Which white?

The topic of sustainability has come up here (and hopefully will some more). Which artist’s colorants are more sustainable, and which are less? My thinking on this has changed quite a bit from the early days of my explorations, and turned decidedly unconventional. I now think primarily of which materials depend upon modern industry, and which do not. For instance, consider titanium white. Between lead white and titanium white, two of the few bright white pigments available to the oil painter, titanium white would probably be considered by most to the be more sustainable than the very toxic lead white. Titanium white is completely non-toxic: one of the things it is commonly used for is toothpaste – another is cake frosting. Yet I have chosen to use mostly lead white in my work. Why?

Let’s take a look at titanium oxide for a moment. Known as titanium white, this pigment is really titanium dioxide. It is generally referred to as a natural pigment, because it is found in nature in prodigious quantities in ores such as ilmenite and anatase. However, a little digging reveals that this “natural” pigment was not in widespread use, nor as far as I can tell any use at all, until the twentieth century. Why not? If it’s such an abundant, natural material – and non-toxic to boot – then it should have a much longer tradition of use, right?

Well, it turns out that this “natural” pigment requires a rather complex and energy-gobbling process to capture and purify. Yes, there is plenty of the titanium ores around – but to get the stuff into a usable bright white pigment requires extensive facilities and power. Even though the oxide of titanium was discovered and observed in the late eighteenth century, this pigment was not capable of being manufactured before the 1920s, when a hydrocarbon-driven modern industrial process finally got it done. And unless I am mistaken, that is the only way to do it on a reasonably productive scale.

(Many, many sources list this pigment, without any further explanation, as natural – including the Natural Products Association, which sets standards for “naturalness” in personal care products. I wrote an E-mail to the Natural Products Association, asking them about their inclusion of titanium dioxide, and whether it can truly be considered a natural material after the complex, modern industrial processes to which it must be subjected. I received back a very nice form letter with a little blurb describing what titanium white is, which I already knew (which should have been clear from the E-mail I sent), and which answered my question not at all. A subsequent attempt went unanswered. Now, I don’t really care any longer whether a pigment is “natural” or not – but really, in light of that response and other discussions, I have wondered if folks are perhaps a little unwilling to question titanium white too closely – just because it’s so mind-bogglingly useful. Believe me, I was more than a bit disappointed myself when I started learning about this stuff.)

Lead white, on the other hand: now this pigment does not require modern industry for its manufacture. How do I know? Because it has the track record to prove it. Lead white has been made and used for thousands of years, demonstrating it quite handily. And this is one of the main things I ask about an art material: has it proven its non-reliance on petroleum? As a general thing, I believe that if a material was commonly made and used before hydrocarbons, then it will still have the possibility to be made and used after hydrocarbons. (There are one or two major exceptions to this rule, to be discussed later.)

So, asked in shorthand:

  1. Which of these two white pigments – lead, or titanium – requires a hydrocarbon-driven industry for its manufacture?
  2. Is our hydrocarbon-driven industry sustainable?

Personally, I answer these two questions: 1., titanium; and 2., no.

Now, I admit: it doesn’t hurt that lead white is also one of the most beautiful colors in oil I’ve ever had the pleasure to apply to canvas. Really, it’s just a wonder to paint with. But that’s not the main reason I use it. I actually resisted the switch to lead white mightily at first, because I just didn’t want something that toxic on my palette. But I did believe it would more closely fit my philosophy, and so I made the switch. Haven’t regretted it once.

Iris rhizomes

Still got a ton of these, as told in the previous post. I’m giving them away to friends and neighbors at this point. About another week and they’ll be gone. Let me know if you want some…


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6 Responses to “Which white?”

  1. Chrissy Says:

    Very interesting post! I did know the history of lead white, but wasn’t familiar with the process that goes into making titanium white. Either way – if I was forced to choose just one white to paint with for the rest of my life, I would happily choose lead. I heartily agree with you that it is a pleasure to paint with.

    I once painted an entirely white painting, using a variety of the different whites I was able to get my hands on – in some cases it was just a difference between manufacturers. The differences I discovered between them was just fascinating. Though looking at the painting now, I can’t remember anymore which source each various white came from – but I do remember the joy of lead white.

    My favorite use for it, however, is as lead white ground on linen canvas. Applying just about any paint on top of that surface is magic!

    • sunsikell Says:

      Chrissy – interesting about the entirely white painting. I saw one artist who was experimenting with this – it was more like a sculpture than a painting, the forms would pop out when the work was lighted from above, casting the impasto shadows…

      I have tried oil-primed linen, but not yet lead primed. That’s on my list, though!

  2. Chrissy Says:

    PS, I think I’ll take some of your irises. I’ve been thinking about it since your last post, and haven’t quite got the perfect spot for them – and we’ll see if I can actually bring myself to chop the pretty flowers off to make the ink… if not, at least I’ll have pretty flowers, right? 🙂

    • sunsikell Says:

      Chrissy, that’s great! I’ll be pulling the last ones out of the ground this weekend, and I’ll send you some of those in the mail, since they’ll be the freshest for the journey. I’ll contact you on your blog this weekend to get information from you.

  3. Jeremy Says:

    It is a tough choice between these two pigments. Lead is certainly the more natural in its production. I am not sure how the large scale production lead and titanium match up? I use titanium now because I have been dealing with a great deal of personal toxicity issues…and I feel titanium is a safer pigment when handling. Acrylics are safe…but they are nasty in their production and carbon footprint. Also I do a lot of water media (gouache, egg tempera, glair, ink, etc) which luckily does not require as much white. I am looking into alternative whites for myself with my toxicity issues. Bone white, Lime white, Calcium Carbonate, Eggshell white, and Gofun are alternatives but certainly not the lush buttery lead used for oil painting. I have gofun for glue binders and it is a nice white. I have used Lime/ Calcium Carbonate white…but always appears cream and transparent. I have not tried bone or eggshell?
    I found this vermeer palette online… I thought you may like it: http://www.essentialvermeer.com/palette/palette_vermeer'_palette.html
    It seems like some like he had a pretty safe and sustainable palette minus the lead and mercury (which are sustainable but maybe less safe). Great Post! Cheers!

    • sunsikell Says:

      Jeremy – I agree, it’s a tough choice between those pigments for those interested in sustainability. I don’t think there’s a really clear answer at all. Basically, I feel that the art materials that require petroleum or simply large amounts of energy will be the first to disappear for us artists, and considering its manufacture I count titanium white as among these. But I used to lean more toward preferring the titanium, because of its non-toxicity and especially because of its abundance, and I’m still not entirely sure that my current approach is the more accurate. Just making my best guesses and trucking along…

      If you work in watercolor and gouache, I recommend trying out the eggshell white. Eggshell white is useless as an opaque bright white in oil paint or egg tempera, but in gouache I have actually in some ways come to prefer eggshell white to zinc white. Mainly because zinc white can appear too bright and cold, whereas the eggshell white almost perfectly matches the color of most watercolor paper. I’ll post about eggshell white at some point; for now, if you try it out, you’ll notice that the color looks fairly transparent when wet, but that it gains in brightness and opacity as it dries. Better than the other way around…

      I’ve perused the Essential Vermeer site, and despite a few broken links (about which I’ve emailed the admin of the site, to no effect), it’s a really interesting site. Thanks for your comment!

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