The White Test

“Even though white is often associated with things that are pleasant and pure, there is a peculiar emptiness about the color white. It is the emptiness of the white that is more disturbing than even the bloodiness of red.” -Herman Melville, Moby Dick


In July of 2013 I laid out 14 different types of white oil paint on the same surface, each adjacent to the other, in order to track what sorts of variations would take place over time. I’ve included typed notes next to each swatch that states the white’s brand, name, and oil content. These typed notes should help clarify the scribbling of my messy handwriting. Also, to be clear, I did not store the whites in the dark once I had applied them to the panel (total lack of light causes darkening and yellowing in all oil paints.) The panel was tacked to the wall and exposed to northern light, not darkness and not direct sunlight. I learned some interesting things within days and weeks of starting this experiment.

Fastest to Change                                                                                                      Within days the RGH Cremnitz with Linseed oil (featured far left), the Natural Pigments Lead White (featured left), the Old Holland Cremnitz (featured lower left), and the Vasari Flake White (featured towards the right edge) began changing. The RGH, Natural Pigments, and Old Holland settled into their slightly darker more yellow version and ceased changing any further from then on.  The Vasari on the other hand kept changing, darkening more and more for about two months, and then settling into its current version. None of the current versions looked as they do now when I first applied them.  (Side Note: I found that using this version of RGH’s Cremnitz in a portrait painting did not noticeably detract from the quality of the work.)

Slower to Change                                                                                                           The rest of the whites changed to their current state in more or less two to three months.

Drying Times  (Edited 03/27/17)
Each paint swatch seemed to dry at what would be an average rate with the exception of RGH Titanium White with Walnut Oil.  This paint was extremely slow to dry, but for my purposes worked very well. I was able to use the lengthy drying time to continuously render, and get the refined result I wanted with less worry about the paint drying too soon. In my original post I took issue with the company not adding some kind of dryer to the paint, for artists that would find the extended drying time problematic, but after speaking with RGH on the phone I realized that they can add a dryer if you like, and will alter just about any variable in the paint mixing process, including what binder is used and how thick the final result is. I highly recommend RGH paints, they are friendly and offer a product of high quality.  Though they may not be able to compete with some of the particulars of companies like Blockx and Old Holland (with their stone grinders) I would say that RGH is easily on par with companies like Gamblin. Though when it comes to how well RGH accommodates the individual, they surpass any paint company I’ve ordered from.

Brightest Whites                                                                                                            The brightest white appears to be Blockx’ Titanium with Poppy Oil, followed closely (and in no particular order) by Winsor and Newton’s Flake #1 with Safflower Oil, Old Holland’s Titanium with Linseed Oil, and RGH’s Cremnitz with Walnut Oil (but it’s important to note that I added this last white, along with the RGH Titanium, in February of 2015.) I don’t believe the Matisson Zinc White is still being manufactured but hey, it pulled its weight.

Why Blockx? (Edited and updated 03/27/17)                                                                       I personally don’t use the Blockx brand of paint but their brighter white caught my attention and made me curious to know why their paint would maintain it’s whiteness over other brands. The two primary influences seem to be the material base of the grinder and the oil chosen to bind the pigment, and I would bet that it’s because of one or both of these influences lacking that we see slight but noticeable changes in the value and hue of other artist quality paint brands. I think the raw pigment chosen by paint manufacturers differs primarily in subjective taste and is of high enough caliber to produce an ideal tube of paint if the former influences of grinder and oil are taken into consideration. My only issue with the Blockx white is the consistency.  It is more elastic and goopy out of the tube than most other whites, and I’ve found this to hold true for multiple tubes of the Blockx white, not just one tube that may have by chance been poorly mixed. 

The material base that sets apart Blockx and Old Holland is their stone rollers for grinding as opposed to metal rollers. Though I’m not a chemist I think the metal rollers used by Gamblin and other high quality paint manufacturers react slightly with the paint and this reaction then causes changes in hue and value. The oil chosen also plays a large part; traditionally cold pressed linseed oil was used to bind the pigment and give us oil paint –  even though it was known hundreds of years ago that linseed yellows slightly –  it was preferred over other oils in the past because the runners-up were too brittle when dry, wouldn’t dry, were too difficult to refine without impurities, or would change too much after applied. Although this practice of avoiding other oils is still in effect today there is much less need to abstain from alternatives like poppy, walnut, and safflower.  The refining of these oils has improved greatly over time and the product we are left with today is not the same unstable bottle of impurities painters dealt with 300 years ago, nevertheless this has been a little slow to catch on.  Although Old Holland maintains the use of stone rollers in the name of quality they still don’t offer a white that isn’t made with linseed oil, making it a little hard to justify $134.00 on a tube of Cremnitz paint that is guaranteed to yellow slightly.  If Old Holland did incorporate a poppy oil white I can’t see why they would have any trouble rivaling or even out-brightening the Blockx white, which pulls ahead of Old Holland thanks to the combination of stone rollers and a less yellowing oil.

14 thoughts on “The White Test

  1. hi there
    I have done a similar experiment and come to similar conclusions. i also included Lukas and Michael Harding, which I recommend if you haven’t tried it yet.

    • I’ll try both, thanks! How did you feel the Lukas and Michael Harding did overall? Did you prefer them to Blockx?

  2. I wonder how Permalba white compares? I use it because of its buttery consistency, but I’ve begun to be dissatisfied with the color mixtures I get with it. I think it’s a bit on the cool side. But you weren’t really looking at the color of the different whites, were you, but rather the “brightness”, and how they changed and darkened over time?

    • Hello Amy! Sorry for my delayed reply. I was looking for any change really, either color or brightness. If the whites changed in color it was mostly towards the yellow range, though some of them did get a bit grayer without yellowing. I know of Permalba but I can’t say I have much experience using it, do you know what pigments are used in its make up?

      • The tube says: PW-6, PW-4 Titanium Dioxide Zinc Oxide Vehicle: Alkalai Refined Safflower Oil.

        I’ve always liked its creaminess, but most recently it just seems very very cool, almost blue, in color.

    • I do remember it being creamy; I’m surprised it’s only those two rather common pigments, I wonder if there is something else added to give it that creamy consistency, or perhaps the safflower oil plays a part? Let me know if you find a new favorite white!

  3. This is awesome to see! I love that you did this. I personally use Natural Pigments Rublev Lead white #2 (walnut oil instead of linseed oil) which dries slower than the linseed oil version you tested and yellows a little less. I have tried about half on the brands you tested, and like that the best. I must warn you, beware of ANY white that uses zinc in the mix, a very bad white for anyone who cares about the longevity of their oil painting! Also, anything with titanium white will make your colors apear a little cooler when mixing, dries slower, and is a more opaque white, which is great if you need a punch of white, but can also make your colors a little chalky. I prefer lead, but it is such a personal matter for all artists.
    Thanks for posting this!

    • Hello Candice, sorry for my delayed reply, it seems like my site was holding back some comments for some reason! I agree with you that the lead white does seem to ward off the chalkiness that can occur with titanium white. With that said my personal choice is still titanium, I think the fact that I pre mix and pre tube most of my colors allows me to better control any cooling or chalkiness that might occur. But who knows, I may switch to a lead white in the future. Thanks for sharing your preference and experience!

    • That is very interesting! Do you have a link to this study? Or can you explain more about how you conduct these tests, I am very curious! I know little about the chemical “scientific” side of oil paint, and would be grateful to learn more.

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