White on white


Dear Artist,

In 1862 James McNeill Whistler painted Symphony in White, No.1: The White Girl. It demonstrates the nuances of a pigment that is basic to our palettes. Unlike the Sargent painting that we looked at before, it has none of the electrifying light and luminous shadow that the use of white allows. This painting has a more “psychological” nature. Perhaps it’s the stony flatness, the simple cool-against-warm that is its main appeal.


“Symphony in White, No.1: The White Girl”
James McNeill Whistler c. 1862, oil on canvas, 84.5 x 42.5 inches National Gallery of Art, Washington DC, USA

There are three whites that painters need to know about: Flake white, Zinc white, and Titanium white. Flake’s the oldest, most traditional and in some ways the most reliable. Since earliest times it has been manufactured by causing a reaction between white lead and vinegar. Flake white tends toward yellow, mixes well with most other pigments and retains its integrity in all media except water. The history of oil painting would not have been the same without it. For generations courtesans and geishas used it on their faces — until someone figured out that it was killing them. Lead in human anatomy is deadly.

Zinc white is more tricky on the palette. It’s less opaque, and while a good mixer, most artists find it gets swallowed by other colours. Found valuable in transparent water-media, Zinc white was introduced by Winsor and Newton in 1834 under the name of “Chinese white.” Since 1920, Titanium white has been present on practically every artist’s palette. It’s a strong, cool, opaque, highly permanent white with great tinting power. Whistler never heard of it. Used sparingly, it makes beautiful tints. Overused, paintings become chalky and dead. As a glaze it lightens all before it, and grayed with percentages of black it becomes a workshopper’s dream.

White is a ghost with a spiritual quality — perhaps a mist that addles minds. It’s been my observation that, for some reason, the most amazing things are written about “white” paintings.

Best regards,


PS: “Whistler created The White Girl to study the tonal changes of white on white, and in the process revealed his feelings toward women that perhaps he had not intended. If this painting displays any narrative at all, I believe it is the sad and bitter tale of an artist who cannot find love, and to whom women or relationships of any meaning at all are nothing but trivialities, an artist whose showmanship and extraordinary personality are perhaps a defense mechanism against an internal strife brought about by overpowering or meaningless relationships in his youth.” (Paul Hughes)

Esoterica: White is a leap of faith. Without the use of chroma it becomes a challenge to hold areas where tone varies only slightly. The sleeves in the Whistler painting, for example, need to be held with a fussy line. On the other hand, dark areas such as the girl’s hair, give the opportunity for an appealing transitional aura.


Whistler the designer
by B. J. Adams, Washington, DC, USA

Last week I went to see Whistler, His Women and Fashion at the Frick in New York. Upstairs in the oval room were the large paintings of his society portraits and downstairs were the drawings of clothes he had designed for his subjects to wear. Included were some of the actual dresses or look-alikes. Other than giving a glimpse into Whistler’s up-and-down life there were some enlightening color observations. There was a bit of red stocking worn only by “out-going” women. Whistler never seemed to use more than one color (or a slight variation) in any costume in the drawings or on his subjects. The ‘fussy’ lines on the sleeves of The White Girl turned out to be gathering of sheer fabric that you could see in an actual dress. I’m going back to the National Gallery to see the painting, yet again, next week. We are fortunate, here in DC, in that the Freer Gallery of Art also has a collection of Whistler’s work along with his “Peacock Room.”


Mixed white
by Pamela Simpson, CT, USA



painting by Pamela Simpson

For white I use a Rembrandt product that is called “Mixed White” and is a mixture of Zinc and Titanium. It gives you the best qualities of both. It isn’t a 50-50 mix, when I try to mix my own I can’t quite get the proportions. I’m a plein air painter, but I like to set something up underneath the painting when I do a block in so that the colors I put down later will have something to work with. This white helps me with my lights — it is transparent enough to show some of my underneath color but it is opaque enough that I can get it to cover well if I am just a little more heavy handed with it. I like colorful whites and I feel with this paint I can get that effect in a variety of ways.


Use white with caution
by Doran W. Cannon, CA, USA

My experience with white during the eight years I painted (I’m back to writing and teaching writing and haven’t painted in six years now) was that my first mentor, a Pasadena landscapist, told me that white should never be used. I knew he had to be wrong, simply because there has never been a rule not designed to be bent, and my second mentor, the wonderful Oak Group (environmentalists) member of Santa Barbara, Michael Drury, disciple of Ray Strong, who in turn, at 96 is a disciple of Guy Rose, told me that white can be used ‘judiciously.’


Zinc white
by Warren Criswell, AK, USA


painting by Warren Criswell

After some 30 years of oil painting I have just recently discovered zinc white. I rejected it years ago as a recently invented (1845) wimpish paint with no hiding power and an insipid, deathly coldness. I’ve always used good old poisonous flake white, preferably Kremnitz white. Originally, Kremnitz white was made from litharge (lead monoxide, PbO), which made it long and stringy, as opposed to the more buttery flake white (made from lead carbonate and lead hydroxide). Schminke Mussini makes (or used to make) a paint they call Cremnitz White, which I’ve used for years. I’m pretty sure it’s not real Kremnitz, made from litharge, but they’ve evidently tried to simulate the original. I valued this paint for its warmth, texture and permanence but mostly for its opacity. Except that I was always mixing it with my wax medium to produce translucent scumbles or velaturas. For some reason it never occurred to me that zinc white was already translucent! I’m not sure what triggered this revelation, but now I use zinc all the time. Even its coolness is useful, but of course this is affected by the color underneath. So I have not reversed my opinion of zinc white. However, I still think titanium white is — in the words of Steve Martin, giving his opinion of a lunar eclipse — “a cheap and gaudy affair.”

With regard to your daughter Sara’s remarks in the last clickbacks — No, Sara, it’s not exactly that we’re “so old and conservative” that we think “art that is any good is a lost art.” It’s just that we’re further along the trajectory than you. We’ve done Malevich and have returned, older if not wiser, to Whistler, having discovered to our dismay that nature is way more inventive and creative than we are. No part of the trajectory is any better than any other part. You’re “getting it right” too. It’s just that the definition of “right” keeps changing as we grope blindly down the road — discovering amazing new things, like zinc white.


Avoiding colour toxicity
by Carol Hama Chang


painting by Carol Hama Chang

The response by Michael D Fiedler reminded me of the reasons why I have edited my of PA USA palette severely: Toxicity in paints, even in watercolours! I use the three primaries and one extra to get that “alizarin crimson” hue without its fugitive nature. I use the Maimeriblu (watercolours) Primary Magenta #256, Primary Yellow (Process Yellow) #116, Primary Blue (Cyan) #400, and Rosso Permanente Scuro #253, and those are all the colours I need to mix absolutely every conceivable colour. Not a cadmium, cobalt, manganese, barium, chromium, lead etc. among them. I use this system to teach beginners how to mix colours, and to teach the intermediates the finer points of analogous-complementary colour mixing. It’s a darned good system, and the quality of the paint is second to none and it is very reasonable in price as compared to Winsor and Newton.

I am always aware of toxins, and use their Maimeri Puro oils with the same “efficiency” of colours. I am glad I use this four colour system because I can ill afford a tube of their Ultramarine blue… about $200 for a 40 ml tube… it’s the REAL stuff, none of this French Ultramarine imitation… I can say I’ve seen a demo of its carrying power: powerful! And, with soap and water to clean up I’ve done away with special non-toxic cleaners. No need to buy those expensive water-soluble oils, either!

I urge artists to try out this system of these wonderful hues. Leave behind those heavy metals… Only the yellow is semi transparent, all the others are transparent… No mud!

(RG note) Michael D. Fiedler’s letter, Red Alert, along with other artists’ letters can be read at The story of red .


Photographic white
by Bruce Meisterman


photo by Bruce Meisterman

White… to a photographer white IS light. Whitest white (or the brightest white without detail in Ansel Adams’ “Zone System”) provides the tension to its opposite, blackest black (black without any detail). In both, either nothing is revealed or all can be shown. As one moves toward the grays from these extremes, details begin almost immediately to appear.

White/light allows my medium to function. Even in the darkest of images, it may be just that small pinpoint of light that becomes the story. But while white/light itself is the foundation of my work, I use it sparingly. It becomes hope and promise in dark images; it can also be unremittingly romantic or painfully harsh or fantastical. It can be the light at the end of the tunnel or as the joke has it an oncoming train. White has such unbelievable power.

Conversely, black has equal power and I use it unsparingly: mystery, fear, the inky darkness of total night, sexuality, and the sense of the unknown. Different sides of the same coin, white could not exist without black and vice-versa. It is the currency and medium we work with every day.

Culturally, we portray white/light as goodness (princesses, godliness, purity, etc); black/dark as evil (Darth Vader and the dark side, Jung’s shadow, etc.) Some of these perceptions were born out of fairy-tales, others can be prejudicial in origin: both inform our work. What we do with those two and all the ones in between will determine how successful is our work.


Process rather than product
by Enid Baker

As I’m a process rather than product person, I tend to enjoy having several UFOs around. But when I do finish a project I tend to reward myself with something peanut buttery. My biggest puzzlement is “When do you know your project is finished?”

(RG note) “A painting is finished when to have done less would be considered a sin and more a crime.” (Ted Godwin)


Need to get permission?
by Lee Cowan


artwork Lee Cowan

I’m a new artist, reader of the twice-weekly letter for about a year and first time writer. I want to make the four suggestions in a recent letter (go to your room, work regular hours, etc) into a poster for myself. If I should later sell the poster (off the beaten path open studio tour coming up in September), please help me know how to give proper credit/reimbursement. A percentage of the sale? Something written on the back of the picture/poster? Do I first need to get permission if I’m thinking that later I might sell it?

(RG note) We appreciate when artists and others let us know when they are doing things with these letters. My greatest high is hearing about positive effects. Please go ahead and use the material as you see fit. Let me know if your posters ever generate a positive cash flow, and we can take another look at the “deal.” In the meantime please give credit to The Painter’s Keys or the RGTWL on the front of the poster. Thanks.


I’m totally lost
by Cindy Cindy, GA, USA

I’m 36 and started painting 8 years ago; never picked up a brush until then. I thoroughly enjoy painting with acrylics. For the first few years I didn’t paint seriously, just occasionally. Recently, I have painted constantly and it seems the more I paint, the more I want to paint. About a month ago, I did a mural of a seascape for a friend. I’ve gotten a very large response since from people wanting me to paint for them. The problem I’m having is pricing. I’m relatively new to this. No one does my kind of thing around here. I’m not sure if this would affect the pricing. Any help you could give me would be greatly appreciated. I’m totally lost. Also, I’ve never had any formal training. Does this matter that much to collectors? I was given an art set by a friend who had watched me looking at paintings and saying, “I think I could do this.” I love art and I would love to do this for a living.

(RG note) In our business a degree is not a prerequisite. Work and application are. Application means formal training that you give yourself. As a beginning artist you should price your paintings very reasonably — and raise them if and when the demand warrants. You can see what other artists have had to say about pricing art at The price of things.


by Jack Bartlett

White is the essence of light,
son of the sun, stranger to night,
bounty of the retinal sphere,
not just one color but the sum of color
where, each morning a permanent promise;
is broadcast and delivered.

White hides in glass,
is the pinnacle of heat,
the antipathy of shadow,
heat reliever, snow stacker,
ice body, where a shade is dissolved
and darkness denied.

White breaks in just through a door,
it allows an Arctic evening to tint its core,
and by its value all else is measured
in tone, leaving hues and grays in dismay,
touching the face of sight
which, without it, would be blind.

White breaks the horizon at sea,
discontinues the night, commemorates the morning,
gives measure to days marked by numbers
on pages, often white.
It is the mother of growth, vitreous realm,
the garden where words are often placed in black
upon its face.







Verena Schwippert, Seattle, WA, USA


Hand Werke
by Verena Schwippert



Marg Metcalf, painting in the grounds of Stephansson House, near Markerville, Alberta, Canada. Marg’s plein air 8 x 10 inch sketch of the restored home is at the right. Our host was Cindy Brown of Sylvan Lake Art ‘Scape. The photos were provided by Susan Woolgar of Red Deer, Alberta.

Marg Metcalf


painting by Marg Metcalf


You may be interested to know that artists from every state in the USA, every province in Canada, and at least 115 countries worldwide have visited these pages since January 1, 2003.

That includes Betty A. Cavin, who writes, “My first instructor, Arnie Burrell, stressed that anytime we used white paint (in oils), it was necessary to mix it in extremely well, or after time, the resulting colour(s) would turn chalky.”

And Olinda Everett, of Sao Paulo, Brazil, who writes, “In conversation with a friend (art teacher and painter) in Portugal he gave me a wonderful present in response to my statement that I hardly ever consider making shades with black and avoid black altogether if I can. He spoke highly of his greens using Mars black and ochre.”

And Harold Johnson, who writes, “As a watercolorist, I rarely touch white. The color of the paper does all the work for me and when manipulated with subtle tints can do marvels. Consider snow scenes and flowers. Letting the paper come through, creates great whites and no tube of white can do the same. Tube white tends to kill the subtleties.”


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