Zinc White Vs. Titanium White, which white should I use?
Choosing the best white oil paint to use for your painting isn't a task that we often think about. Oftentimes it isn't the color we are going after anyway, it is just the base we are using as a foundation to get the exact shade we desire for another color.
For most of us, we use the white our art instructor used. There probably isn't much more of a reason for it. That's what we first learned to use and it's what still use out of habit. Most of the time familiarity with your oil paint is good, but what happens when you reach the limits of what you can do with your white paint?
Taking some time to understand the range of white paints that are available can help you figure out what will help you for your specific project, and aid you in picking some different whites you want to experiment with.
There are many white oil paints available, and they usually fall in between zinc which uses zinc oxide as a base and titanium white. These two are at the opposite ends of the spectrum, serving to rein in the rest.
Choosing the best white for you depends on a few different factors. You will have to consider the texture and mark-making of the paints, the dry time, tinting strength, opacity and temperature to fully understand which white will get the effect you're after.
Titanium based whites, or Zinc oxide based (or something in between like Titanium Zinc White) - let's take a look at what they do.
TEXTURE AND MARK-MAKING
Texture is how the paint feels on the brush and how it interacts with the canvas. This characteristic is the most personal. For many oil painters, the feel of the white can make a big difference in their painting experience. Textures range from soft and smooth, to rich and buttery, to dense and stiff under the brush.
A soft white will feel light and smooth, oftentimes right out of the tube. This paint will have the least resistance under the palette knife or brush. Zinc white has a soft texture, and flows easily.
A buttery white will live in the middle ground as far as texture. They will still have a clean quick break from the brush straight out of the tube. This medium texture will also not feel too stiff under the knife. You can still make crisp impasto marks. However, you can give them just a little nudge to make them softer.
All it takes is a small amount of fluid medium before this paint starts flowing better. Titanium white falls into the buttery category. It works within that goldilocks zone, playing the middle ground.
The stiffer whites are great for getting those big thick, juicy brush strokes. They will resist the knife and the brush. It will feel longer in the texture, leaving you with the feeling of more drag or pull as you use a brush. This makes the paint ideal for replicating the impasto of thick impressionist paintings. An example of stiff white would be lead based paints (Flake White or Cremnitz white) but what I recommend is Flake White Replacement because it is lead free and gets you the same effect.
Quick dry times allow painters to get more painting accomplished and start working with a pristine matte surface quicker. Titanium white has the fastest drying time, leaving a pristine surface that dries much quicker.
A slow drying times give a painter more open time to work the paint without adding any mediums, combining wet into wet. Zinc white is slow to dry, giving you lots of time to work with it.
TINting STRENGTH AND OPACITY
Opaque whites are ideal for plein air painting because they allow the artist to knock in colors quickly. They are the choice of impressionists looking to capture landscapes, still lifes, or portraits.
A transparent paint works best for figurative painting. When you want to get those amazing translucent skin tones, you see in Rennaisance paintings, opaque whites with a lot of titanium dioxide is usually what keeps artists fighting against their paint. It's not the painting technique - it's the white pigment causing the problem.
Zinc White is the most transparent white. It shouldn't be the primary white you use unless you are using a panel for your oil painting. The resulting paint is too brittle to handle a flexible support when it dries. Its transparency though, lends itself to being used in places where you want the under paint to show through and in glazes that don't desire to be overpowered by the white.
Titanium has the highest tinting strength and is the most opaque. It will completely cover up what it is painted over, not allowing anything to show through.
Temperature isn't something that gets that much consideration. A paint that is made using Linseed oil will be warmer, while safflower oil paints tend to be more neutral and cool. Linseed oil naturally has a yellow hue. The temperature of the white pigment in your paint can affect your mixtures - and it becomes even more important when you are painting a passage that uses pure white.
As a painting ages, safflower whites will tend to hold their color better.
Paints that use linseed will naturally dry faster and harder in addition to their warm color. The linolenic acid is what gives the oil these unique properties.
Both Titanium and Zinc oil paints are made with linseed oil, and they will exhibit that warm character.
ZINC WHITE OR TITANIUM WHITE?
The intent you have for your oil painting will determine which you choose. Take into account the desired effect you want to have, to help you decide which are the most important properties in your white oil paint. Titanium white has strong opacity and tinting strength, while the Zinc is a more transparent white.
Titanium naturally dries faster, while the Zinc White takes its time.
Which one should you pick? Play with both. Bringing a variety of whites to your work will do wonders to giving the same techniques a depth and breadth that they lacked before.
If you're painting a portrait or figurative work, you might use Titanium white oil paint for your lay in and then use a combination like Titanium Zinc White to add in some transparency to your skin tones. It won't get you the same translucency of skin as lead based whites (like Flake White or Cremnitz white) or their safer alternatives (Flake White Replacement)
While Zinc White and Titanium white are at the ends of the spectrum, they are by no means the only options for your oil painting. You can experiment with anything in between to find the right feel you enjoy under your brush and the right tone on the canvas.