Painting white objects in oil or in acrylic is trickier than one might think. A beginner will often just reach for a tube of white paint and ‘call it good’ but later wonder why the white vase looks dull, flat and lifeless.

©2019 Lori McNee, “Harey Situation” 48×36 oil on canvas

So, what is the secret to painting convincing whites? Read on to find out …

In the detail photo of my painting, “Still Life in Blue & White,” I put a white piece of paper next the the blue and white vase to illustrate how much color really goes into painting the illusion of white.


(You can watch a video of me painting the blue jay in this speed video demo).

First, it is good to understand the basics of ‘white’. Yes it is true that titanium, zinc and lead white are the main pigments for painting white and the effects of light in acrylic and oil. But there is more to painting ‘white’ than slopping a blob of white paint from a tube onto a canvas.

The challenge is this:  Although white makes a color lighter, it also removes its vibrancy and brightness.

The two different categories of white

Light-Generated WHITE:

  • White = the sum of all the colors of light.
  • Yes, white is a color.
  • White reflects all the colors of the visible light spectrum to the eyes.
    • But, light appears colorless or white.
    • Sunlight is white light that is composed of all the colors of the spectrum.
    • A rainbow is proof.
    • But, you can’t see the colors of sunlight except when atmospheric conditions bend the light rays and create a rainbow.
    • A prism can also demonstrate this.

Pigment WHITE:(obviously, this is the ‘white’ we artists need to understand)

  • Technically, pure white pigment is the absence of color.
  • You cannot mix colors to create white.
  • White is the absence of color.
  • Conversely, when you examine the pigment chemistry of white, you will find ground-up chalk and bone or chemicals as titanium and zinc.
    • These substances are used to create the many nuances of white in paint, chalk, crayons – and even beauty products.
    • It can be said that white is a ‘color’ in the context of pigment chemistry.

So now we know that ‘white’ reflects all the colors of the visible light spectrum! That means in order to paint convincing whites we must be able to paint the subtle color shifts and value changes. Your white subject matter will reflect the colors of the objects that surround it. Therefore, the truth is this – convincing whites are actually quite colorful.

(The charming ‘white tea-cup’ demonstration above is by Karen O’Neil – look at all that color!!!)

*Remember, WHITE reduces brightness so although it makes a color lighter, it removes its vibrancy.

©2018 Lori McNee Still Life with Chickadee 24×12 oil on canvas

This are the reasons why:

  • When white pigment is added to any color it produces a ‘tint’ of that color.
  • This addition of white makes a transparent color opaque, and cools the original color.
  • We have all seen this phenomenon with red.
  • A warm, vibrant red will quickly change into a cool pink with the addition of titanium white.
  • White can be used to lighten a color, but too much white causes dull, bleached out paintings.
  • Learn to develop your own color sense and mixing skills to produce beautiful hues of varying intensity.
  • Use white sparingly.
  • To learn more about color, you might like to read The Hidden Meaning of Color

There are Three White Pigments:

  • Titanium white paint is my choice and the most commonly used by fine artists. Titanium white is the most opaque white pigment. It very easily covers paint layers underneath it. Titanium is the most neutral in color but is slightly cool.
  • Zinc white is made from pure zinc oxide and was originally developed in the 1700’s. It is somewhat translucent and produces brilliant color mixtures. Zinc white is known for its ease and workable quality in oils. But, this pigment tends to be very brittle and produces cold mixtures.
  • Lead White or basic lead carbonate is one of the oldest known pigments which was first developed during the time of Christ. It produces very warm and intense color mixtures. It is considered to be the most enduring pigment. Many of the most revered qualities of the ‘old masters’ paintings can be attributed from the use of lead white. That said, it is of utmost importance to note that LEAD WHITE IS EXTREMELY TOXIC!

I hope you learned a thing or two about painting white! Thank you. ~Lori

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