A synthetic inorganic pigment derived from lead, flake white is also known as white lead or snowflake white. A warm white, made from completely opaque and permanent pigment, flake white is a fast drier and mixes very well with other pigments, reducing their colours softly due to its low tinting strength.
A traditional lead based white, it is steeped in painting history. Evidence for its use can be found in all the oldest civilisations: as a cosmetic in 400BC Athens, by the Ancient Egyptians and back to the earliest Chinese paintings. Considered one of the earliest pigments, it is basic lead carbonate with zinc oxide and was the only widely available white pigment for artists until the emergence of others in the 19th century.
Desired by oil painters for its mixing qualities and pure whiteness, flake white creates an astonishingly durable and flexible paint film. It was once commonly used as a base layer on canvas due to the strength the pigment gave to the paint film. Conservationists note that sections of oil paintings containing flake white withstand time better than those without.
Flake white is purely available as an oil paint as the oil content protects the pigment from darkening from exposure to the elements. The fine brushing and mixing qualities of flake white make it a favourite among oil painters, notably the late Lucian Freud.
Like all lead-based colours, flake white is classed as toxic, which means that care must be taken to avoid ingestion of this pigment or paint mixtures containing it. Flake white can, however, be used safely with the right precautions and studio practice.
Winsor & Newton provides Flake White Hue, which has similar characteristics to genuine flake white, as an alternative. It’s available in both Winton and Artists’ Oil Colour, and, like the genuine, it has a lower tinting strength and faster drying rate than titanium white. It is also ideal for mixing with warm colours to maintain warmth and clarity.