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Whitewashing Art

578 artworks, 199 artists
Whitewash is a matte white paint with a high covering capacity. It is the most popular mineral pigment used by artists. Currently, two main types of white are used in painting: zinc white and titanium white. These paints are different: zinc white has a cool blue tint, while titanium white is yellowish. These properties of the two main types of white are widely known to the artists who use them. The properties of white paints from different manufacturers are also important for artisans, since their percentage composition is not universal.

The first artistic matte white paint invented in ancient Greece was lead white. It was obtained from the plates or small pieces of lead that reacted with acetic acid for a long time in the presence of carbon dioxide emitted by horse manure. The resulting white coating was scraped off, dried and kneaded on an oil base. Lead white not only feature elasticity and high covering ability, but it is also a highly toxic substance. However, this mineral paint was the only high-quality option for white for centuries, and no artist could do without it. Lead white was used for priming canvases, in underpainting. This paint dries throughout the whole layer very quickly, and paints that blended with it dry faster than usual.

The toxicity of lead white stimulated chemists and artists to try to find an alternative and safe substitute for the “top paint’. Their efforts were successful in the middle of the 19th century, when zinc oxide was used to make the white. Zinc white still could not be as hiding as the lead white, but it had its own advantages, such as application of translucent glare strokes and use in glazes. Moreover, the paint that was based on zinc oxide did not react with hydrogen sulphide and did not darken like lead paint, so it was used when working with tempera, gouache, watercolors and pastels, thus expanding the range of painting techniques.

In 1920, another matte white paint appeared on the market — titanium white made of titanium dioxide. In terms of its covering properties, it was not inferior to lead paint, had a high reflective ability, while being safe. Therefore, three years later, white lead was finally banned, but it can still be used in art. This paint, as well as the lead-zinc blend, is produced in limited quantities and is used mainly in the restoration of old paintings or in solving specific artistic tasks.