As a painter, you’ve undoubtedly been mesmerized by the vast selection of white oil paints on art supply store shelves.
Just like shades of blue, red, and green, white oil paints have all sorts of undertones and depths of color. Some are crisp and opaque. Others are transparent. Some are made specifically for mixing with other pigments.
Staring at a slew of white paints can be overwhelming and a bit confusing, even for a professional artist. And while your instinct may be to pick up one, there are actually about ten different white oil paints that could complement your palette — and they all have different looks and do different things.
Not sure which white paint you need? Here’s why you need more than one type of white oil paint, and it’s not only about color.
Why Are There So Many White Paints to Choose From?
Titanium. Cremnitz. Flake. Mixing …
Before deciding which white oil paint you need, you’ll need to understand what each one can do. And that’s because every white oil paint serves a specific purpose.
They all achieve different results. Manufacturers formulate each to create different looks. They have varying temperatures. They have different drying times, varying levels of opacity, and they allow you to create different types of texture on your canvas.
While we can easily argue that all painters need titanium white in their palette, it’s not that cut and dry. The paint you need depends upon the effect you want, the subject matter you’re painting, and the overall look you want to achieve.
The best way to not feel overwhelmed by the wide selection of white oil paints is to test and sample different types to find what’s preferential to you. There will undoubtedly be some that you enjoy working with more than others, and the only way to know what you prefer is to test them all, so you know what they all do.
The Terms That Distinguish White Oil Paints
From drying time to thickness to undertone, four main categorizations of white oil paints explain how each paint works and what each hue can do. Here are some of the standard terms used to describe white oil paints, how they look, how they feel, and how they react.
Soft, Buttery, or Stiff
Many artists choose their white oil paints based on texture. Some whites brush smoothly on canvas. Others have more resistance to the brush. To determine the perfect white for your next work, it’s essential to know how different types react to the brush.
Soft whites are easily brushable. They offer the least amount of resistance to your brush, making them easy to apply and easy to mix.
Buttery whites have a middle-of-the-road texture. They break easily from the brush, allowing you to make crisp marks, but they can also be manipulated and nudged to be made a bit softer. You can even turn a buttery white into a soft white by adding a bit of fluid medium.
Prefer a white that’s a bit denser? Stiff whites provide the most significant amount of resistance to your brush, and they drag and pull on the brush much more so than soft whites. Stiff whites are a perfect choice if you’re trying to replicate (or create your own) impressionist-inspired painting.
Fast, Slow, or Moderate
Fast whites usually dry in about 24 hours, allowing you to come back to your art a day later to add extra layers, make new marks, or layer on additional painting techniques. Fast-drying whites are ideal for underpainting and for use as base layers in your work.
Prefer to add more color or texture into a wet work? Slow drying whites can take up to five days to dry completely. Depending on how heavy you paint your layers, it can take up to twelve days for a slow-drying white paint to dry 100%.
Whites with moderate dry times usually take about two or three days to dry. Depending on the additional paint layers you want to apply, this is a good option if you prefer the option to make changes to your work a few days after you’ve painted the first layer or two.
Cool, Neutral, or Warm
Paints blend various oils and binding agents, which greatly affect how whites look on canvas.
Paints made with linseed oil, such as underpainting white, are warmer in tone. Those made with safflower oil, such as titanium white, are cooler.
The oil used in the paint affects the undertone, which is especially important for artists who enjoy painting large white areas. If you intend to paint large white spaces, rather than as light within your painting, undertones become more critical.
Lean or Fat
The concept of fat over lean is one that most oil painters know all too well. And the more oil content in your paint, the leaner your paint will be.
For example, oil paints that contain linseed oil tend to be fatter in nature than those with fewer oils.
But for most artists, this is easy to manipulate and alter to suit your specific needs. You can always add lean or fat mediums with drying oil to your paints to make them fatter or leaner.
The Many Varieties of White Oil Paint (and Why You May Need Them All)
When deciding which white oil paint to use, you’ll want to consider the color, undertone, temperature, drying time, and texture. Here’s a glimpse at the key whites you’re likely to find in every art supply store and why you want them all in your supply kit.
Titanium white is a must-have in every artist’s palette. Made with titanium dioxide and pigments carried in safflower or linseed oils, titanium white is a pure white that dries at a moderate rate and mixes easily with other colors.
Titanium white usually reflects about 97% of light, making it the brightest white available. It also has the highest tinting strength, so it’s great for mixing with other colors.
Titanium whites are buttery, easy to apply, and neutral in temperature. When using titanium white, you’ll notice that very little undertone shows through, so it’s not intended for creating transparent effects.
Titanium white is a non-toxic paint, and you’ll rarely find an artist that doesn’t have at least one tube on hand.
Zinc white paint is thin and semi-opaque, making it ideal for glazing. It has a cool temperature, yet it’s warmer in temperature than some other whites. It also has a low tinting strength, making it a good option for mixing pastels.
Zinc white is made with zinc oxide and tends to be brittle when applied thickly, so it often cracks over time. It’s best to use zinc white in thin layers, such as in a glaze. And, because it tends to crack, it’s recommended for use on canvas boards and wood canvases instead of stretched canvases that are more flexible.
Zinc white is one of the stiffest and coolest white oil paints available. It also dries slowly. It’s much less flexible than other whites, and its brittle nature can drastically alter the look and feel of a painting over time.
When added to titanium white, zinc white can reduce yellowing with time. It’s one of the least stable whites that exist, but if you’re looking for a cool white pigment, zinc white is one worth having on your palette.
It is important to note that some paint manufacturers are moving away from the traditional zinc white in favor of others. Recent studies show that, over time, zinc white paint films become brittle and are susceptible to cracking.
Titanium Zinc White
Some paint brands, such as Gamblin, offer a paint called titanium zinc white. It is essentially titanium white, with the addition of zinc oxide. Like titanium white, it has an average drying time, is neutral in temperature, and has a buttery feel.
Compared to titanium white, it’s slightly less effective in tint strength, but it is a viable option for artists who enjoy using zinc white yet prefer something a bit more opaque.
If you need white paint to prime your canvas, reach for foundation white. As the name suggests, this oil paid is ideal for laying a foundation or underpaint layer, so it’s a good option when you need to lay down a lot of coverage.
Many foundation white paints contain lead pigments and a small amount of linseed oil, so it’s fairly dry. It often includes zinc, which improves its texture.
Foundation white has a warm, yellow undertone, making it well-suited for many types of underpainting.
Underpainting white consists of linseed oil or alkyd resin, which makes it dry relatively quickly. It’s stable when applied thickly, and it has a pure white color, similar to titanium white.
As its name indicates, it’s intended for underpainting base layers.
Flake white paint is lead-based. While many painters love it for the impressive results it produces, many manufacturers are shying away from it due to more governmental health safety standards. Why is lead paint a safety concern? Because the lead carbonate used in this paint is toxic.
The addition of lead used in flake white makes it a warm and opaque white oil paint. It’s flexible and dries quickly, so it can speed up the painting’s drying time, even when mixed with other colors. Flake white also includes zinc, which helps to make it stiff and provides a firm consistency.
Just be aware that there is a certain level of toxicity in flake white, as well as all other oil paints made with lead carbonate.
Some manufacturers are reformulating their flake whites without a lead component. Gamblin, for example, offers a Flake White Replacement which uses titanium white instead of lead carbonate. It’s an excellent alternative that mimics the traditional flake white.
Cremnitz white is also lead-based, so it too is toxic. It has a stiff consistency and feels fairly stringy on your brush or palette knife. Unlike flake white, Cremnitz white does not include zinc oxide, so it has that stringy feeling that some artists love.
Cremnitz white is a version of pure Lead White. It dries quickly, making it a good option for laying down multiple layers a few hours apart.
Transparent white has a neutral temperature, and it’s semi-transparent, so it’s easy to mix with other tones and glazes. The tinting strength is low, so it’s ideal for using with pale glazes. It also dries quickly and isn’t prone to yellowing, as some other whites are.
As the name suggests, mixing white primarily mixes with other paints to make tints and glazes. With a neutral temperature, it has a soft feel, allowing it to dry quickly. It is also called soft mixing white — both varieties of which will not yellow over time.
With so many white oil paints to choose from, it’s understandable that there’s confusion around which white to use.
Here’s the bottom line:
Every white oil paint has a different temperature, a different drying time, a different level of opacity, and a different undertone. Many painters have every version of white in their painting kit and use them for various reasons and achieve new effects.
There is no right or wrong white to use. It’s merely a matter of preference and what you’re looking to achieve.
Ready to add a new white to your paint set? View our selection of white oil paints from brands such as Williamsburg, Michael Harding, Winsor & Newton, and more.