This article was first published in "Frequency Magazine" – December 2010.
White is a tricky colour when it comes to paint.
Ambroise Vollard, in his book “Recollection of an Art dealer”, remembered what Renoir told him about white on white effects: “- It is pretty difficult, he said, but nothing is more exciting to paint nor provides a nicer effect.” Renoir was right: because whiteness emerges from simultaneous contrasts, how can a white object standout over a white background? The prime difficulty is to make the object look white while expressing the volume with appropriate shadows. Tinted whites (with blue, pink, yellow, etc.) offer endless possibilities to make your white areas more interesting.
In nature, white is not often white. White surfaces reflect colours coming from the source of light (or the ambient light from the sky) and objects close by. Depending on the circumstances, white surfaces will be on the warm or cool side. If you take a photograph on an overcast day of a white piece of paper placed outside, the paper will appear light blue. If you do the same at the end of a sunny day, the white paper will glow with a warm yellow. This means that, when you are painting, you won’t use much white as it comes out of the tube.
To discuss the role of white, it is necessary to distinguish between watercolour and oil painting techniques.
In watercolour, white is in general the colour of the paper. Purists do not use white paint in tube, although it is unclear why this would be wrong if used in small quantities. When you want a white area, you reserve it or mask it with masking gum (a liquid latex gum that you apply on the paper and that can be removed after the paint dried). You also take advantage of the whiteness of the paper to obtain luminous colours. Watercolour paints are, for most colours, transparent and the light will go through the thin layer of pigment, and bounce back on the white paper to make the colour shine.
Although oil painting calls for different techniques, it is possible to achieve a luminosity and transparency close to watercolour with a combination of white and glazes. The best example is given by the paintings of the Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood, who relied on the power of white. They used white grounds for their works and developed a technique called “wet-white”. William Holman Hunt explained that after the initial pencil drawing, he would spread with a painting knife a thin layer of wet white mixed with a small drop of varnish on the part he wanted to work on the day. Then he would add the colours on top with light sable brushes, as thin glazes of transparent and semi-transparent colours. The process was painstaking as the artist had to avoid disturbing the fresh white background when he laid the glaze on top of it.
It is possible to take advantage of the Pre-Raphaelite technique. You can create texture using white and, after the white application is dry, glaze a colour over it. This way, the glazed colour will appear luminous.
What about using white to obtain a lighter shade of a given colour? It works well for opaque colours but not so well with transparent colours. Titanium white will turn transparent colours into opaque colours and will also make the mixed colour cooler. Trying to make an Alizarin Crimson lighter by mixing it with white will result in a pink colour with a hint of blue, very far from the brilliance of the original colour. White will most of the time “deaden” transparent colours. You should try the technique already suggested above: apply the white first and let is dry. Then glaze the transparent colour on top of this white base.
You can also try the reverse technique to bring depth to your painting: apply the colours first and, when the painting is dry or semi-dry, glaze some Zinc White diluted with a thick painting medium on the parts you want to make recede in the background. Zinc White is the most transparent white and suitable for glazing, scumbling and alla prima painting.
If I had only one piece of advice to give regarding white in oil painting, it would be: don’t use white too soon. This practical step will save you from having a painting with washed-out colours. It is easier to lighten a painting than it is to get the darker tones back after you have mixed your colours with white all over the canvas.
Ambroise Vollard Renoir Art quote Watercolour Oil painting Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood wet-white technique Zinc White