Painting & drawing blog


Isn’t white just white?

Siberian dogs in the snow by Franz Marc

If you are a beginner at painting you might reasonable wonder why there’s a choice of white paint colours in the first place. Unless your subject is a pair of Siberian dogs in a snowy scene like this painting by the Expressionist Franz Marc, does it really matter exactly what shade of white you choose? Well yes, because the most commonly available pigments used to create white paint shades have quite different properties and can make a considerable difference to the effects you can achieve, and even to the long-term stability of your finished painting. Except perhaps for watercolour painting where you may rely on the white of the paper to create paler tones, white paint is also likely to account for quite a large amount of the paint on your canvas or board.

What is in white paint?

Although there are quite a number of white paint colours marketed at us, in fact there are usually only three main pigments used in the manufacture of the range of white paints that you’ll find in an art store, whether you are buying oil paints, acrylics or watercolours. Those pigments are LEAD CARBONATE, ZINC OXIDE, and TITANIUM DIOXIDE.

Originally and for many years lead carbonate was the usual pigment used to manufacture white paint. These days however it is almost obsolete due to its unfortunate toxicity (it’s now suspected that many a famous painter suffered from a degree of lead poisoning!) Under EU legislation lead is now banned from household paints and although there is an exemption for artists paint, lead-based paint can only legally be sold in childproof tins and not in tubes. It cannot be displayed on open shelves and must be kept behind a counter or in a locked display.

Nowadays therefore, almost all artist’s white paints are formulated using Titanium or Zinc, or a mixture of both. One thing to remember when selecting your colour is that the marketing name used on a tube of paint doesn’t always describe fully the pigments that are inside – for that you have to refer to the ‘pigment index codes’ found on the back. You can read an explanation of these here. For example, a tube of ‘Titanium’ white oil paint will usually have some zinc added to mitigate problems of ‘sponginess’ that occur with this pigment as it dries. On the back of the tube of ‘Titanium’ paint you’ll therefore see its pigment ingredients listed as ‘PW6 & PW4’ which refer to Titanium Dioxide and Zinc Oxide, respectively. The presence of only ‘PW6’ would indicate Titanium alone. If you are concerned to avoid any paint containing lead then look out for ‘PW1’ on the back of the tube which indicates Lead Carbonate.

Before we run down the list of available white paint types here’s a summary of some of the properties that may guide your choice of paint:

The colour difference between the various shades

The first thing to say here is that you’ll find the actual shade of white will vary between the various manufacturers’ paints, even where they use just the same pigment. I usually find that Titanium paint has a slightly blue tinge, and that Zinc appears a little more yellowy and warmer. Generally however the precise colour of the white paint has less to do with the original colour of the milled pigment and more with the ‘binder’ that the pigment is mixed with. Linseed oil, the most common binder, is a little yellowing especially over time. If you are concerned for a white oil paint to stay brilliant white, choose one formulated with Safflower oil which is the least yellowing. In fact, all Winsor and Newton white oil paints are milled with Safflower oil, for this reason.

One term you may come across in discussions about white paint is that of the ‘temperature’ of the paint. This is largely a way of describing how the particular white will affect other pigments it is mixed with, and whether it creates a slightly ‘cool’, ‘warm’ or ‘neutral’ effect. I personally find this term unhelpful and rather confusing. For one thing it’s very subjective and people will disagree about the various shades….for example I’ve often seen Zinc described as a ‘cool’ temperature whereas others find quite the opposite. My experience of mixing Zincs is that if anything, it’s fairly warming! You’ll really just have to experiment and form your own opinion.

The degree of opacity

Here you’ll find a real noticeable difference between different paints. Titanium is the most opaque of the pigments, with Zinc at the other end of the spectrum as the most transparent. This would make Zinc more desirable if you want to create a translucent colour, perhaps as a thin glazing layer on top.

The degree of opacity is also important because it affect the ‘tinting strength’ – that is to say how the paint behaves when mixed with a colour. Due to its opaque nature Titanium can overpower any colour it is mixed with an quite a small amount may turn it into a pastel and arguably chalky shade. Zinc which has the lowest tinting strength – perhaps only 10% that of Titanium – won’t overpower the colour it is mixed with in the same way and will retain quite a degree of translucency. Therefore Zinc will be more useful to you for making small adjustments when toning down a colour, particularly if the colour you want to soften is quite a translucent one to begin with. If you find that the Zinc is too weak for your purposes you could use ‘Mixing White’ paint which is a mixture of Zinc and Titanium. This will give you a good result that is somewhere in between the two.

Tinting strength experiment

Above from left to right: pure Ultramarine Blue, Zinc White with a tinting mix with Ultramarine Blue beneath, Underpainting White with a tinting mix beneath, and lastly Titanium White with a tinting mix beneath.

You can see how much more transparent Zinc is here when mixed with another colour, than the other two whites. A single layer still clearly reveals the cross I’ve marked below, and the Zinc hasn’t strongly tinted the Ultramarine which remains very dark. The Underpainting White gives perhaps the best balance of opacity and a noticeable but not overpowering tint, whilst the Titanium has given almost complete coverage and turned the blue into a much lighter shade.

The drying time (a concern for oil paints)

There are some differences between the pigments here. Lead white is the fastest drying pigment. It isn’t commonly used these days however and although Zinc pigment is a faster dryer than Titanium, the drying time of your Titanium or Zinc-based paint is most likely to be defined by the type of oil used to bind the pigment, rather than the actual pigment itself. White paint formulated for use as an ‘Underpainting’ white will typically have fast-drying types of oil added to it. Linseed oil (especially thickened Linseed) will dry faster than those using Safflower or Poppy oil, however it is more yellowing and isn’t always used for white paints.

Here’s a list of the white paint colours you are likely to come across in an art store. The widest range available is for oil paints. The most limited range is for watercolour paints where usually you’ll only come across ‘Chinese’ white (which is really Zinc – more on that below) or Titanium white which is sometimes described as ‘Opaque’ white when sold as a watercolour paint. Acrylic paint ranges may have two to four options available: usually Titanium, Zinc, ‘Mixing White’ (a mixture of Titanium and Zinc) and an’ Irridescent’ white.

LEAD-BASED WHITES: Oil paints only

Flake White

In times gone by, Flake White (sometimes called ‘Snowflake White’) was the most common form of lead-based white paint. Flake white is actually not pure Lead Carbonate but has a certain amount of Zinc added to it to improve its texture. Its previous popularity is attributable to the fact that it has good qualities of colour, coverage and long-term stability, and it dries fairly fast. Unfortunately however it is not only difficult to prepare but is indisputably toxic and is now only sold with the stringent safety restraints outlined above. A modern alternative is Flake White Hue (see below). I prefer to avoid lead paint, however some purists still love its qualities and find alternatives like Titanium duller in contrast, when mixed with other colours.

Cremnitz White

This is pure Lead, with no added Zinc. It’s not very easy to find but a few companies do still manufacture it. You will also occasionally find pure lead paint straightforwardly sold as ‘Lead White’.

Foundation White

This is a largely outdated paint that was made with a mixture of Lead and Zinc mixed with added little Stand Oil, which is Linseed oil thickened by heating to speed up its drying time. For centuries Foundation White was the traditional oil paint used for priming and underpainting The modern equivalent is usually an ‘Underpainting White’ (see below) although Michael Harding still produces a Foundation White made from Lead mixed with Titanium.


Flake White Hue (oil paint only)

A ‘hue’ colour is one that closely approximates a pure single-pigment colour but is actually made from a mixture of a number of other pigments. This is desirable where the original pigment being matched is expensive, toxic or has problems with lightfastness. Attempts are usually made to create a mixture that will behave the same way as the original paint in terms of things like the consistency and the drying time. Winsor and Newton who make a Flake White Hue from a mixture of Titanium and Zinc say that it “has a lower tinting strength than Titanium White and has been formulated to match Flake White. It also has a similar drying rate to the original Flake White.”

Zinc White/Chinese White

Here things get a little confusing. Essentially, Zinc White and Chinese White (which never had anything to do with China) are both just Zinc Oxide. Zinc paint had been available to artists from the late 18th century as an oil paint but it dried more slowly than the more popular Lead White and gave inferior coverage. The coverage problem however was less of a concern with watercolour painting which relies on the white of the paper for pale washes and typically requires a white paint only for small highlights or to tint another colour. In 1834 the British company Winsor and Newton created a very dense formulation of Zinc Oxide by heating it at a higher temperature, and then marketed as a watercolour paint they called ‘Chinese White’ (possibly named after the oriental porcelain that was so all the rage at the time). Chinese White had the advantage that it didn’t eventually blacken on the paper as lead paint did and it became incredibly popular as a watercolour paint.

For a while Chinese (Zinc) White was also used for oil paints and enjoyed a period of popularity in the 19th century, although it was often mixed with some Lead to give it a higher degree of opacity. Zinc paint dries reasonably fast but has a problem with its long-term stability in oil painting and suffers a considerable degree if brittleness if used over wide areas. This eventually became apparent and in the 1920’s Zinc oil paint was superseded in popularity by the new Titanium paint. This little bit of history serves to explain why it is that today Zinc Oxide-based paint is still sold as ‘Chinese White’ when made into a watercolour paint, but as ‘Zinc White’ in oil and acrylic ranges.

Pure Zinc paint is a bright white which is thinner than other whites. Manufacturers find it useful to add a certain amount of Zinc to other whites but when used in a pure formulation its brittleness causes cracks to form over time if it has not been well mixed with other colours. Therefore in oil painting pure Zinc should be used with caution when covering a wide area and avoided entirely for under layers – try an Underpainting White instead which is a mixture of Zinc and Titanium. Zinc has a low tinting strength and will soften a colour without overpowering it, but if you find it too weak in this regard then a ‘Mixing White’ (another Zinc/Titanium mixture) will be more appropriate.

If painting in watercolours Zinc (‘Chinese’) White is unproblematic as it is usually used only in very small quantities. Its most likely limitation is that for highlighting you may find it a little bit lacking in stiffness and opacity and this is why watercolour ranges sometimes also include a Titanium paint which they market as ‘Opaque’ paint, as an alternative.

Sometimes budget paint ranges may sell a paint they describe as ‘Zinc White’ which is actually made from Lithipone – a mixture of barium sulfate and zinc sulfate which is used as an extender in cheap paints to bulk it out. Look out for the colour index code on the back of the tube: Zinc Oxide White is PW4, Lithipone is PW5.

Titanium White

Titanium White paint is a clean, strong and opaque white and gives very good coverage, making it suitable for painting large areas of white. In oil paint form however it may become rather spongy when dry, and for this reason most oil paints labelled as ‘Titanium’ often actually contain some Zinc to improve their texture as well as speeding up their drying time. The Zinc is likely to account for around 2% to 10% of the total pigment but you can’t tell how much from reading the tube and you’d need to contact the particular paint manufacturer and ask.

Pure Titanium pigment is slow drying, but this is really only a problem for oil painting. In acrylic form it dries fast like all acrylic paints, and so acrylic ‘Titanium’ paint is likely to be just pure Titanium. Titanium is powerful when mixed, quickly turning another colour into a pastel shade. For this reason pure Zinc paint or a ‘Mixing White’ may be preferable to tint other colours.

Underpainting White (oil paint only)

Underpainting White paint is mixture of Titanium and Zinc, with a rougher texture that allows the subsequent upper layers of paint to adhere to it more easily. It is likely to include Stand Oil or non-oil based driers to speed up the drying process.

Mixing White / Soft Mixing White

You’ll come across this paint in both oil and acrylic ranges. It is a mixture of Titanium and Zinc (to speed up its drying rate) and uses the fast-drying Safflower oil as its medium.  Mixing White has a lower tinting power than pure Titanium due to the presence of the Zinc, making it suitable for mixing with other colours without overpowering them.

Iridescent White

This is a fairly new paint, commonly available in oil and acrylic ranges. Iridescent White is made from Titanium Dioxide-coated Mica and gives a semi-opaque pearlescent white color. It mixes well with fairly opaque colours and is particularly suitable for top glazes

‘Warm’ white

This is a colour some manufacturers will offer, and will usually be a Titanium/Zinc combination with some yellow or orange pigments added to it.

‘Cool’ white

As above, this is a shade that some companies include based on a Titanium/Zinc base with some added blue pigments to create a cool tone.

‘Radiant’ white

Really a bit of fanciful marketing, this one! It’s made specifically by Gamblin for their oil paint range and is simply Titanium in a safflower binder, the least yellowing oil medium.









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