As a sort of continuation of my earlier post on colors, here is a fresh example of a test that I do every couple of years. In most every painter’s box, white is your most important color. Used in abundance, it affects the overall look of your painting, drying time, gloss, and brushwork.
Unless you compare whites, many aren’t aware of the vast differences in color between them- whether a white ground in Linseed or Poppy oil, or that Titanium Dioxide is a far brighter, bluer pigment than Lead Carbonate. This is a multifaceted issue that I spend a long time on when I give materials lectures. Paint is affected by the quality and color of its pigment, any additional particulate that is added to the paint (whether binder or straight filler) the quality and color of its oil, and at times even the material of the paint rollers mulling the paint itself.
Another issue is that paint simply looks different after drying than when it does fresh out of the tube. Linseed oil darkens over time, and to varying degrees, as the quality of linseed oil varies greatly from brand to brand. Painting a light blue sky only to have it turn green over time is really something you would like to be aware of in advance. For flesh painting, usually yellowing is of lesser consequence, unless painting a white dress or particularly fair skin.
Here’s the fresh white test on the studio bulletin board
Whenever possible I like to compare store-bought paints with my hand ground, to compare the oil I’m currently using with whatever industrial comparison’s on the market. After drying for a month or so I’ll put it away in a drawer or a corner and forget about it. You really need to view the colors fully dried, with the full effect of the oil darkening to compare them. The above test is only a few days old, still wet- though you can’t really judge the colors definitively, it’s interesting that a tube of W&N Lead from the 70′s at this point appears much smoother, and nearly as bright as the gritty modern W&N Lead white in Safflower oil. I’ll see if that relationship stays the same over the next few months.
People have written for years about the great tensile strength that Lead White gives your painting, and in modern days folks been talking about the dangers of Zinc White delaminating. A simple paint test like this is a great way to check a paint’s durability. Cracking is a big concern if you want your paintings to last, especially if you like to paint on stretched canvas.
Five or six years ago, before I had ever tested Zinc, I bent a piece of canvas that had a swatch of Robert Doak’s suspiciously light and bright ‘Lead White’ on it. Not only did the swatch break and fall off the canvas but it hit the floor and broke into a million pieces. I later made the Zinc connection, and have since included Zinc on all my white tests. I also stopped using Doak’s white.
The below white test is well over a year old. After letting it dry for considerable time it’s been in the dark for the past six months. As you can see, there’s a much greater variety in color. The dark quality of the whites ground in Linseed will fade over the next couple of weeks. I do find, however, that Williamsburg Flake to be especially unacceptable in color.
This is a white test from early 2012
The above sheet had a couple of Zinc Whites and Zinc/Titanium blends on it. I bring these sheets occasionally when teaching, and after bending it a couple times to demonstrate none of the Zinc stuff remains on the canvas. Pretty shocking, but important to remember that people don’t often go around bending paintings. It will take some pretty significant mistreatment to get zinc to fall off a stretched painting. Philip de László reportedly used Zinc for all his impastos, and his paintings that I’ve seen are in great shape. Personally, though, I avoid the stuff entirely.
Also worth noting in the above test is that the Gamblin Titanium has livered horribly. It’s also far too dark in respect to other Titanium Whites. This leads me to believe it’s got a huge oil content from some filler they’re using, Titanium White’s surface livering like that doesn’t happen on its own. Who knows, though, as even batch to batch manufacturers paints vary.
Generally speaking, my hand ground whites are nearly always the brightest in the lead/linseed category, as long as I wash my linseed oil first. Handground paint in Walnut Oil is often among the brightest whites at the end, whether Titanium, Zinc or Lead white. Bending the canvas, neither Lead nor Titanium Whites fall off the canvas. Titanium has a propensity for a brittle crack once in a while though. Lead really does seem far more durable, at least in my years of testing.
I find these sort of tests to be valuable, but rather than taking my word for it I would recommend this sort of test to be done by everyone, it doesn’t take time, and really furthers your understanding of what’s in your paint box. Not all paints are created equal.