The Color Theory of White
There are differing opinions among color theory purists whether white should be considered a color at all, since it represents the absence of hue or chroma, and cannot be made from the three primaries, as black theoretically can be. It’s not usually represented on the color wheel, but white is usually an essential ingredient of any palette.
Ironically, the history of white pigments is a dark and morbid one. Lead white was one of the earliest and most reliable whites discovered, and has been in use since 400 B.C. Unfortunately, its toxicity sickened and killed scores of people, and for that reason, it is no longer manufactured in the U.S. Lead white’s victims included not only the workers engaged in its manufacture and the artists who used it, but also the women who once applied it as face cream and makeup!
However, there was no easy replacement for lead white and, despite its obvious toxic effects, it continued to be used for centuries. It took the work of many chemists a very long period of time to develop the formulas for zinc white and titanium dioxide white, two colors that would eventually replace the widespread use of lead white. Zinc white was developed for use in oil paints in the late 1700s.
By 1921, a titanium white oil color suitable for artists’ use was introduced by an American manufacturer. Zinc white is more transparent and useful in tinting and glazing work, though prone to cracking over the long term. Titanium white has become the most common replacement for lead white in artists’ pigments because of its lack of toxicity, its thermal and environmental stability, and its opacity.
The titanium pigment, titanium dioxide, now accounts for almost 70% of the total production volume of all pigments worldwide. As artists, we know it as the strong, brilliant white pigment available for oil painting, but that use is just a drop in the bucket compared to the thousands of other commercial and industrial uses it has. It is used extensively to provide opacity and whiteness to plastics, foods and toothpastes, as well as cosmetics, skin care products, and sunblocks. It is sometimes used to whiten skimmed milk and to mark the white lines on tennis courts. Interestingly, it was also used by NASA to paint the exterior of the Saturn V rocket!
In painting, the addition of white gives us advantages and deficits at the same time. White is needed to lighten dark colors, and is used to mix colors to create tints, pastels, or high-value areas in a painting. The trouble with mixing colors with white is that white also cools a color. This may result in the necessity of adding additional warm colors to color schemes to bring the resulting mixture back to the proper temperature.
All in all, we consider this a very small drawback of the reliable, more stable and safer substitute we now have for the beloved but cruel lead white of old. What about you? What do you think of mixing colors with white? Which white(s) do you use? Leave a comment and let us know.
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–John & Ann