Titanium white sucks

I take back all the nice things I said about titanium white. I was never a fan of titanium white but after trying some of Michael Hading’s versions of the color, warm white and unbleached white, I decided to give it another chance. My preferred white, flake white, is orders of magnitude more expensive than titanium white so I hoped to find a viable replacement.

You might be asking, “What’s wrong with titanium white?” Titanium, a late-comer on artists’ palettes, was purported to have all the good qualities of lead white without any of lead white’s bad qualities. This turns out to be wrong.

The most obvious problem with titanium white is its garish chalkiness that easily overpowers other colors. New artists might not realize that the chalkiness they experience is unique to titanium white. Paint manufacturers search for ways to correct the chalkiness by adding adulterants during production. The top brands offer multiple modified versions of the color. Harding, for example, provides 3-4 versions of titanium white.

There are also reports of titanium white forming spongy surfaces and delaminating. I personally haven’t experienced the last two, probably because I don’t use it enough. The show stopper for me is its stiffness and poor handling attributes when compared with lead white. Painting is difficult enough without handicapping myself with subpar tools.

While lead white is dangerous when ingested, so are several other colors routinely found on artists’ palettes, such as the cadmiums. Lead white is most dangerous when used in pigment (powder) form. If you grind your own colors, ensure that you use a well-ventilated space and wear a mask. For day-to-day use, take care not to get it near your mouth. Notice that this advice is good, commonsense advice across the board for oil painters, even those who do not use flake white.

The row of three titanium paint piles in the middle of my palette help to illustrate the issues with this paint. The first or left-most is from a tube of Old Holland titanium. I don’t know how old the tube is but because I stopped routinely using titanium a long time ago, and because I no longer use Old Holland, it must be really old. I had to twist the lid off with pliers.

The other two titanium (the scribbled piles of white in the lower right are flake white) are from my recent purchase from Harding. The center white is Harding’s ‘warm white.’ It’s a little warmer and duller than the Old Holland version. It still suffers from the usual titanium chalkiness and so it’s not suitable for my style.

Finally, the tannish white is Harding’s ‘unbleached titanium.’ It’s the best-handling titanium I’ve used, BUT it still cannot compare to flake white. When I wrote about this paint earlier, I’d hoped to be able to use it in a few corner cases, such as when I need more body than what flake offers, but it’s just a poor performer and useless for me. This is not a knock against Harding oils which are excellent; it’s a titanium thing. Harding’s good qualities convinced me to give the titanium stuff another try.

Has anyone found a truly good flake white substitute? If so let me know. I’d love to save a few bucks.

  3 comments for “Titanium white sucks

  1. You can try Williamsburg “Porcelain White” which is made with lithopone. It has a somewhat greenish cast as I recall and chalks colors more than zinc oxide whites and less than titanium dioxide whites.

    Lukas sells a lithopone white in its lower-end line called “Opaque White.” It probably dries faster than Williamsburg’s because lower-grade lines typically use more driers.

    Holbein sells a “Ceramic White” that is made with strontium titanate. Well, I read that strontium titanate is colorless and is therefore used as a vehicle for colorants so what the actual white pigment is I can’t say. The company developed this white as a non-toxic replacement for lead white, at the behest of the Japanese government.

    Langridge sells a “Tinting White” which is a combination of blanc fixe and titanium white.

    The Lukas and Langridge paints yellow a lot (at least in the dark) but did excellently in a cracking test an artist did. Most of the whites on his test sheet cracked and delaminated but those two did not. I guess all the filler helps to keep them more flexible, perhaps because they support lower pigment concentration and higher oil percentage.

    If lithopone is not manufactured correctly it was darken. Sarah Sands claimed that that problem has been overcome, as that appears to be the case for some lithopone makers early in the twentieth century — but it depends upon the quality control / manufacturing practices of specific manufacturers today just as it did then.

  2. To further my point about quality control being important, when genuine vermilion is made, if it is not manufactured according to the best methods it will have an ugly brown tone. One of the many YouTube paint swatchers put up a sample of one brand’s genuine vermilion as if it is a the benchmark for the simulations. Well, that particular genuine vermilion is an awful brownish version, caused by poor manufacturing.

    This is well-documented in an old handbook for industrial pigment manufacture. Many people today don’t know that these things were discovered and documented — and therefore assume that just because time has passed the best methods are automatically used.

    In any case, genuine vermilion is obsolete, thanks to cadmium red.

  3. Good to know R_F. I’ll try the lithopone from Williamsburg. Have you used it?

    I have a few vermilion tubes in my kit but I prefer the cadmiums.

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