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 such 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?

In fact the pigments used to create white paint shades have quite different properties which will affect how your painting will look, and in particular, how you can create effective paint mixes. It will also affect the long-term stability of your painting which is important for oil and acrylic painting, where whites are likely to account for quite a lot of the paint on your canvas.

What is in white paint?

Although there are quite a number of white paint colours marketed at artists, there actually only three main pigments used in the manufacture of the range of the white paints. Those pigments are LEAD CARBONATE, ZINC OXIDE, and TITANIUM DIOXIDE.

For centuries, lead carbonate was the pigment used to make white paint. These days it is almost obsolete in paint due to its unfortunate toxicity, which caused lead poisoning in many a famous painter! Under EU legislation lead is now banned from household paints and although there is an exemption for artist’s paint, lead-based paint can only 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 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.

For example, a tube of ‘Titanium’ white oil paint will usually also contain a bit of zine, added to mitigate problems of ‘sponginess’ that occur with titanium pigment as it dries. If you look on the back of a tube of ‘titanium’ paint you’ll probably see the pigment codes ‘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 is the pigment code for 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 colour

The colour difference between the various shades

There IS a slight difference in the shade of white paint depending on whether it is made from titanium or zinc. I usually find that white paint made with titanium paint has a slightly blueish tinge, and that zinc appears a little more yellowy and warm.

However the precise colour of 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. For this reason two tubes of white paint made by different manufacturers but containing the same pigment, can have different shades. This is especially true with oil paint. Linseed oil which is the most common binder for oil paint, is a little yellowing and may be substituted with safflower, poppy or walnut oil. All Winsor and Newton white oil paints are milled with safflower oil, except for their ‘Underpainting White’. This uses linseed oil because it is quicker to dry.

One term you may hear being discussed is the ‘temperature’ of white paint. This is a way of describing how a particular white will affect other colours it is mixed with, and whether it creates a ‘cooling’, ‘warming’ or ‘neutral’ effect. I personally find this term unhelpful because it depends what has been added to the paint in question, and is anyway quite subjective. For example I’ve often seen zinc paint described as having a ‘cool’ temperature whereas others report quite the opposite. My own experience of mixing with zinc is that if anything, it’s fairly warming.

The degree of opacity

This is where you’ll notice the biggest difference between different whites, because titanium is highly opaque, whilst zinc is highly transparent. This makes zinc more useful if you want to create a dilute and translucent colour, perhaps as a glazing layer.

The degree of opacity is important because it governs that colour’s ‘tinting strength’. We use this term to describe how the paint behaves when it is mixed with another colour. Due to its opacity, titanium can overpower any colour it is mixed with and quite a small amount will create a chalky and even a pastel shade.

Zinc behaves very differently. It’s tinting strength is perhaps only 10% that of titanium so it won’t overpower the colour it is mixed with. Zinc is useful for making small adjustments and toning down a colour, but it would take quite a lot of paint to lighten that colour significantly. If you find that pure zinc is too weak for tinting you could use ‘Mixing White’ or ‘Underpainting White’ (for lower layers) which both contain mixtures of zinc and titanium.

Tinting strength experiment

Above from left to right: pure Ultramarine blue, and tinting mixtures made with Zinc white, Underpainting white and Titanium white. 

Here you can see the difference in tinting power between pure zinc, an ‘Underpainting White’ which is a mixture of zinc and titanium, and pure titanium pigment. The titanium is so opaque it almost completely covers the cross drawn beneath it, whilst the zinc maintains the transparency of the ultramarine pigment.

In an art store, the largest variety of whites is generally found amongst the oil paints. The most limited range is for watercolour paints where you’ll only see ‘Chinese’ white (another name for zinc) or titanium white. In a watercolour range titanium white is sometimes rechristened as ‘Opaque’ white. Acrylic paint ranges may have two to four options available including titanium, zinc, ‘Mixing White’ (a mixture of titanium and zinc) and an’ Irridescent White’ which has a pearlescent effect.

LEAD-BASED WHITES (made for oil paints only)

Flake White

In times gone by, ‘Flake White’ (sometimes called ‘Snowflake White’) was the most common type of white paint. Flake White was actually not pure lead carbonate, but had a certain amount of zinc pigment added to it to improve its texture. This gives good coverage and stability, and dries fairly fast. Unfortunately however the lead content is not only difficult to prepare but is indisputably toxic, and is now sold only under the stringent safety conditions outlined above. I personally prefer to avoid lead paint, but some purists still love its qualities and find alternatives such as titanium dull in contrast, especially when mixed with other colours.

Cremnitz White

Cremnitz is made from pure lead, with no added zinc. It’s not easy to find but a few companies do still manufacture it, including the Michael Harding paint company and Old Holland.

Foundation White

This is a largely outdated colour that was made from a mixture of lead carbonate and zinc pigments, mixed with a little Stand Oil (this 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 produce a Foundation White made from lead and titanium.


Flake White Hue (oil paint only)

A ‘hue’ colour is one that one made to approximate a traditional single-pigment colour which might be toxic or is in some other way undesirable. Manufacturers try to create hue colours that not only match the shade of the original pigment, but also behave the same way in terms of consistency and drying times. Winsor and Newton who make a ‘Flake White Hue’ from a mixture of titanium and zinc, claim that the colour has been formulated to match the drying rate of the original Flake White.

Zinc White/Chinese White

Here things get a little confusing, but in fact ‘Zinc White’ paint and ‘Chinese White’ paint (which never had anything to do with China) are identical, as both are made from zinc oxide pigment. Zinc oil paint had been available to artists from the late eighteenth century but it dried more slowly than the more popular lead whites, and gave inferior coverage. However the coverage problem however was less of a concern with watercolour painting which relies on the white of the paper for pale colours and typically requires a white paint only for small highlights.

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 this as a watercolour paint they called ‘Chinese White’ (possibly named after the oriental porcelain that was 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 very popular with watercolourists. This little bit of history serves to explain why today zinc oxide paint is still sold as ‘Chinese White’ within watercolour ranges. 

With oil paint, zinc’s popularity did not endure so well. Zinc paint dries reasonably fast but suffers a considerable degree of brittleness if used in sufficient volume over wide areas, causing subsequent paint layers to crack. This instability eventually became apparent and by the 1920’s zinc oil paint began to be superseded by the new titanium paint. 

Therefore in oil paintings, pure Zinc should be used with a little bit of caution. It’s thought to be perfectly safe in smaller amounts, for example for tinting (lightening) your colours. However covering a large area with a zinc-heavy mixture might not be advisable and it should be avoided entirely for under layers. Fo these, try an Underpainting White instead which is formulated from a mixture of titanium and a smaller amount of zinc.

If you are painting in watercolours, using zinc in the form of Chinese White is unproblematic as you’ll likely be using it in very small quantities. For highlighting you may find it a little bit lacking in stiffness and opacity and this is why watercolour ranges sometimes also include a paint they call ‘Opaque White’, which is simply a titanium paint. 

Sometimes budget paint ranges may sell a paint they describe as ‘Zinc White’ which is actually made from ‘lithipone’ This is a mixture of barium sulfate and zinc sulfate which is used as an extender in cheap paints to bulk them out. Check the colour index code on the back of the tube to be sure: true Zinc Oxide White should say ‘PW4’, whilst Lithipone will say 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. It is very stable, but as oil paint it may become rather ‘spongy’ when dry and is slow drying. For this reason most oil paints labelled as ‘titanium’ actually contain a little zinc too (around 2% to 10%) to improve the texture and to speed the drying time. In acrylic form, titanium dries fast and so Titanium White acrylic paint won’t have any zinc added to it.

Because titanium is so opaque it is powerful in a mix, quickly turning a colour into a pastel shade. For this reason a ‘Mixing White’ which is a mixture of titanium and zinc, will be better for tinting with as well as speeding up drying time.

Underpainting White (oil paint only)

Underpainting White paint contains a mixture of titanium and zinc pigments. These are milled to a rougher texture, to allow the subsequent upper layers of paint to adhere to it more easily. Underpainting White is likely to include some Stand Oil or non-oil based (alkyd) 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 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 good for mixing with other colours without overpowering them. The zinc content helps speed up drying. 

Iridescent White

This is a fairly new type of paint, available in acrylic and sometimes in oil 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 tinted white which some manufacturers offer. It’s usually a titanium/zinc blend with some yellow or orange pigment added to it to give a warmer tone.

‘Cool’ white

As above, this is a tinted shade with a titanium/zinc base, but with some added blue pigment to create a cool tone.

‘Radiant’ white

This colour is really a bit of fanciful marketing! It’s made by Gamblin for their oil paint range, and is simply titanium mixed in a safflower binder, the clearest and least yellowing oil medium.









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