cooler tints, is suggested. The use of safflower oil reduces the tendency to yellow, common in whites ground in linseed oil. Available in Artists’ Oil Colour, Winton Oil Colour, Artisan Water Mixable Oil Colour and Griffin Alkyd Fast Drying Oil Colour.

Zinc White and Flake White began to appear on artists’ palettes in the early 19th century. Zinc White dries to a cold white appearance and is particularly suitable for mixtures with cool colours and for glazing and scumbling techniques, as it does not overpower other hues. Though a dried film of Zinc White is relatively hard and brittle, this can be reduced by the addition of a small amount of Thickened Linseed Oil or Stand Oil. Available in Artists’ Oil Colour, Winton Oil Colour and Artisan Water Mixable Oil Colour.

Prior to the advent of Zinc White and more recently Titanium White, Flake White* was the standard white used by artists around the world from classical times. Though lacking the opacity of Titanium White or the clean stark whiteness of Zinc White, Flake White has a fast, thorough drying rate, producing a paint film that is durable, with good flexibility and a firm consistency. Available in Artists’ Oil Colour (and Winton Oil Colour in the USA).

Flake White Hue has characteristics similar to genuine Flake White without the hazards associated with genuine lead pigment (see Health & Safety Data Information).  Like the genuine Flake White, it has a lower tinting strength and faster drying rate than Titanium White. It is ideal for mixing with warm colours to maintain warmth and clarity. Available in Artists’ Oil Colour.

Made entirely from basic lead carbonate, Cremnitz White* is the modern equivalent of the traditional white used by the Old Masters and imparts the same brushstroke characteristics as seen in their work. In mixtures it tends to aid the drying process of oxidation of a paint film, a characteristic of all lead whites.  Available in Artists’ Oil Colour.

Transparent White is titanium based, but weaker and more transparent than Zinc White. It is excellent for mixing strong tints and avoiding chalkiness or overly “pastel” colours, making it ideal for delicate tonal effects and glazing. Excellent for artists wishing to avoid opacity. Available in Artists’ Oil Colour.

Introduced in 1999, Soft Mixing White is a soft, creamy, non-sticky blend of Titanium White and Zinc White. This white is excellent for mixing strong tints and avoiding chalkiness or overly “pastel” colours, making it ideal for delicate tonal effects and glazing. It is a bright white, making it additionally suitable for opaque highlights. Although it is soft, it retains brush and knife marks. Available in Winton Oil Colour.

Mixing White is a special formulation of Titanium White with lower tinting strength to allow clean tints of colour without the chalkiness or “pastel” quality of mixtures made with regular Titanium White. Suitable for mixtures with transparent colours and glazing effects, Mixing White is a good neutral alternative to Zinc White. The quick drying alkyd resin, which is touch dry in 24 hours, allows the artist to add a glaze every day. It also decreases drying time when mixed with traditional oils. Available in Griffin Alkyd Fast Drying Oil Colour.

Foundation White* is made from basic lead carbonate with a small percentage of zinc white added to improve consistency and add whiteness to the paint film. With a fast drying rate it benefits mixtures by its durable, flexible nature. Linseed Oil whites will show greater yellowing than safflower white. The latter are recommended for final white highlights. Foundation White is recommended for underpainting and for the development of strong textural effects and in heavy paint applications. Available in Artists’ Oil Colour.

Made from Titanium Dioxide and Zinc Oxide ground in Linseed Oil, Underpainting White has a fast drying rate and a coarse texture, both of which make it well suited to heavy underpainting, although it may also be used throughout the painting. When mixed with colours, Underpainting White will also hasten the drying rate of the resultant mixture. It has good opacity and provides a good toothy surface. It is a less hazardous alternative to Foundation White. Available in Artists’ Oil Colour.

Note on Safflower Oil Whites:

Take care not to use pure safflower oil whites for underpainting, as this may result in cracking in subsequent layers due to the shrinkage in volume of the slower drying safflower oil. For extensive underpainting, either Foundation White or Underpainting White is recommended.

*Flake White, Cremnitz White and Foundation White contain lead, which means that care must be taken to avoid ingestion of this pigment or paint mixtures containing this pigment.  Read more about Health & Safety Data Information.

Finally, a note on Iridescent White. This isn't a regular, traditional white.  It is a mica-based pigment available in Artists' Oil Colour and used primarily to achieve pearlescent white effects.  It is lightfast and can be intermixed with other colours to make them appear pearlescent also.

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