How to choose the perfect white for your Acrylic painting

by Will Kemp

in acrylic painting

whiteacrylicpaint

Seems a little far-fetched doesn’t it?

That your white paint could be ruining your paintings.

It’s often the first tube of paint you buy and definitely the most used on your palette … yet can be the most overlooked paint in your collection.

You can become transfixed by the Quinacridones, save up for the expensive Cadmiums but little old Titanium white stays the same.

Choosing the ‘right’ white for the type of painting you’re creating is a critical step in mastering painting with acrylics.

So what is the right white to use?

Hobby paint vs Student grade vs Artist Quality

best white acrylic paint

If you use a white that isn’t opaque enough it can cause real troubles when you’re trying to block out different areas of your painting.

As a general rule of thumb, the less expensive the white paint, the less opaque it will be.

It’s a common misconception to think it’s best to invest in strong pigmented colours, rather than a strong pigmented white.

When you’re first starting acrylic painting you’ll often start with the student range or hobby range of whites first, thinking you will upgrade or ‘go pro’ when you reach a better level in your work.

However, using a more expensive white paint is a simple fix to easier colour mixing, cleaner mixes and less ‘colour shift’. Your dry paintings stay truer to the wet colour mixes you made and the fuller body of the paint is perfect for thicker impasto brush marks.

In the video below I demonstrate with a cross-section of whites so we can compare the similarities and differences.

Most Watercolourists don’t use White

If you’re coming from watercolours, it’s easy to see where the problems start.

Watercolour painting is primarily a transparent medium.

You build up the painting in layers.

This is called ‘In-direct painting’

You use the white of the paper to add luminance to your painting and the white of watercolour paper provides your highlights.

If you’re going super watercolour purist your aim is to try to create a painting without using white paint at all.

To get a clean, transparent wash in your watercolours investing in a good quality colour pigment is the number one aim.

Paler tones are achieved by reserving areas of the white paper.

For tinting (adding white to a colour) in watercolour Chinese White is used. Chinese white is made from a Zinc-oxide pigment mixed with Gum Arabic (this is closest to zinc-white in acrylics).

If a really opaque white paint is needed in your watercolour painting a Gouache* is usually used.

These final white touches are often only 5% of the painting.

When you’re starting with Acrylics the reverse is true.

The white will be used to lighten your acrylic colours and used in 95% of your mixes.

You primarily work in a ‘direct method’.

You want to have paints that are opaque, that cover other colours easily so you can have thick impasto, impressionistic marks.

Creating textures in acrylics is one of the medium’s strong points.

For the most common applications with acrylics you want an ‘opaque’ white. You need to choose your white paint with the same level as care as you would be choosing your watercolour paper.

*Pro tip: Gouache is designed to be an ‘opaque watercolour.’

The binding agent used in Gouache is the same as with Watercolours – water-soluble Gum Arabic, so they can be used together very easily. There is a higher ratio of pigment to water in Gouache, with extra white pigments or chalks added to the paint to make it opaque. These additives give the Gouache a matt, chalky appearance.

What’s the most Opaque white pigment?

Titanium White.

In Oil paint, Titanium white is a slow drying pigment so Oil painters tend not to use it in the early stages of a painting.

It is also quite a stiff pigment and needs mixing with a medium to give it a good flow and consistency. You can see in the video below how I add medium to a Titanium white oil paint.

One of the major advantages with Acrylics is the paints all dry at the same rate – unlike oil paints. This means you have the luxury of being able to use an opaque white throughout your entire painting.

Titanium White vs Zinc White

zincwhite

Titanium White is an opaque white, Zinc White is a transparent white.

If you’re working with more transparent layers or very subtle shifts in tone, such as portraiture,  Zinc white can be extremely useful on your palette. It can give you slight shifts in tone for more subtle mixes. However, when you’re first starting colour mixing or building up vibrant solid blocks of colour, it’s the wrong choice of white to use.

transparency zinc white

Here you can see the comparative covering power of both whites. A swatch of paint is painted over the three black lines manufacturers print onto paint tubes so you can judge the relative opacity/transparency of a pigment.

zinc white mixing white

And here you can see the difference in volume between these two mixes.

I started with the same amount of Phthalo blue (green shade) and then added either Zinc white or Titanium white to lift the value (light or dark) of the paint mix.

I needed about 5 to 6 times the amount of Zinc white to achieve a match for the Titanium white resulting in a massive volume of paint – I should point out that these are both Artist Quality grade paints.

So if you want to shift tones quickly with good opacity, use a Titanium white. If you want a more subtle change of colour mixing opt for a Zinc white.

Price Comparison

titanium white coverage

Hobby Paint

Hobby Craft Hobby Range – 75ml – £3.00 rrp – found for £1.50 online.

Student Grade

galleria

Winsor & Newton Galeria Range – 60ml – A nice range of student quality paints – £3.85 rrp – found for £1.95 online

Artist Quality

winsornewtontitaniumwhite

Daler Rowney Artists’ Acrylic – 75ml – £6.95 rrp £4.20 for 75ml online

Winsor & Newton Artists’ Acrylic £6.75 – 60ml £5.10 online

Golden Artists’ Acrylic paints – 60ml £7.50rrp £5.70 (£4.50 on sale)

So next time you’re at the art store looking longingly at a vivid Magenta, spare a thought for your Titanium white as it can help your painting more than you think!

 

 

{ 91 comments… read them below or add one }

Anne de Roche August 8, 2014

Thank you Will for this. It it very helpful. Anne

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Will Kemp August 8, 2014

You’re welcome Anne,
Cheers,
Will

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Maryl Simpson August 8, 2014

Nice demo on the use of various whites in acrylics. Good comments on the non use of white in watercolor painting. I look forward to more tidbits from you. Wish I could take some of your courses sometime. Need to check them out for cost, etc. I am an art educator who always wishes to do more work on her own! No need to comment back. Just want you to know your video was appreciated. Nicely done! Clear and great knowledge in those comparisons.

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Will Kemp August 8, 2014

Thanks Maryl, really pleased you enjoyed the tutorial.
Cheers,
Will

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Shirley Griffin August 8, 2014

Hello will, Thank you for the latest video. I find it very interesting,and can study it more later. I am still practicing with acrylics and have done quite well with the latest landscapes. I recently did a cruise on the Ventura and attended a few art seminars. The bonus is I saw your painting of Venice. All The Best, Shirley

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Will Kemp August 8, 2014

Hi Shirley, hope you’re keeping well, pleased you enjoyed the Ventura cruise!
Cheers,
Will

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Greta August 8, 2014

A big learning curve for me and will have to experiment until I fully understand, but thank you very much for a new challenge.

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Will Kemp August 8, 2014

You’re welcome Greta, there can be a lot to take on board, but just take each painting one step at a time and you’ll be fine.
Cheers,
Will

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Shoshi August 8, 2014

This is very interesting and helpful, Will. White is not something we tend to think much about – just grab it and use it! I think it is amazing that you share your immense knowledge and expertise with us, completely free of charge! Thank you.

Shoshi

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Will Kemp August 8, 2014

Hi Shoshi, nice to hear from you and thanks for your kind words, hope your works going well.
Cheers,
Will

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Fay Clough August 8, 2014

Thank you so much for your email and all the hints and tips and all the YouTube tutorials.
I watched them over and over and used my Apple TV in my art room to listen and watch and practice .
Please continue sending hints and tips .
Regards
Fay

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Will Kemp August 8, 2014

You’re welcome Fay, pleased you’ve been enjoying the lessons.
Cheers,
Will

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Adrienne Kemp August 8, 2014

Thank You Will..this has been very helpful!
Best Wishes
Adrienne

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Will Kemp August 8, 2014

Cheers Adrienne, hope you’re well.
Will

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Margarete Koepfer August 8, 2014

Very helpful Demo.
Thank you

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Will Kemp August 8, 2014

Thanks Margarete, pleased you found it useful.
Will

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Joan August 8, 2014

Very, very informative to a novice acrylic painter. I really enjoyed the visuals and to actually know the brands you were using was also very helpful.

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Will Kemp August 8, 2014

Pleased you found it helpful Joan,
Cheers,
Will

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Geert Brokken August 8, 2014

Thank you very much Will.
I was a teacher for 36 years and you are doing perfect.

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Will Kemp August 8, 2014

Thanks Geert, much appreciated.
Will

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Yeside August 8, 2014

Superb clarity. Just what I needed. Have been struggling, too with the water drops on some fuschias I’ve been painting so this helps greatly with the final gradation in tone, though I’m still struggling with the pink tones. :)

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Will Kemp August 8, 2014

Thanks Yeside, you might find this video on mixing pinks helpful.
Cheers,
Will

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Yeside August 8, 2014

Thanks, Will. I forgot that you had produced this video – very remiss of me! So appreciative of your time and passion in enabling others. A rare quality. :)

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Will Kemp August 9, 2014

You’re welcome Yeside.
Will

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Fatema vanak August 8, 2014

Thanks will ..
very helpful video..Waiting for another one
regards,
Fatema..

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Will Kemp August 8, 2014

You’re welcome Fatema, pleased you found it helpful.
Will

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Pauline August 8, 2014

THANKS WILL I NEED ALL THE HELP I CAN GET I FIND YOUR HELP AND ADVICE REALY HELP ME LOOK FORWARD TO MORE THANKYOU YOUR FOLLOWER PAULINE AGED PENSIONER

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Will Kemp August 8, 2014

You’re welcome Pauline,
Cheers,
Will

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Maureen Pisano August 8, 2014

Thank you for another valuable video. I do have a question. Could it be that adding titanium white to lighten colors is causing my paintings to dry “chaucky” and dull? Should I be using mixing white or zinc white to prevent this? I use Golden acrylics. Thanks!

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Will Kemp August 8, 2014

Hi Maureen, the white will often cause the lighter colours to appear chalky, and the more white added the more chalky they can look. If you want to bring a lustre back to the surface it is best to do it with a gloss or satin varnish.

Cheers,
Will

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Chuck Gurley August 8, 2014

Thanks Will for sharing your knowledge in a very clear and precise exercise. I have appreciated and shared all of your tutorials with my grandchildren who are very interested in art. I have spent a lifetime in the US Marines painting all over the world varied subject matter and still find that I am constantly learning.

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Will Kemp August 8, 2014

Thanks Chuck, pleased you’ve been able to share the tutorials with your grandchildren, thanks for passing them on!
Cheers,
Will

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Gloria August 8, 2014

Will Thank you. You help me sou much. I learn any time . Thank you for demo video.

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Will Kemp August 8, 2014

My pleasure Gloria,
Will

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Marion August 8, 2014

Thanks for the info Will. I made a bit of a mess up on a canvas recently that wasn’t a great quality. Could I just paint over it a few times with white to re-use the canvas? I’d probably need to use a good opaque white for the job?
Best,
Marion

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Will Kemp August 8, 2014

Hi Marion, yes you can paint over it to start again, but the paint will behave slightly differently, have a read of this article on How to paint over an acrylic painting, you might find it of interest.

Cheers,
Will

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Bobbi Schreiner August 8, 2014

From you videos I already knew that a “good” or “the best” titanium white should be used; it was so informative to visually realize the ‘why.’

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Will Kemp August 8, 2014

Great to hear it Bobbi,
Will

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Kelly August 8, 2014

Thanks, Will, for doing the hard work (like reading the details and texts and experimenting). Then, you generously share the info with the rest of us artist-types who don’t have a natural affinity for those more time-consuming aspects of becoming a good artist. (We would all rather be painting as, you probably would also.) You are a good man and wonderful artist. It seems like many share that opinion. Your videos are clear, well demonstrated and useful. Again, thanks for all you do.
Best regards,
Kelly

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Will Kemp August 8, 2014

You’re more than welcome Kelly, thanks for your kind words. Pleased you found the lesson clear and easy to follow.
Cheers,
Will

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Patricia O'Connor August 8, 2014

Thank you, again, Will!

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Kathleen Stoll August 8, 2014

Thank you Will,
this demo came in just in time. My summer has been packed with the kids swimming/tennis/dive competitions. Now Iam back in the drawing room. This demo is a great refresher course, thank you! I never really paid that close attention to Zinc white vs titanium white, now this demo makes sense.
Thanks for your generosity, Kathleen

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Will Kemp August 8, 2014

Thanks Kathleen, pleased you found it helpful,
Cheers,
Will

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Linda Powell August 8, 2014

I am a new subscriber to your You Tube page and I am also devouring much knowledge from this website also, I would like to thank you for the clear and patient way you explain things which is so good for a complete beginner such as myself. I have yet to even do my first canvas and I am very much excited that I am going to try some very simple techniques as explained on this site. I am not looking to be a master painter but simply to enjoy learning a new past time at my own pace and develop my skills as I progress.

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Will Kemp August 8, 2014

Hi Linda, nice to have you onboard! so pleased you’ve been finding the lessons helpful as you develop your skills as a painter.
Cheers,
Will

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John Conway August 8, 2014

I’ve been doing lots of tonal studies using Burnt umber, ultramarine blue and titanium white in oils and couldn’t understand why the paint was so difficult to apply to the canvas. This tutorial is brilliant and I can now sleep at night with a way forward and will certainly try a few studies using a white with mediums added as per your demonstration. A huge thanks from me.

Regards,
John

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Will Kemp August 8, 2014

You’re welcome John, yes a little medium mixed into your titanium white can work wonders with your oil paint, so pleased you’ve found it helpful.
Cheers,
Will

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Sherrie Richard August 8, 2014

Thanks again for a very well done demo on the whites. It answered a lot of my ‘mixing’ questions!!
Keep these tips coming, they are so valuable for us beginning painters!

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Will Kemp August 8, 2014

Thanks Sherrie, hope you’re keeping well.
Will

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Noeleen August 8, 2014

Fabulous and important information! Thanks so much Will,
Cheers,
Noeleen

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Will Kemp August 9, 2014

Thanks Noeleen, hope you’re well.
Will

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Fatima August 8, 2014

Very informative & helpful.

Thanks !

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Will Kemp August 9, 2014

Cheers Fatima,
Will

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Gale August 8, 2014

Will,

I had just asked my art instructor this week about using titanium vs. zinc whites and she could not answer! Thank you for a clear answer that makes sense.

I am a skilled watercolorist and have recently switched to acrylic. Due to my skill with washes, I was advised to work on unprimed canvas which is very challenging to attain luminosity and clarity of form. Can you recommend a medium or a gesso base to attain luminosity and beautiful washes?

You are a fantastic instructor! I am grateful a friend sent me your website. Thank you for your generosity! You are making a difference in our world with your generous spirit!

Best,
Gale Gassiot

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Will Kemp August 9, 2014

Hi Gale, pleased you found the lesson helpful, personally I wouldn’t be working on an unprimed canvas with washes, it will make it very tricky to achieve an even wash. A couple of coats of a white acrylic gesso will work well. For a more absorbent ‘watercolour paper like’ surface then you can apply an absorbent ground over the gesso, such at this from Golden paints, it will create a paper-like surface. Daniel Smith also makes a lovely Watercolour ground, that can be used both with watercolours and thinned acrylics.

Hope this helps,
Will

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Gale August 11, 2014

Thank you for the great information on acrylics whites, manufacturer’s products, and creating a nice ground for gesso.

I appreciate your amazing and gifted instruction

Best, Gale

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Will Kemp August 12, 2014

You’re welcome Gale, very kind of you to say so.
Cheers,
Will

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Gaynor August 8, 2014

Hi Will,

Thanks once again for sharing your knowledge in such as easy to digest manner. One question for you, Winsor Newton make a mixing white, I assume that this is a less powerful white so that the colours do not suddenly become pastel, is it Zinc White?
Many thanks and I have nearly finished my first still life with your acrylics course.

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Will Kemp August 9, 2014

Hi Gaynor, yes the mixing white will be based on zinc white based white, looking forward to seeing your finished painting!
Cheers,
Will

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Jeanne Van Arsdall August 9, 2014

Very good info Will, Thanks,

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Will Kemp August 9, 2014

Thanks Jeanne, pleased you enjoyed it,
Will

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Elaine Miller August 9, 2014

Thank you Will for the information on white paint. It is very helpful to be aware and ‘knowing’ when replacing used tubes.
Elaine

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Will Kemp August 9, 2014

My pleasure Elaine, great to hear it helped,
Will

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Janny Taylor August 9, 2014

A huge thank you Will for the video and tips on the Titanium Whites which was very helpful. As a painting novice it is so easy to be drawn to the cheaper brands and then wonder why you don’t get the results you had hoped for. In future I shall be much more selective in my choice brands. Many, many thanks!
Kind regards,
Janny

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Will Kemp August 9, 2014

Thanks Janny, you’re welcome, pleased its helped to illustrate some of the differences between brands.
Cheers,
Will

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Pantelis August 9, 2014

This was very helpful. Thanks for posting.

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Will Kemp August 9, 2014

Cheers Pantelis, pleased you found it helpful,
Will

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Julie Weston August 9, 2014

Thankyou! V helpful :)

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Will Kemp August 9, 2014

You’re welcome Julie,
Will

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Anthony Gout August 9, 2014

thank you for your email about white paint have I been using the right one. I have been using Winsor & Newton Galeria range Titanium White. I am not really a beginner I have been painting for about 3 years, I was just looking for new ideas

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Will Kemp August 9, 2014

You’re welcome Anthony, hope it was interesting the compare the White to others.
Will

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Monika August 9, 2014

This was very helpful to see the differences in brands and the different uses of them. Thank you for your wonderful lessons!
Monika

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Will Kemp August 9, 2014

My pleasure Monika, pleased you found it helpful.
Will

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Pratima Patel August 9, 2014

Will,

Thank you so much for this very informational tutorial. This cleared some of my doubts about white color in acrylic painting. I too use a lot of white, however I always felt that when I make much lighter color and use on canvas when it dries it looks chalky. One day I saw a white color in the store which was described as mixing white. It was heavy body from Liquitex. I bought it right away, thinking probably now if I use this mixing white, which is supposed to be transparent I will not have that chalky look in my paintings.

I have used that white very rarely. Soon I realized It does not work when you have to cover larger areas with paints that has clear white in it. Than there was a question why do someone would buy transparent white? Now I know why. I have plans to do some portraits and I will be able to do better job than before with clear white. Thanks to you.

I still have a question. I used a lot of titanium white to make color to depict snow, mist and splashed snow that filled the air in one of my early paintings when I started to paint. I feel that it looks chalky. How do you avoid the chalky look? or any coating over it can mar the chalky look?

Is there any other white other than titanium and zinc out there?

And yes I discovered your site about a few months ago when I was looking for some information online on varnishing. I read your articles on varnishing and protective coatings. I was extremely happy not only for finding those articles but for this website that is a treasure of tons of information for beginners and infact for all the painters. Now I know any time I can go to your site for answers to any of my questions and doubts.

You are a wonderful teacher and I am very grateful for finding help I need from your site.

Pratima

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Will Kemp August 10, 2014

Hi Pratima, pleased you enjoyed the tutorial, there are other types of white out there but they are mostly related to oil painting (such as lead white).

The white will always make your colours appear chalky, and in some paints chalk is added to give the opaqueness to the white (such as the Gouache mentioned in the article). You’ll often find chalk being added as a filler to more more student grade whites.

Chalk isn’t necessarily a bad thing though as ‘Whiting’ (calcium carbonate) has been added to white oil paints for centuries to help it have a more opaque finish.

If you want to add a lustre of gloss back to the paint, simply apply the desired sheen when you varnish the painting – the varnish will mimic your ‘wet white’.

Hope this helps,
Will

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Cecilia August 12, 2014

Hello Will !
I was so happy to see your demo about different whites and how they work ,you are really good teacher and give great help.Thank you so much!
Cecilia

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Will Kemp August 12, 2014

Hi Cecilia, so pleased you found the tutorial helpful.
Will

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eamish August 13, 2014

Hi will! Im used to making art with pencils, & painting is kind of new to me.
I want to practise alot, but apparently there is a great shortage of cavases in my area. I live on a scatter of tiny islands in the south pacific ocean known as Fiji Islands, which is a third world country infact.
Recently i made a few raw canvases myself, n i used good quality “white acrylic house paint” for the gesso substitute. But the surface is too slippery! My brush strokes are too obvious and just slide around by the brush. The paint was actually a “semi gloss” n fairly expensive. I really want to continue painting, on good surfaces too, so what can i do to this white acrylic slippery surface for a much better painting surface?
Thanks alot sir.

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Will Kemp September 2, 2014

Hi Eamish,

Great to hear from you all the way from Fiji!

Unfortunately once you have applied a thick, semi glossy paint to the raw canvas it would be difficult to apply anything onto to rectify the slippy surface.

My advice would be to start again, if you can’t find acrylic gesso then you can try with a matte paint which would give a more absorbent surface, but be aware that you might yet slight yellowing of the paint over time.

Hope this helps,

Cheers,
Will

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eamish September 9, 2014

Hi Will, thanks for your advice.
Super helpful as always!
Good luck.

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Leigh August 17, 2014

Hello,

I understand why the artist qualities are better than the student and hobby paints but I suppose I don’t get why the zinc white is required? If you don’t want whatever colour your mixing into to become too light can’t you just use a very small amount of the Titanium? And if you need more transparency can’t you just mix in a bit of medium/water?

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Will Kemp August 17, 2014

Hi Leigh, for most paintings you don’t need a zinc white but there are certain painting techniques that is can be an invaluable white to use, for example, painting transparent white clouds over a blue sky.

Cheers,
Will

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Tamara Torres August 18, 2014

Thanks Will, very helpful as usually!!

Tamara

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Will Kemp August 19, 2014

Cheers Tamara

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Dan August 22, 2014

Hi will I have recently purchased a portrait book where the colours recommended are burnt sienna . Cad red . Yellow ochre . Ultramarine blue . Raw umber . Titanium white and ivory black . Although I know skin tones can be muted with ultramarine , raw umber and ivory black I was wondering in what order if any , you would use them to tone a colour down and why are all three needed if they all do the same job ?

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Will Kemp August 22, 2014

Hi Dan,

It all depends on the colour you’re trying to achieve, the different colours would achieve a different hue, but to start with you could either just use the ivory black, or the ultramarine blue.

Cheers,
Will

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Dan August 23, 2014

Thank you will

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Dan September 4, 2014

Hi will I recently read somewhere that adding a touch of raw sienna to titanium white in acrylics will get you a colour very close to flake white . Do you know if this is true .?

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Will Kemp September 4, 2014

Hi Dan, a touch of yellow into a white can often give you a ‘warmer white’ it isn’t so harsh in highlights or as blue as pure titanium white.
Cheers,
Will

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mohamed sesay September 4, 2014

Thanks Willie for helping me realise the qualities of white acraylic paint.You are doing a wonderful job God bless you abundantly

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Will Kemp September 4, 2014

Cheers Mohamed, hope you’re keeping well and pleased the tutorial helped.
Will

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