Spotlight on Zinc White

The colour zinc white was first developed in the early 1780’s as a safer option to the widely used toxic lead white used by oil painters. In 1782 the French chemist Louis-Bernard Guyton de Morveau and Monsieur Courtois at L’Académie de Dijon, France, experimented for two years looking for alternative whites and in their search found zinc oxide. Unfortunately, this zinc white proved to be much more expensive than lead white and the search lost its momentum.

 

A Chinese White poster from the Winsor & Newton archive

However, 50 years later this Zinc White would become popular as a watercolour when in 1834, just two years after the paint company was founded, Winsor & Newton introduced a calcine zinc oxide which they called ‘Chinese White’ (named after the type of porcelain that was popular in Europe at the time). It was heated at high temperatures and was denser and more opaque than other whites available.

Winsor & Newton had developed the first reliable opaque white for watercolour. It was a huge success for the newly-formed company with demand so high that reportedly Rathbone Place in Central London, where the company was based, was often blocked by carriages as shoppers rushed to buy the new colour.

 

Rathbone Place, London
Rathbone Place, London

The new white was used extensively by John Ruskin who promoted the colour in ‘The Elements of Drawing’ (1857) where he quotes:

“Use chinese white, well ground, to mix with your colours in order to pale them, instead of a quantity of water. You will thus be able to shape your masses more quietly, and play the colours about with more ease; they will not damp your paper so much, and you will be able to go on continually, and lay forms of passing cloud and other fugitive or delicately shaped lights, otherwise unattainable except by time.”

Winsor & Newton’s Chinese White also had the prestige of being tested and given the seal of approval by the famous scientist Michael Faraday. Faraday (1791-1867) was known for his work in electromagnetism, magnetic fields and the Faraday Cage, amongst other discoveries. In fact, Albert Einstein had a picture of Faraday on his wall (next to Isaac Newton and other prominent thinkers). Alongside his work in magnetism, Faraday also helped with the organisation of the Great Exhibition of 1851, where he assisted with planning and judging the exhibits. The Great Exhibition, also known as the Crystal Palace Exhibition, was one of the first in a series of World Fairs exhibiting items of culture and industry. One of the exhibitors was Winsor & Newton who won the only prize medal open to competitors for artists’ colours. Faraday’s interest in arts and culture also took on the guise of adviser for the National Gallery where he was able to help with the conservation of its art collection providing cleaning and protection advice.

In its journey to becoming Zinc White (or Chinese White in watercolour), Zinc Oxide has been given many names in reference to its alchemy, such as ‘tutty’ (from the Persian word meaning smoke), ‘zinc flowers’ and ‘philosopher’s wool’. These highly visual names refer to the smoke and the forms the smoke would take when zinc oxide was fired in oven chambers.

 

Winsor & Newton Chinese White watercolour
Winsor & Newton Chinese White watercolour

Today Zinc White is available in oils as a cool, semi-opaque, colour-fast white excellent for tinting. Tints made with Zinc White allow for subtler results where the colour retains more of its saturation compared to other whites. It is also found in acrylics where it is known as Mixing White (a mixture of Zinc White and Titanium) and like its counterpart in oil, produces subtler tints. Lastly, it is also available as a gouache and a watercolour, the latter of which is still named ‘Chinese White’.