The Great White Debacle

Lead White Stack (Dutch) Process

Several types of white oil paint are available to the Painter. Lead based choices are Lead Carbonate, Lead Sulfate, Stacked Lead White, Flake White, Cremnitz White, Flemish White, Lead-based Foundation White. The non-lead whites are Flake White Replacement, Zinc White, Titanium White, Lithopane, Non-Lead Underpainting, or Foundation White and Transparent White. The three main workhorses on the team are Lead, Titanium-Zinc, and Flake White Alternative.

(Photo: Lead White Stack (Dutch) Process)

Théodoor Galle after Joannes Stradanus, The Invention of Oil Painting

Lead White of Renaissance

If one wants to work like Oil Painters it the Renaissance, their choice is Flake White or Stacked Lead White. Of course, the Master would have their apprentices make these Lead-Based White oil paints for each painting. What one buys in tubes has little in common with the Hand-Mulled pigments made in Renaissance Workshops. One will never achieve the results Rembrandt did with paint out of a tube. Tubed paints have far too much binder and to many additives or modifiers to even get close to creating the translucent mass tones and textures of the old masters.

(Photo: Théodoor Galle after Joannes Stradanus, The Invention of Oil Painting)

When manufacturers of Artist Oil Paints claim that their pigments are the same as what the Old Masters used, it is Flim-Flam. The pigments are different; the binders are different; the additives added to make paint squeezable from a tube were not even available in Rembrandt’s time. If one wants to paint anything close to how the Old Masters painted, they would have to grind and mull their pigments as needed and use a minimum of Linseed or Walnut oil, and damn few additives.

Francisco Goya, Self-portrait with Dr Arrieta

Properties of Lead White Paint

Lead White has the warmest mass tone of all the whites. It has a very subtle reddish-yellow undertone that is almost unnoticeable unless one is looking for it or comparing Lead White side by side with other Whites. Lead White is also the fastest drying of the three basic whites, making it particularly suitable for indirect underpainting techniques.

Lead-based white oil creates a more durable paint film than Zinc or Titanium. It is slightly warmer in tone than the other two; Zinc White being cooler and Titanium being brighter and neutral. Lead Whites ruled until the end of the 1800s when Zinc Oxide White was introduced in 1782.

Many painters prefer the Lead White’s warm tone and handling characteristics enough to work around its well-documented health hazards. It is a seductive mistress, a toxic, yet stunning white pigment that many painters prefer for flesh tones. As a white paint, it is incredibly versatile and mixes well due to its low tinting strength. 

(Photo: Francisco Goya, Self-portrait with Dr Arrieta)

Health Hazards Manual for Artists, 6th Edition

Hazards of Lead White Paint

Lead White’s outstanding handling characteristics come with a cost. It has poisoned artists, factory workers, women looking for beauty fixes, and children who were attracted to the strange sweet taste. Beautiful, but deadly, and many painters still consider it indispensable and continue to use it.

Use extreme care when working with Lead White Pigments. Do not inhale dry pigment or dust created by sanding Lead-Based grounds. Do not smoke, eat or drink while using the pigment in any form.

Disposal of the lead waste from the painting process is also problematic. Throwing Lead out with the garbage, washing it down the sink, or burying it in one’s back yard, is prohibited by law. Lead paint, the tubes it came in, as well as rags and solvents used for cleaning when working with Lead, are considered hazardous waste and have to be disposed of at hazardous waste sites.


(Photo: Cover of Health Hazards Manual for Artists, 6th Edition)

Titian, Self-Portrait

Safe, but Not Really

Advocates of Lead-Based Oil Paints downplay the health risks associated with using Lead-Based paints. It is incredibly misleading to tell painters that if they do not eat it, they will not have a problem. Theoretically, one can paint safely with Lead-Based paint; the considerations, however, are manifold.

Proponents of Lead-Based paints point to Titian and Michelangelo, who lived well into their 80s. Of course, they skip over Raphael, who died of Lead Poisoning at 37. The real question, of course, is how long did the Apprentices who made their paints and cleaned their brushes lived.

(Photo: Titian, Self-Portrait)

Example of ACMI Seals

How to Spot Harmful Paint

Just like the Surgeon General’s warning label on tobacco products, there are warning labels related to lead white artists oils. 

  • Danger! Contains lead. Harmful if swallowed. 
  • Avoid ingestion and skin contact.
  • Wear protective clothing and gloves to prevent contact with skin.
  • Never use near children or pets.
  • Conforms to ASTM D 4236.
  • Must be used exclusively as material for arts, crafts or hobbies, not for use by children. 
  • Always protect one’s self against chronic hazards of this and other chemical products by keeping them out of one’s body. 
  • Do this by avoiding ingestion, excessive skin contact, and inhalation of spraying mists, sanding dust and vapors from heating. 
California Prop 65 Warning Label

If one habitually touches their mouth, rubs their eyes, picks their nose, bites their fingernails or picks at scabs, we strongly suggest staying away from lead white.

Winsor & Newton Zinc White Tube

The Zinc White Revolution

In 1782, Guyton de Morveau at L’Académie de Dijon, France, suggested zinc oxide as a substitute for Lead White. In 1794, the English color-maker John Atkinson began to manufacture Zinc Oil Paints. Initially, supplies of Zinc Oxide were limited, and its use as a pigment in oil paints proved far too expensive. 

In 1834, Winsor & Newton, London, introduced Zinc Oxide White under the name Chinese White. First, as a watercolor pigment, then as an oil. By 1844, a better Zinc White for oil was developed by LeClaire in Paris. By 1850, Zinc White was available throughout Europe.

Portrait of Michel-Eugène Chevreul

Can Zinc White Replace Lead White

In 1850 Michel-Eugène Chevreul was asked by the French Academy of Science to determine if Zinc Oxide could replace the more toxic Lead Carbonate. Eugene’s short answer was “no,” because Zinc Oxide dried far to slow. However, it should not be dismissed due to this property. Since Zinc White dries much slower than Lead White, it gives Alla Prima Painter more time to complete their work. For the indirect Painter, the slower drying time means one should not apply faster-drying pigments on top of Zinc Oxide.  

(Photo: Portrait of Michel-Eugène Chevreul)

Properties of Zinc White Paint

Zinc is essentially permanent in sunlight, except with a Linseed binder, which causes it to darken and yellow. Zinc White does not blacken in the presence of sulfur fumes like Lead White. Additionally, it is non-toxic and more economical than white Lead. It is neither as opaque nor dense as Lead White, and once again, it takes much longer to dry.

Compared to other white oil paints, Zinc Oxide has a more delicate tinting strength. Tints made with Zinc White show every nuance of color’s undertones, making it far superior to tints made with other whites. In short, when one mixes color with Zinc White, the resulting color is much more saturated and cooler than mixing a color with other whites. One can easily see that Titanium White is chalky compared to Flake White Replacement and Zinc White. Take a look at the image below, and pay close attention to the tint variation of different paints.

Because zinc white is so “clean,” it is invaluable for making tints with other colors.

Portrait of Marion F. Mecklenburg

Zinc White Research

Despite its many advantages over lead white, zinc white oil color also has a drawback; it drys to a stiff, somewhat brittle paint film when used unmixed.

According to Dr. Marion Mecklenburg of the Smithsonian Institute, Zinc Oxide, can become brittle in as little as three years even under museum conditions. Mecklenburg did extensive studies to determine the acceptable ranges of relative humidity and temperature in museums and galleries. His team did multiple studies involving the transport and storage of artifacts including painting.

(Photo: Portrait of Marion F. Mecklenburg)

Example of cleavage between cadmium colors painted over zinc oxide oil paint in Hans Hofmann’s “Trophy/Verso: Untitled,” from 1951. (Photo by Dawn Rogala)

His team examined paintings from the Hirshberg Collection which were done by Abstract Expressionists like Hans Hofmann and Jackson Pollock.

(Photo by Dawn Rogala)

However, these paintings were painted on poorly stretched canvas primed with Zinc Oxide or Acrylic Emulsion House Paint Grounds.

(Photo: Portrait of Dawn Rogala by Michelle Z. Donahue)

Since the test findings cannot be separated from the non-archival commercial house paint grounds they only tell us one thing. DO NOT USE ZINC OXYDE OF ACRYLIC EMULSION HOUSE PAINT TO PRIME YOUR CANVAS.

These tests have nothing to do with the Craft of Painting. Mecklenburg makes no recommendations on the use of Zinc White he merely makes the observations about its characteristics which painters have known about for centuries. Conservators Conserve and Painters Paint the two have nothing in common no conclusions came out of these structural materials and climate control abstracts that would prohibit the use of Zinc Oxyde. Marion’s team did make the observation that certain pigments have trouble adhering to Acrylic Gesso Grounds.

The out of context conclusions of the Smithsonian testing came from totally from third party sources. First and foremost was the manufacturer Rublev Artists Oil Colours who make a number of potentially toxic products including Lead Carbonate Whites.

Rublev Natural Pigments launched a marketing campaign based on its own misleading conclusions of the Mecklenburg Test. Their campaign slogan, ‘Friends Do Not Let Friends Use Zinc.’ positioned Zinc Oxyde as a pigment one should eliminate from their repertoire, thus taking the focus off the toxicity of their own products and eliminating their major competition at the same time.

We have included the link to Rublev’s conclusions regarding the Smithsonian Testing.

Takin at face value it makes a pretty compelling case. The problem is that Rublev has put a different face on it. This is presented as a new revelation when in fact Painters have known the characteristics and limitations of Zinc Oxyde for centuries.

Painters have chosen to work around these limitations to take advantage of some of the advantages of Zinc Oxyde.

Lead White is better suited for certain types of indirect painting but comes with some obvious baggage. Rather you use Lead White or not is a personal decision.

One may look at this ploy as brilliant marketing on the part of Rublev, but the fact remains that if these problems really do exist paintings would be sliding off the stretchers as you read this. That is obviously not the case.

One has to at least consider the possibility that this Pseudo-Scientific bate and switch tactic is flim-flam

Zinc Oxyde has been used successfully for over 225 years and the tens of thousands of paintings hanging in museum and private collections prove beyond a shadow of a doubt that the ‘Problems With Zinc White Oil Paint’ is a marketing hoax.

Tens Of Thousands Of Paintings Done With Zinc Oxide Has Stood The Test Of Time From The 1780S To The Present Day Bridging From The Neoclassical Painters Through Postmodernism. (240 Years And Counting) The French Impressionists used Zinc Oxyde almost exclusively. They did direct paintings, i. e., Alla Prima, Au Premier Coup., These paintings consisted of very few ‘wet into wet’ layers and had very few problems with the cracking and delamination. The percentage of Zinc is irrelevant flim-flam mumbo-jumbo to take one’s eye off the real problem ACRYLIC GESSO.

  • Neoclassicism (1750-1850)
  • Romanticism (1750-1850)
  • Barbizon (1830-1870
  • Realism (1848-1900)
  • Modern Art (1860-1945)
  • Art Nouveau (1890-1910)
  • Impressionism (1865-1885)
  • Post-Impressionism (1885-1910)
  • Neo-Impressionism (1868-1906)
  • Fauvism (1900-1935
  • Bloomsbury (1905-1945)
  • Expressionism (1905-1920
  • Cubism (1907-1914)
  • Art Deco (1909-1939)
  • Futurism (1910-1930)
  • Surrealism (1916-1950)
  • De Stijl (1917-1931)
  • Bauhaus (1919-1933)
  • Social Realism (1920-1960)
  • Abstract Expressionism (1940s-1950s)
  • Op Art (1950s-1960s)
  • Pop Art (1950s-1960s)
  • Minimalism (1960s-1970s)
  • Postmodern Art (1970-Present)

Another third party Zinc defamer is the author of a book on Old Master Methods and his conclusions do not jibe either. He states in his book; Zinc white has recently been discovered as a cause of delaminations in oil paintings. For this reason, mixed whites or colors containing Zinc Oxyde are best avoided, along with Zinc white itself. This includes combinations of titanium dioxide and zinc as well as lead carbonate and zinc oxyde. IT IS ESPECIALLY PROBLEMATIC ON STRETCHED CANVAS PRIMED WITH ACRYLIC GROUNDS.

The Five Hundred Pound Gorilla in the room is the ACRYLIC GROUND as the man says. What had been recently discovered was that Zinc White WHEN USED INCORRECTLY delaminated from CANVAS PRIMED WITH ACRYLIC GROUNDS.

We realize the Zinc Oxide does not fit under the umbrella of Old Master Methods but the problem is not the Zinc Oxyde Pigment it is the ACRYLIC GROUNDS USED IN THE SMITHSONIAN TESTS.

‘In the study by Mecklenberg et al at the Smithsonian the delamination was observed in zinc oxide oil paint applied over acrylic dispersion grounds, but not when the same paint was applied over oil or alkyd grounds, according to my original communication with Mecklenberg.’ _GEORGE O’HANLON_
Director Rublev Natural Pigments

Now that player number one has pointed out that ACRYLIC GROUNDS are real problem, and player number two has confirmed it, we are left with player number three ACRYLIC GESSO.

After Nay-Sayer number one and Nay-Sayer number two let the cat out of the bag so to speak. Our Acrylic Ground Manufacturer had to spring into action to put out the fire.

There is a lot of smoke and mirrors going on here, but the long and the short of it is that Zinc Oxyde will not adhere to Mechanical Grounds like ACRYLIC GESSO. (Pigmentalogy 101). These tests were done on Mechanical Grounds and substantiate the Smithsonian’s test results which singled out issues with Acrylic Grounds.

Now that we have DEFROCKED the DEFAMERS we can start to discuss the pros and cons of Zinc Oxyde. Because of its lengthy drying time and brittle film, one should not use Pure Zinc White for ground layers, or general mixing. 

  • Zinc White has some notable limitations and limited uses.
  • Because of its lengthy drying time and brittle film, one should not use Pure Zinc White for ground layers. 
  • Zinc Oxyde alone should not be used for general mixing because of its low tinting strength
  • One should not layer faster drying pigments over Zinc Oxyde. Follow ‘FAT OVER LEAN GUIDELINES’
  • Because it drys slower than other pigments, Zinc White is ideal for final Glazing, Scumbling, and Highlights.
  • Compared to Lead Carbonate or Titanium Dioxide, Zinc White is notably cooler in masstone.
  • One needs sufficient knowledge of the Painters Craft to use Pure Zinc White effectively.  

TITANIUM: and Zinc White are two popular white oil paints but totally different in appearance and performance characteristics. Titanium, introduced in 1921, is the most durable, most brilliant white available to artists. It has excellent hiding power and with twice the opacity of pure lead white.

Titanium Dioxyde, in its pure form, creates a soft, spongy film that is unsuitable for artists’ oil color.  For this reason, paint manufacturers modify Titanium Dioxyde with other white pigments, and inert additives to make a suitable artists oil color. When the percentage of Zinc is small, the tube is labeled Titanium. Once the amount of Zinc Oxyde added exceeds a certain percentage, the labeling changes to Titanium-Zinc, this percentage varies from brand to brand.   

Mixed with other colors, the Titanium by itself dominates the mixture. It overpowers other pigments making them chalky and pale. Titanium White should be used for coverage not mixing.

TITANIUM-ZINC WHITE: This is the real workhorse; it is a mixture of Titanium Dioxide and Zinc Oxide. Percentages vary by brand, and the ideal percentage is the subject of much debate. This is your non-toxic general painting white and the only white you need on your palette if you can only have one.

If one prefers a little stiffer white then Flake White Replacements or Alternatives may be an even better choice there are several brands available, Gamblin Flake White Replacement, Michael Harding Warm Lead White Alternative. They are not Lead White so do not expect them to be, they are as Michael says alternatives.

Here is what Gamblin says about Flake White Replacement: The first true non-toxic alternative to Flake White. It’s the leanest of the Gamblin whites and a terrific underpainting white. Its beautiful opalescent quality is of special interest to portrait painters. Flake White Replacement has all the working properties of traditional Flake White: long ropey stroke, warm color, translucency, and short brush mark. Not only does our FWR come without the lead but it also doesn’t suffer from the fast drying time of traditional formulations, which contributes to the cracking of oil paintings over time.

Here is what Gamblin has to say about: Flake White Replacement: The first true non-toxic alternative to Flake White. It’s the leanest of the Gamblin whites and a terrific underpainting white. Its beautiful opalescent quality is of special interest to portrait painters. Flake White Replacement has all the working properties of traditional Flake White: long ropey stroke, warm color, translucency, and short brush mark. Not only does our FWR come without the lead but it also doesn’t suffer from the fast drying time of traditional formulations, which contributes to the cracking of oil paintings over time.

Here is more general information about Gamblin’s array of whites.

BINDERS: Adding to the confusion, different manufacturers use different binders as drying oils, Linseed Oil, Walnut oil, Poppyseed oil, Safflower oil, and combination of those oils. Each drying oil has its characteristics.

Linseed oil tends to yellow over time, but it dries faster than other oils. It is the best binder for earth colors used in underpainting but not the best binder for most whites. Safflower oil, on the other hand, does not yellow and makes for brighter white but takes longer to dry without additional drying agents.

CONCLUSION: If one has to choose only one white to have on their palette, that choice would be between a Forms of Lead White a Titanium-Zinc Mixture or a Flake White Alternative. That, of course, is a personal decision, one should try are three products and come to their own conclusion. 

Flake White is the more traditional having been continually used from Antiquity. It has a thicker consistency than other whites and brushes longer, which helps in creating impastos. It dries faster, which makes it better for underpainting.  On the down-side, the product costs more and comes with a warning label. 

Titanium-Zinc mixtures and Flake White Replacements are less expensive than Lead Carbonates. Titanium-Zinc mixtures create more radiant tints. TZ drys slower without Alkyds, making it is less suited for underpainting but better suited for Alla Prima, Au Premier Coup, final layers, and finishing touches. Last but not least, they do not come with a warning label.  

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