Spotlight on: Chinese white

Chinese white is one of the most popular colours used by artists. Its success is based on its ability, after being mixed, to take the edge off brighter colours. It is subtle and not too strong, making it invaluable for highlights and essential for white objects.

Of course there is a school of thought that says the paper should be used as the white colour. There’s nothing wrong with that, but if you learn to use Chinese white well, it will add to your repertoire and not detract from it.

The vital ingredient

The key element in Chinese white is zinc, which was used in ancient times as a medicine. By the latter part of the 18th century zinc oxide began to appear as an artists’ pigment in watercolour. Unlike the more commonly used lead white, it didn’t turn black. The downside was that it was relatively weak and transparent. However, from the very beginning of their partnership, Winsor & Newton were on a mission to improve the pigments used by artists. Zinc oxide was high on their agenda.

White heat

Winsor & Newton heated it in ovens to very high temperatures and produced the first real alternative white with good opacity. Chinese white was an early and resounding success for the company: demand for the new product was so high it is reported that Rathbone Place, where the company was based, was often blocked by carriages as eager clients tried to get their hands on this exciting new colour.

Success on a palette

Chinese white was introduced in 1834, having been tested and given the seal of approval by Sir Michael Faraday, the pre-eminent scientist of his day. More importantly, the list of leading artists voicing their enthusiasm grew quickly.

John Ruskin (1819-1900) used Chinese white from its introduction to his death. Thomas Rowbotham (1783-1853) was a fan, and even painted the Winsor & Newton factory. Charles Cattermole (1832-1900) demonstrated Chinese white in a sketch which hung in the Rathbone Place shop for more than 60 years.

Poetic praise

Artist JD Harding (1798-1863) was fulsome, and almost poetic, in his praise of Chinese white:

“You have wished me to record my opinion of the pigment which you call Chinese white and I do so without hesitation from my consideration of the service your house inspired to art by its introduction,” he wrote in December 1843.

“In working it has every possible quality which I think could be desired added to which it appears to have the still greater essential of being permanent. Since you introduced it now some years ago I have unhesitatingly used it having in the first instance obtained the opinion of one of our most distinguished chemists as regards its durability.

“This being favourable in the most satisfactory degree, all my scruples were removed, and ever since my own practical experience has led me to confide in it, so that I no longer have the least doubt – none of my pictures give the least evidence of any change, and they all appear as fresh as ever.

“I cannot refuse myself this opportunity of expressing my favourable opinion of your preparation of every material which is used in the Arts.”