Whites

I’ve been obsessing over the best white to use for about forty years now. It all started when I read Max Doerner’s book “Materials of the Artist”, a thoroughly inspiring work that purported to be a scientifically correct analysis of the way the Old Masters made paintings, and the materials they used. Having painted uncritically with Winsor and Newton titanium white up to that point, I became worried by Doerner’s assertion that not only did the oldies use lead white ground in cold pressed linseed oil (sometimes with various resins and glues), but that it was the most permanent and stable white, allowing for the fact that all oil paints are subject to saponification. Add in the effects of Zinc white, on it’s own or as an addition and you have the ingredients for a real stew.

Over the years I’ve been trying different makes and combinations  but the recent EEC directives on the use and storage of lead based paint brought things to a head and being in lead-based mode at the time I hoarded Old Holland and Michael Harding Cremnitz whites and Winsor and Newton Flake white. Swinging back into titanium mode I felt quite foolish having all these cans and tubes especially when the companies came up with ways to comply with the regulations and the supply of lead paints was resumed.

Taking into account handling qualities when ground in various oils, and tendency to yellow I have come to some conclusions about these materials.

I applied all whites to a strip of canvas and put it in a well lit part of my studio. Whites which do not yellow or grey are W&N Titanium and Flake Whites, and Gamblin Titanium and Zinc. There may be others that I haven’t tried.   All others tried have changed to some degree, from negligible to distressing. One of the worst is W&N transparent White. But it must be borne in mind that the effect of this yellowing when in combination with other colours is probably not noticeable.

So the real criteria are handling and appearance. With Cremnitz in linseed (mostly Old Holland) you can push lighter colours into darker ones in a much freer way, and my impression is that colours glow a little more;

With titanium in safflower (mostly Winsor & Newton) you have to be more precise with colours, the lighter colours will stain the darker ones much more readily, but you do have a crisper cleaner appearance;

Or crisper yet is W&N flake (Lead + Zinc in safflower);

Actually, of course, you can make any appearance you want with any of these whites by working at it and by putting them in combination, either by mixing or use in different areas of the painting. I have done this and  over 20 years or so have not noticed any problems. Recently I’ve been finishing with Old Holland Cremnitz in linseed because it has a lovely creamy filmy quality very useful for the final stages of skin.

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