Wednesday, February 12, 2014

Materials and Components: Flake White- a little knowledge goes a long way?

Is painting with lead white worth it?  Is it so dangerous that we artists shouldn't use it?

I often hear students and artists propagating exaggerated and untrue information about this indispensable pigment. I feel compelled to clarify some of the misconceptions and even paranoia about one of the greatest pigments for artists of all time! With just a few simple precautions everyone can learn to enjoy the unique properties of lead white.

Before we begin, let me ask you a question.
Do you think Sargent used titanium white to paint this sumptuous portrait?

How about Rembrandt?



How about Waterhouse?
  The answer to all of the above is NO!

They used flake white, cremnitz white or perhaps flemish white.Yes folks, those are all lead whites.
 Let me throw out a few other names that used lead white as their white: Velasquez, Vermeer,  Rubens, Titan, Caravaggio, Reynolds, Repin, Courbet, Zorn, Fechin, Inness...the list is endless. In fact lead white has been used for thousands of years and its history goes back to ancient Greece and Rome. 

Now don't get me wrong, titanium white is a fantastic pigment, and is a perfectly good white to use for many artists in many situations. I simply want to point out some of the unique properties of lead white.

Note: In this article I will just use the generic term lead white to describe artist pigments such as flake white, cremnitz white, flemish white and a few other not so common names. The base pigment used in all these paints is either basic lead carbonate PW1 or lead sulfide PW3 (in flemish white). Typically cremnitz white is PW1, and flake white is PW1 mixed with some PW4(zinc oxide).  I've noticed companies will change that around sometimes and in some cases will even add titanium PW6 to their flake white. I'm sorry it has to be so confusing.

Second Note: Most titanium whites are mixed with PW4 (zinc oxide). In my opinion this is the only usable titanium. Titanium by itself is best used for painting your house.


 First off let me talk about the handling properties of lead white vs titanium white. 

 1-Titanium white is a very strong white with a high tinting strength.Coupled with its opaqueness it can over take many of the other colors you have on your palette. For example, have you ever painted a face (or other objects for that matter) and stepped back to realize it's all too chalky? What happened? Well, there are many reasons for this but the overpowering strength and opaqueness of titanium white cannot be over- looked.

2-Lead white, on the other hand, is semi-opaque and the pigment tinting strength is lower. In fact, because of the lower tinting strength you don't have to use as much of your other colors for your mixtures, especially those very expensive cadmiums and cobalts. When using lead white I find it much easier to change the color temperatures in my paint mixtures without changing the values. I also find it easier to bulk up my paint layers simply because I'm using more of the lead white in my mixtures.

3-Lead white is a warmer white than titanium. This warm softness of tone lends itself beautifully to painting flesh tones. It also has a soft creamy, yet stiff consistency which I love. It's sorta like painting with butter and it retains brush strokes easily. Works great for those impasto areas.

Note: I need to point out that flemish white PW3 has a different handling characteristic to flake PW1,PW4 or cremnitz white PW1, in that it has a long ropey consistency (kind of stringy) and has a leveling effect, meaning your brush strokes will tend to level off and lose their brush marks. It takes a little getting use to.

 4- Lead white dries faster than titanium, which might be a good characteristic for you plein air painters. 

5- Lead white has a lower oil absorption than titanium white. Which means it takes less oil to make it into an oil paint. This makes it a fantastic paint for anyone doing layers or under-painting. It fits the fat over lean rule of painting.


 Now let me address the toxic aspects of the lead pigments. First off I want to point out there are really only three ways that lead might be introduced into your system as an artist.

1. Inhalation (you breathe it in)
2. Skin absorption
3. Through your mouth, tongue, eyes and nose.

1. Inhalation: lead white is in it's most dangerous state as a dry pigment. It becomes easily inhaled into the lungs and introduced directly into the blood stream. Bad! But let me ask all the artists out there, do you use lead white dry pigment? Some do, but the vast majority do not. We use it in a premixed tube of paint. One other way it might be inhaled is through sanding. That is, sanding down the surface of your dry painting. But regardless of what pigments you've used, it would make sense to take all precautions available when doing this. There are several pigments I wouldn't want to inhale such as all the cadmiums, cobalts, cerulean and a few others. So lead white is no different.

2. Absorption through the skin: This is not generally true. The lead pigment particle is actually quite large and is not readily able to be absorbed directly through healthy skin. However, If you have open sores and cracks on your hands it would allow the particles to get down through your skin. Again, Bad! But a simple solution for that is to wear gloves. Besides, gloves aren't a bad idea in general, I use them just to make clean up easier.

3. In through your mouth, eyes and nose: Okay, my rule-- DON'T eat while painting. Don't smoke while painting, (well there's a myriad of unhealthy things going on there, maybe just don't smoke PERIOD!). And basically just be aware of where your hands and your brushes are going. I mean not in your mouth! Just simply keep your face out of the painting process. Not too hard right?! Nicoli Fechin's liberal use of his saliva in his paint led to lead poisoning and I believe it killed him. This is also the primary cause of children getting lead poisoning from flaking exterior paint on old buildings. The old (apparently sweet tasting)dry paint flakes off and falls in the soil. The children play in the dirt and as all children do, they put the dirt and things that have been in the dirt, in their mouths. Voila--lead poisoning. And we all know young children are particularly susceptible to the effects of lead. Anyway I digress. After you're done painting,  simply wash your hands. Then go get that snack you've been craving.


So bottom line, yes it is toxic, but I really think a little knowledge goes a long way and always supersedes any form of ignorance or paranoia. As a painter it's your responsibility to know about all of the components you're using and how they work together. Being a painter means you're also a chemist! Always look to see what pigments are in your tubes of paint regardless of the color. If they don't state what they're made of, don't buy them. 

I highly recommend a book every artists should have at his/her disposal:
The Painters Handbook by Mark David Gottsegan 

There is just so much to discuss about white that I couldn't get to all of it here. But remember, white is the most important color we artists use. It goes into nearly every mixture we make.

I've included a few links below to companies that still make lead white. I believe all the major art paint manufacturers have stopped production entirely.

Michael Harding

This site is a great resource regarding pigments and their corresponding chemical names.

Color of Art Pigment Database

If you'd like to know more about lead white, I discuss it in more depth in my workshops. And remember if we, as artists, allow lead white to be villianized,  are cadmiums next? How about cobalts or cerulean? In all of these cases there is no suitable replacement. We are allowing our hands to be tied.

My Upcoming Workshops:


Dave Casey said...

There is some thought that this is also what happened to Van Gogh. He used to point his brushes by sticking them in his mouth to get a good point on them. Obviously not the smartest thing to do.

jimserrettstudio said...

If you are an artist and have never tried flake white, you will be absolutely amazed by the difference in color mixing, I am still learning to adjust to it but have found that my color mixing has improved just by switching my white, all other whites pale in comparison to flake. Pun intended. Great post.

Maria Bennett Hock said...

Great information…thanks for posting

Unknown said...

I'm buying lead white!

Anonymous said...

Thanks for the great revelation.
Good advice, and I appreciate your
Research to understand this. said...

John Cook , not trying to be anonymous.

Kurt said...

Thanks Bryce, good information. I have used the different lead whites and find them very useful. I do prefer Titanium white for landscapes, I do use Buff white for a warmer also. I do like the lead whites in Portrait and figure work.
Again thanks

Unknown said...

Hey I would like to thank everyone for leaving your comments, I really appreciate it. Dave I didn't know that about Van Gogh, thanks for sharing.

Anonymous said...

Hi Bryce, great article, I have bought Lead white, just a question, do you use a lead ground to paint on and if so what do you use the actual lead white you use for mixing?? Thanks for all the information you share on your Blog we never stop learning! Mike

Painter33 said...

Lead/flake white will yellow more readily than other white pigments. Using lead white as a ground requires a good deal of drying (oxidation) time. If turned to the wall, a newly made, lead white canvas will become a buttery light yellow (it can be brought back to its original white by bringing it back into sunlight). Waiting for the ground to dry is the key - and that means weeks not hours or days, but the results are worth the wait. Acrylic gesso (acrylic dispersion ground) resists paint, oil or acrylic, and a lead white ground allows the brush to flow across the surface and the oil paint to be absorbed and bonded with the ground. When painting with lead white, it's a very good idea to mix it with titanium white, because it will yellow less, be more light-stable, and will be less brittle.

Sadly, Mr. Gottsegen passed away (very prematurely) in October of 2013, so with him went a true passion for painting materials and techniques. Mr. Gottsegen first became interested in materials and techniques in a course taught by the estimable Reed Kay at Boston University. "David" as he preferred to be called then, decided shortly after taking the two-semester course that he'd write a book that would be better than Reed's. In some ways he did just by including modern chemistry and new materials, but traditional material and techniques are what they are and don't change. A line of experts, from Max Doener to Ralph Mayer to Reed Kay to David Gottsegen, have enriched the painter's knowledge base so that oil paint can be the safest and most seductive painting medium of all. Most people assume that because acrylic paint is diluted with water that it must be safer than oil, but that's not necessarily true. Acrylic paint has a chemical base of methyl methacrylate (just like Elmer's glue) and employs the same pigments as oil paint - cadmiums, cobalt, etc. Oil paint is comprised of a vegetable oil (linseed oil from flax) for a vehicle and beeswax to hold (or bind - thus "a binder") everything (pigment) together, and its solvent was traditionally another "natural" product - turpentine. Two out of three natural and relatively safe materials make up an oil paint. If one takes normal precautions and uses common sense, the oil painting technique is the preferred medium. A word about turpentine; "turp" is an aromatic distillation of pine sap (like maple sap but doesn't turn into pine or maple syrup). As an aromatic, its fumes can be inhaled to detrimental effects; however, make no mistake about the "odorless" thinners around today - they too can be caustic and to a degree toxic - because one cannot smell the fumes, they are still present. This can give artists a profound (and wrong) sense of complacency and might lead to a sloppy attitude toward solvents. I personally prefer to smell what can hurt me instead of an odorless but insidious presence of potentially dangerous fumes. I also freely admit to liking the aroma of turpentine over the modern petroleum-based solvents. Turpentine also has antiseptic qualities but I wouldn't overdo or oversell that! One can only use turpentine to make Damar varnish (5 lb. cut, of course).

This is an informative article full of essential information that every painter should know but few do because (Subjective Alert!) schools of art don't generally teach painting materials and techniques as a separate study. But, they should - instead they teach "artspeak", a form of self-important self-justification, which doesn't help to keep painters healthy and safe at all.

Keep up the good work, for you may well be saving lives.

Unknown said...

Lead white, unless mixed with a really inferior oil, will not turn as yellow as butter. It goes to a cream. It also works better in keeping the painting from cracking, crumbling, or taking forever to dry. It is very lean (requires very little oil), tough, and flexible. It looks soft and natural, which is a big help to painting flowers, skin, water, etc. It does not need a bunch of additives to make it handle beautifully.

Titanium white has it's place--as a replacement for the too brittle zinc white, but I use it only for highlights on water, eyes, etc.--never for skin.