Titanium white

In the past, I trolled titanium white users–zinc white users too. These whites, inferior as they are, provide the only competition for the champion of oil-paint white, lead white. Actually, it isn’t even a contest; lead white wins easily on every metric that matters: blending, body, and all-around handling.

Titanium white is so unnaturally bright that it imparts a ghastly chalkiness to paintings. Paint makers attempt to counteract this quality by adding adulterants to the paint.

Zinc white is cold, lifeless, and stuck in second gear when compared to its older and smarter sibling, lead white.

We’re having this conversation because these days most paint makers only produce titanium and zinc whites. While lead white is poison, the other whites are not healthy for you either. Additionally, since these whites began supplanting lead white during the last century, other defects have been discovered (delaminating, for example) that make them even less desirable substitutes.

Personally, acrylic titanium was my white when I started and continued to be my choice when I moved to oils. I next used zinc white and was satisfied with the upgrade until a friend convinced me to try his lead white. It was a revelation.

I’ve stayed with lead white ever since. But there is one use case that frustrates me. When I need extra body and extra brightness, such as underpaintings intended to be veiled or final touches, I mix egg-tempera white (that I prepare fresh) into the lead white oil paint. Egg-oil emulsions can’t be beaten for body.

Recently, when ordering some excellent Keith Harding oils, I noticed that Harding makes several flavors of titanium white including an unbleached version, and another called ‘warm white.’ I ordered a tube of each and you can see them on my palette in this photo–the right-most of the top piles of white. The unbleached version is the right-most white; it’s almost tan.

I’ve used them enough to say that they’re the best titanium whites that I’ve ever used. It’s a low bar, I know, and it still can’t compete with lead white. But in the frustrating use case I described earlier, the unbleached version is excellent. It imparts body in a way that’s close to my egg-oil emulsion. After some more testing, I might just keep the unbleached version in my kit.

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