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Jun 22, 2014

What is White?...

Joaquin Sorolla y Bastida
Under the Awning, Zarauz, 1910

Last week I got together for coffee with some fellow painters and the topic at the table was white. What is white anyway? Is it a color? Is it a value? Is it a paint? I think the the only conclusion we could agree on was how you think about white affects how you use it in your work.

Is this white?...

When I squeeze titanium or lead onto my palette I don't think of it as a color per se. For the most part I think of it as a value that can lighten a hue. And when you and I are directly observing the world what we might think is a white, isn't. Sure, we can paint our houses white, we can wear a white wedding dress, and yes, we can even whiten our teeth. But in truth, there is no such thing as a pure white because in scientific terms an absolute white is a reflection of the entire spectrum of light and nothing in the real world does that.

Is this white?...

Most painters use the subtractive method to mix the color they see and then often add white to the color to lighten it. When they do so it not only lightens the color it also makes it more neutral. The more white that is added, the more the neutral the color becomes, and, as a color becomes more neutral it becomes more susceptible to the temperature of the light that illuminates it. (This is true for both the actual subject and the painting.) In addition, your perception of this neutral color becomes increasingly effected by any other color in close proximity, or the color you were just looking at. (An effect that occurs entirely within your eye called the Law of Simultaneous Contrast.) 

And interestingly, white is as neutral as a color can get!

Is this white?...

Just to complicate things further... Even if we were able to surround an absolute white with a perfect neutral gray in the hope of objectifying our color perception the white would still appear to have a color cast. There are other things that cause the retina to bias a neutral towards a hue: some of it is physiological, some of it is neurological, and some if it is cultural. In other words, our perception depends upon our biology and expectations.

Is this white?

Maddening, isn't it? If there is no such thing as a pure white – or to be more precise, we humans are not equipped to perceive such a thing – then what is the observational painter to do in this nutty situation? 

Here are all the whites you just saw placed next to each other. 
Believe it or not, from upper left and clockwise: 
3% magenta, 3% cyan, 3% yellow, and 3% black. 
It is the presence of hue - even the tiniest amount - that is important here. 
Not how light or dark they are.

Here are some guidelines for how to paint white:

1. Look for distinct cool and warm whites. They often there to some degree. They either exist in your subject or your retinas is generating them. Doesn't matter which one is correct. Just paint what you see.

2. Speaking of seeing, look for whites which display a reddish, orangish, yellowish, greenish, bluish, or purplish cast. This doesn't mean the hues will be obvious. They won't. But every white will have some sort of  bias towards a primary or secondary hue. So don't paint white straight from the tube.

3. Placing patches of reddish, orangish, yellowish, greenish, bluish, or purplish white in close proximity to each other will make a viewer aware of how much they differ. It will also imbue your paintings with an incredible sense of light and please the eye.

4. Often, the white you are looking at isn't as light as you think. If the white  is surrounded by a dark then you will perceive that white as being lighter than it is. (This is an expression of the Law of Simultaneous Contrast again and it often tricks a painter into dotting a canvas with too many highlights.)

5. The temperature of the light illuminating your subject and canvas will modify your perception of the lights more than it will the middle values or the darks. If you are seeing warm lights then you should be seeing cool darks. And vice versa. (It's the Law of Simultaneous Contrast again.)

6. Assigning an incorrect temperature to a white can make the surrounding colors appear muddy, or, it can make the surrounding colors look chalky. This can often see in poorly controlled flesh tones.

7. If you set your painting's middle value range too high it will make it impossible to articulate any subtleties in your highlights. If you are having trouble differentiating your whites stop fiddling around with them and lower your middle values. Then go back to the lights.

8. Think like a French Impressionist: don't paint the colors your see – paint the color effects you see.

9. A basic housekeeping rule: Keep your brushes clean when mixing your whites. Whites are easily polluted by what is already in the brush, be it a pigment or solvent. Try mixing your whites with a palette knife and then applying them with a brush without stirring things around.

10. If anything in this post confuses you collect a few white objects and set up a still life. Use a white sheet for a backdrop and arrange the objects so they overlap. Use natural light from a window or set up outside on a table. Now paint the whites as you see them and look for differences. First observe the warm and cool whites, usually separated by light and shadow, and then the hues of those whites. You will understand everything and nothing will ever be the same again.


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6 reader comments:

Tim Young said...

Well written Thomas. Thanks for the brain food.

Thomas Jefferson Kitts said...

Thanks Timothy. This post was hard to write. I still thnk it is a bit confusing myself.

Unknown said...

I enjoyed it........Thanks..

Sergio Lopez said...

Great info, practical exercises like painting a white still life is a great way to figure this stuff out, maybe using different colored lights on that white still life setup would be a good exercise too.

Thomas Jefferson Kitts said...

You are right, Sergio. Using two different colored light sources on a white still life is a fine idea. Didn't include it because it might have complicated this post.

But if you set up a still life indoors, next to a large window, on a sunny day, and then place an incandescent lamp indoors and a few feet away from the side of the still life, then there will definitely be a warm (incandescent) and cool (natural) separation of planes. Likely warm darks, cool lights.

How many times have we all been sitting indoors after dinner, around twilight, with our eyes adjusted to the warm temperature of tungsten light, and then got up to step outside for a moment only to experienced the outdoors as being incredibly purple? Same principle is involved. The effect happens within our eyes, not on the outside. And of course, the purple quickly fades as our retinas adjust. I love this about color. It is sooooo subjective...

Judy P. said...

Great post, lots of stuff to chew on. I really like trying to go for the color effects I observe, but then I forget about the value of that color, it's really hard to get a 'dark yellow' for instance. If there is a glowing color in the shadows, you need to add white to pull that, say, purple, out from being so dark you can't see the color. But then you can lose the transparency in that shadow. I'm probably expecting too many concepts to come out of one brushstroke!
By the way, I am now painting 'by the pound', as you called it in a past post. That gets me in trouble a bit, but I know I am the better for it- Thanks!