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Nov 16, 2013

Tidy Whities...

I received an interesting set of questions from a fellow artist today and thought it would make an interesting and informative post to share. So here it is, in all its whiteness and glory...


I don't want you to get in a long discussion but a person in my sketch class says that he knows you and that you are an expert on white paints and have written about white pigments:

Can you tell me where I can find your references regarding: " different white pigments used for oil painting."?

Hi Colin, I am not completely sure what you mean by your question because there are a lot of posts on the blog now and I can lose track of what I've written about. Perhaps this is what you are referring to:

Blog Questions: (With the knowledge or assumption that white is inherently cool and the coolest color on a palette)? Is this statement ( True or False)?
With regards to subtractive color mixing, when a white is added to a color it not only lightens the value of that color, it shifts the hue of the color towards the cool. (blue) The more neutral the starting color was the more pronounced the shift becomes. For anyone having trouble visualizing this effect take some Cadmium Red Medium – what most artists would agree is a warm red – and mix a white into it. You end up with pink, a cooler lighter red.
Did Zorn use lead white?
Yes, for most of his life. The use of titanium white did not become wide spread by oil painters until after 1921 or so. And I think it is fair to speculate that Zorn used titanium late in his life, perhaps a few years before other European artists did, because the first industrial manufacturing of titanium white paint came out of Norway around 1916 or so. Metaphorically, in his neighborhood.
Is lead white a warm pigment?
Yes, when compared to Titanium, or a Titanium/Zinc white mixture. Color temperature is a relative phenomenon. There must be two or more colors involved to experience it. So lead white will normally appear warmer, or more yellowish, than titanium white as we now know it today.
Is flake white made with lead and if so is it also warm?
Yes. "Flake White", "Cremnitz White", "Kremer", "Krems White", and other similar sounding names are used today as marketing term or shelf name in the hope of invoking a romantic response in the artist at the cash register. Because you know that if you could only get your hands on what the Old Masters painted with then you could then be just as awesome, right? Hey, does anyone remember Spike Lee's famous Nike ad back in the '90s...? 
Here is it again, if you don't:  
So, once upon a time, long, long ago, in a far away land those names meant something specific about the paint. Traditional 'Flake' White was manufactured via a process known as the Dutch Stack Process, which magically created a flaky coating of lead carbonate out of partially decomposed dung and urine on lead coils buried under a layer of straw. (The poo and pee being routinely collected from livestock and army barracks, ewwww!) The lead carbonate that built up over time would then be scraped off the lead coils by hand, presumably with a few fingers pinching the nose, and the rough pigment was then ground and mulled into a drying oil. Voila! Flake Lead White paint. 
Back in the day, oil painters felt the stack process produced the finest white of all. (Of course they did, they weren't the ones collecting the poo and doing the scraping.) Lead white produced via the stack process method is still available, but only in small amounts from a few dedicated colormen at a high cost. (NaturalPigments is one such color house who is working on a more industrialized version of the method. Google them if you want to know more.) So most of the lead white paint sold today under the guise of 'flake white' is made from a different kind of lead carbonate, a pigment manufactured in a more industrialized manner using a technology that produces a more consistently shaped pigment. This may sound good to us today – we who consume homogenized milk and refined sugar – but modern lead carbonate doesn't handle under the brush the same way as the old stuff did and it is more prone to pentimento over time. ("Is it the shoes? Is it the shoes?...") 
The names "Cremnitz White", "Kremer" and "Krems White" descend from what was once a Hapsburg city said to manufacturer the highest quality of lead white in the world. (A town also known as Kormeriz, just to confuse you further.) Unfortunately, like many towns unlucky enough to have been situated between Germany and Poland, it no longer exists.
Also, since lead carbonate is less inherently opaque than titanium, the drying oil used to make the paint will have a more pronounced effect on the white's color temperature. Linseed oil, which is traditionally used for most paints, is more yellow than walnut oil. And both linseed and walnut are more yellow than safflower or poppy oil. If you look on the tube's label you'll see which oil was used, assuming the color house has followed ASTM labeling standards. And BTW, if the color house doesn't list the oil or pigment/colorant don't buy the paint. Boycott them until they do. You should know.
Is Titanium White a cool pigment?
Again, yes, if compared to lead white. Far cooler, unless something has been added to warm it up. (see below.)
What property in Titanium white makes it so popular?
Most artists value titanium white for two reasons: its higher opacity, which surpasses both lead and zinc; and for its more benign toxicity, as compared to lead white. But in truth, if handled with reasonable care, lead white is safe to paint with. I have it on my hands a lot as I work because I tend to hold a rag without gloves, and unlike some other colorants, PbCo3 won't pass the skin barrier unless the skin has been punctured or cut. I just make a point of washing up before taking a break for lunch, or when I am done for the day.
With regards to Titanium's opacity, most paint manufacturers are marketing a titanium/zinc blend, or cutting the titanium with an inert translucent material such as calcium carbonate. I say cutting, and not adulterating because in this case reducing the opacity of titanium can be a good thing so it doesn't overwhelm the rest of your palette. Also, titanium used in a paint by itself has a tendency to create a spongy film, and not one prone to longevity.
If I want to use a warm white - what white should I choose and what are the trade offs compared to Titanium White? I use Titanium white now.
There are several factors to consider when choosing a white. But first and foremost, each manufacturer is trying to offer a white that has different handling properties, opacity, and longevity. So please interpret the following information as generalized statements. In my opinion, the best way to determine which white is best for you is to buy a bunch and try them out. Then research the safety and longevity issues.
1. Opacity. Many outdoor and indoor alla prima painters prefer using a titanium white because it allows them to overpaint earlier passages more readily. Meaning, they can bury their mistakes. (Ha! That's what I do.) However, titanium's opacity can become a detriment as well. "Chalky" color in a painting can result from adding too much white in a mix, and titanium can easily push the inexperienced painter into that territory. Lead white is more translucent and thus less prone to chalking up the palette. So, if the other paints on your palette are biased towards the less saturated colors, the umbers, siennas, ochres, and terre verte, then you may find lead white to be a better fit. But if you prefer to paint with highly saturated dyes and pigments, the modern organic colorants such hansas, pthalos, perylenes, and dioxazines, iron oxide reds, indian yellows, and so on – then a strong titanium might be the ticket for you. 
2. Temperature. During most of the day, plein air painters who are paying attention will agree that direct sun produces highlights which are cool in nature. However, this doesn't necessary hold true for the middle values in the same scene as those colors often appear warmer than the surrounding darks and those cooler highlights  This is why I carry both lead and titanium white into the field. I am more likely to use lead white in my mid-values, if I use any white at all.
3. Texture or build up of the paint film. Lead white will generally create and hold more precise impasto than titanium will, assuming the same amount of oil or medium is involved. Despite what some color houses may advertise, Rembrandt would not have been able to produce the clear impasto work he did without the use of lead white. Titanium tends to slump slightly after a brush stroke, or knife-work, so in my opinion the hammered effect in the Man in the Golden Helmet would not have been as dramatic without PbCO3.
4. Lead White will 'dry' more quickly than Titanium White. I placed 'dry' in quotation marks because an oil film does not dry in the sense a water color does. The fatty acids in a drying oil pulls oxygen out of the air and convert into long chain polymers. This process can be accelerated by incorporating other driers and siccatives but the various salts found in PbCo3 are the safest over time. So I often include a little lead in a mix if only to speed things up. Also, conservators will tell you the presence of lead carbonate in an oil film will strengthen those organic polymers – although the actual chemistry involved eludes me. (As an aside, Some lead conservators at the National Gallery have concluded that the presence of zinc white in a paint film may prematurely embrittle it. So I try to avoid using titanium/zinc white for what I believe is important work. The breaking point seems to be around 10% of the total colorants by volume. But I simplified this digression. )
5. Cost. Due to all the hysteria surrounding exposure to lead since the '60s, and recent legislation prompted by children's toys being manufacture in China, and the children who gnaw on them, there is now only one major manufacturer of lead pigment in North America. One. This has driven the cost of the lead white paint up and many color houses are dropping it from their line. This is sad and disturbing because no other oil color has played as important a role in the history of painting – and it would not surprise me to see it legislated out of existence within our lifetime. Sure, you could make your own flake white at home out of dung and urine but doing so is not only dangerous it is time consuming and I don't recommend it. The real danger, or your highest risk of exposure is when lead carbonate is in its powdered form. Like when you are scraping and mulling the flakes.
A number of paint manufacturers now offer a flake white substitute based on titanium, which I personally find somewhat oxymoronic, but does satisfy others. I have yet to find a version that compares to the real thing with regards to the handling properties. The closest equivalent I've tried comes from Gamblin Artist's Colors, and theirs is essentially a heavily loaded titanium white paint which has been warmed up by a mixture of refined linseed and stand oil– the stand oil adding much of the warmth and a ropier pull to the stroke.
But hey, I am willing to keep an open mind about all this and hope for an acceptable substitute someday. If I can find one that works for me I'll use it. 
You are welcome. I hope you found it informative.


If you would like to work on your plein air skills with me next May in Tuscany check out the upper left corner of this blog! There are five spots left, so don't wait! Spouses and partner welcome.

Cost is inclusive, from €1640 to € 2400. 
(Approximately $2,220 to $3,240 US; airfare not included.)

But don't wait to sign up, the early discount ends December 31st!

9 reader comments:

Sergio Lopez said...

Thanks for writing this. Great info, you know your stuff about whites!

Timothy Young said...

Tidy Whities King. Thanks, great post.

Thomas Kitts said...

Ha! Thanks Sergio and Tim. It was fun to write and I hope informative to read.

Jim Serrett said...

Wonderful article, just full of interesting information. I have been a real fan of led white and prefer it in my studio work, I just cannot get the delicate passages and subtle color changes with other whites. I definitely prefer it when I am trying to get a exact color match. But I struggle with the flake white in alla-prima/plein air work, it is just so stiff. I will have to look at using it again on location as you have described. Again thanks for sharing so much great info.

Thomas Kitts said...

Jim, there are still a few color houses that sell Lead White in different consistencies. Check out Michael Harding's or Natural Pigment's LW as they offer it in Linseed and Walnut oil. I seem to remember Harding's LW being rather loose in consistency. I once use Old Holland Cremnitz but can't find it anymore and have switched to Williamsburg. It's rather stiff but can be loosened up with a palette knife with the addition of a little oil. But be aware any extra drying oil will increase the eventual yellowing. Not an problem from everyone. And of course, all oil paint handles differently in warmer temperatures.

Brenda Boylan said...

Thomas, wherever do you find this information? You know so much about painting, it just blows me away. I'd love to try out lead white as I have heard so much about it, Sergio loves it and so many other painters too, but as a somewhat newbie to oils, I think it will be outlawed before I could ever get my hands on it. As for the title of this post, it evoked old commercial scenes from the 70's of Tide Laundry soap. Go figure. As for your book, it's on my list! Oh, and thanks for the great post.

Thomas Kitts said...

Thanks Brenda. I hope you do give PbCO3 a try...(grin).

As for the book, "Painting the Light", I order a proof tomorrow so I hope to make the hardcover available within seven days. The eBook should be online before then.

It will be the perfect holiday gift! (Ha!)

Chris B. said...

Thank you for the info on whites - so many choices out there. What are you favorite whites (Brand,etc.)? Top 3?

Thomas Kitts said...

Chris, here are the four whites I have gravitated to over the past five years. But I am sure there are others out there as well which are fine paints:

1, Old Holland's Cremnitz White (their other Flake White No.1 contains a proportion of zinc) Very stiff and needs oil or a medium to loosen up.

2: Williamsburg's Flake White (I have been using this since it is harder to get Old Holland's Cremnitz White in my area lately.) Also very stiff and requires oil or medium to loosen it up.

3. Gamblin Oil Colors' Titanium White (Gamblin also makes a TW/ZW mixture, so look at the label closely.) This is my outdoor workhorse white.

4. Graham's Titanium White ground in walnut oil. (A smooth and buttery white that can become a little too loose out of the tube for me on a warm day. But it can cover large areas quickly without the use of any medium.)

Of course, your preferences may vary o try them all and let me know what you think...

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