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Written by Judy Taylor
I discovered the misuse of white quite accidentally. I wanted to paint the delicate peaches and cream complexion of my granddaughter. While I got the right value and hue, the results looked chalky. Where, I wondered, did I do wrong?

I asked that question several times and finally got the answer from a fellow participant at a workshop. “What kind of white are you using?” she asked.
“Ah, Titanium” I mumbled. There was more than one white? News to me.
“Try Zinc white. ” She told me.

After that I was left to my own devises to experiment with the various whites to get the effect I was searching for. While this may not be the complete answer of how to get life-like skin tones, it sure explains where I went wrong.

The whites that I have experimented with are: Titanium – made from the element of Titanium; Warm white – similar to Titanium white but not as glaringly white; Zinc white - originally called Chinese white – you’ve probably had an encounter with it if you have done much watercolor paintings. Quite transparent it gives very nice foggy effects in a watercolor. But I digress.

And Gesso. (The G is a soft g and it is pronounced Jesso.) You’ve met Gesso on your prepped canvas. Yes, it is the acrylic paint that goes on all canvases (or other surfaces) to seal and isolate the surface.
Below: Whites on a Neutral Background
Uses of White
- Change value
- Opaque a transparent color
- White out


Most acrylic paint comes in a medium value (for that hue). As beginners we usually make the mistake of painting right out of the tube and so our paintings are all one value. (To test your painting for value, take either a black and white photo or photocopy of it. Are there black and white and many shades of grey in your photocopy?)

Above: Various whites mixed with Cadmium Red and Alizarin Crimson.
What we really want in a painting is some light values and some dark values and lots of (greys) between. We can lean one way or the other but we need a range of values.

The easiest way to do that is to add white to get a lighter value and dark colors to get a darker value.

This isn’t always as easy as it sounds.

Titanium White
The trick is, some acrylics are transparent –the layer below them shows right through This can be a lovely effect if you plan for it, but . . . if you don’t?

We add a white to make it opaque. The number one star for this is Titanium white. You don’t see through Titanium white any better than you see through a brick wall. So by adding T white to a transparent color it becomes opaque. Right.. It also becomes chalky. So there was my problem when trying to duplicate the peaches and cream of my granddaughter’s face.

Above: Zinc white mixed with Cadmium Red and Alizarin Crimson

Zinc white
Zinc white is quite transparent, and a bit bluish, so is terrific in landscapes for distant objects, giving them aerial perspective.

Zinc white creates bright, clean tints by adjusting tonal value without decreasing saturation.

It does not make transparent color chalky, nor does it stop them from being transparent. So I can happily put my red in the cheeks of my granddaughter, allowing the undercoat to peek through.

Warm White
Exactly the same as Titanium but it is warmer, so when you mix with warm colors they stay warm. I think they make the Cad red closer to real skin tones.

Gesso can be used in the same way as other whites, and is especially useful in landscapes, where makes the transparent colors opaque.
Gesso has more ‘tooth’ or larger grains of paint, so that the next layer will cling to it much more happily. I experimented with all the gessoes that I have. All are somewhat transparent.
Some Gessoes are more opaque, it all depends upon which brand you have. Some are thicker, paint like and some are quite fluid.

Mine are quite fluid and mix easily with tube color. I find that it is more difficult to control the exact value when mixing with gesso. You can get it right but it will take more trial and error mixing. Like many artists, I use gesso in landscapes; I find it great for fluffy clouds. If you make a little mistake with it, it doesn’t stick out like a sore thumb. Try making a little mistake with Titanium White and oops, the whole world sees it.

Many of the artists that I know use Gesso to lighten the value of their colors.

Titanium white erasing a passage in a painting.
The very best thing about acrylics is that if you make a blunder, you can go back and start all over again. Titanium White is king of the palette for this job. Once dried you can continue on your merry way, with no one being any the wiser, except you, who just had a learning experience.

Paint fearlessly with acrylics; you can change your mind and your painting, as much as you want to. And don’t be shy about experimenting. All those left over pieces of watercolor paper or old canvases you are unhappy with can be recycled with your experiments. You can even make them into great abstract art. Go ahead, experiment. Make your own choices; after all it’s your painting.
Terms Used in this Article
Here is a brief explanation of the words in this article:

Transparent – Can be seen through. Eight is the number ascribed to the most transparent colors, one the least.

Opaque – Can not be seen through – covers up everything beneath it. Number one is the most opaque.

Translucent –Allows some light to pass through the color layer. The numbers between one and eight (most translucent) show the degree of translucency. This info is on each tube of paint.

Value - The lightness or darkness of your paint.

Hue - The color. Blue, Red, yellow, – what ever the color is called.

Saturation - How strong the color is. Saturation is the difference of a color against its own brightness. Acrylics are highly saturated. It takes a lot to tame them down.

Chroma - Purity of a color. Chroma is the difference of a color against the brightness of another color, which appears white under similar viewing conditions.

The C.I. (Colour Index)- Name is an internationally recognized code assigned to a particular “colorant. ”  Consists of: type of dye or pigment; (For example, PW 3, Zinc White, indicates a specific Pigment White;) general hue and serial number

Light Fastness or Permanency - This is a number that indicates how long you can expect the pigment to last. Rating I is excellent, it will be here for your great-great grandchildren. II is not bad, but Rating III is fugitive (will disappear). My very first oil paintings had Alizarin Crimson as focal points and all ready they have faded. So, my advice read the labels.
By the way there is now an Alizarin Crimson that does not fade, called Permanent Alizarin Crimson, check to see which one you have. Donate the non-permanent one to your grandkids to paint the town red with!

Tints – Color (hue) with white added

Shades – Color (hue) with black added  (in theory, but that’s another story. )

Aerial perspective – Subjects in the distance are cooler (bluer) and lighter in value than things in the foreground.

The Short Story of White
All acrylics are described by numbers and letters. This info is on each tube of paint. This short description will help you decrypt these facts.

Titanium – Queen of Whites. Here are her statistics:
Pigment Classification: Synthetic Inorganic
Chemical Description: Titanium Dioxide Rutile
Opacity/Transparency: 2
Lightfastness Rating: I
Permanency: Excellent
Colour Index Name: PW 6
Colour Index Number: 77891
Hue: White
Value: 10.00
Chroma: 1.1

Zinc White – Princess of Whites
Pigment Classification: Synthetic Inorganic
Chemical Description: Zinc Oxide
Opacity/Transparency: 7
Lightfastness Rating: I
Permanency: Excellent
Colour Index Name: PW 4
Colour Index Number: 77947
Hue: White
Value: 10.00
Chroma: 1.5

Gesso – The Workhorse of Whites
Resin: Methylmethacrylate/butylacrylate copolymer dispersion polymer
Vehicle: Water
Pigment Identification: PW6
Lightfastness: Lightfastness rated I (per ASTM D 5098)
Permanency: Excellent
Opacity: 1

Warm White – Titanium White’s Little Sister
Same as Titanium white, but warmer, PW 6, Opaque, Lightfast 1, Colour Index Number 77891

Great places To Visit on the Web
These manufacturers give lots of information about each color that they produce.