Whitewashing Art

680 artworks, 236 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.
Whitewash is the general name for oil-based white mineral dyes that are used in painting. The choice of the “right” white has become an important factor for artists, because whitewash serves as the basis for oil paints and painting techniques, determines the contrast and tonal range of the image. Craftsmen use dye to obtain a desired hue, overpaint a finished colour, or fill the background. Thanks to whitewash, the eyes of models come to life in portraits, winter landscapes shine with dozens of shades of snow, and silver dishes in still lifes leave no doubt about the hostess’s diligence and cleanliness.
From ancient times to the present day, painters could not do without a luminous snow-white dye. Medieval and Renaissance painters used white lead — lightfast, quick-drying and deadly poisonous. In the 1820s, a French chemist prepared a zinc dye — light, brittle, translucent. In the 1920s, the painting palette received titanium white, thick and bright. Each composition created a unique effect on the canvas: warm shades of white lead were present in the images of sunrise and sunset, cold bluish zinc colours were in transparent winter landscapes.
The Titans of the Renaissance used white lead with ink to create drawings and sketches that rivalled the volume and depth of perspective of tempera and oil paintings. The Priests and Doges at a Church Ceremony or Portrait of a Bearded Man by Giovanni Bellini can be viewed for hours, although the artist’s recipe is simple — white, ink and paper. Lead dye created the lightening effect and gave depth to the paintings by Dürer and Van Eyck, filled the landscapes of the Golden Dutchmen with clear water and fresh sea breezes. Rubens used diluted white to create the appearance of the finest enamel coating on the canvas. Take a look at Karl Bryullov’s genre scene titled The Walk. With small snow-white strokes, the artist turns the light watercolour image into a volumetric contrasting picture. White is the lively eyes of the Girl with a Pearl Earring by Jan Vermeer, the lush laces of The Laughing Cavalier by Frans Hals, the cold shine and the subtlest play of “a hundred shades” of white in the Ice Mountains in Antarctica by Ivan Aivazovsky: in every masterpiece, there is obvious unsurpassed talent and virtuoso technique of the painter.
Famous pictures who worked in whitewash medium:
Portrait of a Bearded Man 1460s by Giovanni Bellini; Madonna and Child with the Infant Saint John the Baptist, Study 1505 by Raphael; Cottage near the Entrance to a Wood 1644 by Rembrandt van Rijn; The Walk 1849 by Karl Bryullov.
Great painters who used white:
Titian Vecellio, Raphael, Giovanni Bellini, Albrecht Dürer, Karl Bryullov.