Differences in Colors, Whites, & Blacks

(Excerpts from ART HARDWARE: The Definitive Guide to Artists’ Materials, by Steven Saitzyk © 1987 revised 1998)


One lesson a painter learns quickly is when intermixing brands (not grades) colors with the same pigment, where the C.I. name and C.I. number match still have visible differences.  There are several reasons: different pigment batches, inexact chemistry, impurities, fillers, and so on.  But ultimately, it all comes down to aesthetic choices, because each batch can be, and usually is, adjusted, just like a fine Scotch, to match the previous appearance of the color.  When colormen set up shop, the exact hue and shade for each color was chosen at that time.  Most manufactures created colors that matched their environment as closely as the available pigments would allow.  Those in Northern Europe, like England, Holland, and Germany chose hues that tended to be slightly darker and more muted.  The consistency of their paint was also different.  It tended toward being cakey to compensate for the common use of mediums, that in turn needed to deal with the higher local humidity.  Manufacturers in France and Italy often chose brighter colors to match the Mediterranean light.  Each subsequent owner of company would either color match the past palette or make subtle changes to the existing range of colors.  From time to time new colors were add and other delete, usually the most fugitive.  So, one brand of color is often close to another, but never quite them same.

Each company attempts to distinguish itself from its competitors by developing some colors that are unique to them, or in some cases assign a unique name to a new color that is not unique them.  (The issue of naming colors is addressed in the chapter on pigments)  Once a basic palette was formed, requests made by artists for specific colors lead to its expansion.  This was particularly true in France and Italy during the Impressionist movement.  Impressionist excited by the early results of modern chemistry pressured colormen to make still brighter and more concentrated colors.  They also desired a buttery paint where less medium would be needed, allowing for a quicker style of painting.  We can see the results today when we compare the color charts between such companies as Winsor & Newton, whose choices would be befit the palette of Turner, and LeFranc & Bourgeois whose colors found their way into Monet’s paintings.


Since the average painting is composed of roughly half white paint, knowledge of the various whites becomes essential.  One noteworthy change that has taken place in the past thirty years in response to artist’s complaints, is the replacement of linseed oil with paler oils like poppy or safflower oil to reduce the slight yellowing that occurs over time.  Whites that are ground into paler oils are fine for mixing with colors, but are not safe for underpainting because they are not as flexible and may tend to crack, especially zinc white.  Therefore if you wish to underpaint with a white you must acquire a white that is ground in linseed oil and they are distinguished by the label, “Foundation White,” or “Underpainting White.”  More on this issue is available in the chapter on painting surfaces.  The follow whites are for mixing only.

Flake White

is lead carbonate, with a small amount of zinc oxide, that has been ground into poppy or safflower oil (to slow the drying time and reduce yellowing.  Lead whites tend to be very cakey and hard to spread out on the palette.  The addition of a small amount of zinc white improves the consistency.  Flake white, as with all lead whites, is the most durable and retains the greatest flexibility of all other whites.  It is neither as white as zinc white nor as opaque as titanium, but is excellent for making tints of cooler colors.  It is poisonous if ingested or if the powdered form is inhaled, but not through skin contact, unless it is mixed with a thinner and then place on your skin.  The thinner can help the pigment penetrate.  Flake white can blacken if it is left unprotected against hydrogen sulfide, an atmospheric pollu­tant, so over thinning this paint should be avoided and varnishing is necessary.

Cremnitz White

is the same as flake white but without the zinc additive.  Its consistency is a bit drier and stiffer, and it is preferred by purists.  It is said to be the most natural to the eye of all the whites.  Cremnitz white and flake white used to be known for yellowing because of linseed oil, but linseed oil is rarely used in making this paint today.

Zinc White,

which was originally developed as a nonpoisonous alternative to lead carbonate, is effective but not as versatile.  It has a slightly cooler appearance than the other whites, especially in comparison to a lead white.  Zinc white is zinc oxide ground into poppy or safflower oil.  It is the least opaque of all the whites and is ideal for tinting and glazing.  It is not darkened by hydrogen sulfide.  The major draw­back of zinc white is its brittleness and, because of this, it cannot be used as a ground or in underpainting even when made with linseed oil.

Titanium White

is titanium dioxide ground into poppy or safflower oil (some­times a portion of linseed oil is still used).  It is the most opaque and the whitest of the whites and, in its pure and bleached state, it can reflect more than 97 percent of all light.  It is also the newest and now the most popular of all whites.  There are various grades of titanium pigment ranging in appearance from a warm off white sometime sold as unbleached titanium white to the whitest of whites, which is the most desire form for painting.  The permanency rating is among the highest given to a pigment.

Blends of Whites

are produced by several manufacturers.  The most popular is a blend of zinc and titanium, which most manufactures offer and sometimes assign a unique name to it such as Permanent White, or as the Weber Company called theirs, Permalba White.


There are fundamentally two types of blacks.  The first type is based on carbon.  They are known as Ivory Black, Bone Black, Peach Black, Charcoal Black, and Lamp Black.  All are produced by burning organic material and collecting the carbon pigment and turning that pigment into a paint.  The source of the carbon often imparts subtle temperature differences in appearance.  Nevertheless all carbon blacks are transparent, and in oil paint, a very slow drying color.  It is among the slowest drying color and some manufacturers place a drier in their carbon black paints to reduce the overall drying time.  Because of its slow drying, one is best advised to not under-paint with a carbon black, unless you are prepared to wait until it is dry.   The other type of black is an iron black which is known as Mars Black.  It has opposite characteristics to the carbon blacks.  It is opaque rather than transparent, and dries quickly.  It is common to have both types of black in one’s oil paint palette because of their unique properties.