Is White Really a Color?

The Color Theory of White

There are differing opinions among color theory purists whether white should be considered a color at all, since it represents the absence of hue or chroma, and cannot be made from the three primaries, as black theoretically can be. It’s not usually represented on the color wheel, but white is usually an essential ingredient of any palette.

Flamenco by Ann Trusty, oil painting.
Flamenco by Ann Trusty, oil painting.

Ironically, the history of white pigments is a dark and morbid one. Lead white was one of the earliest and most reliable whites discovered, and has been in use since 400 B.C. Unfortunately, its toxicity sickened and killed scores of people, and for that reason, it is no longer manufactured in the U.S. Lead white’s victims included not only the workers engaged in its manufacture and the artists who used it, but also the women who once applied it as face cream and makeup!

Repose by John White Alexander, oil painting.
Repose by John White Alexander, oil painting.

However, there was no easy replacement for lead white and, despite its obvious toxic effects, it continued to be used for centuries. It took the work of many chemists a very long period of time to develop the formulas for zinc white and titanium dioxide white, two colors that would eventually replace the widespread use of lead white. Zinc white was developed for use in oil paints in the late 1700s.

By 1921, a titanium white oil color suitable for artists’ use was introduced by an American manufacturer. Zinc white is more transparent and useful in tinting and glazing work, though prone to cracking over the long term. Titanium white has become the most common replacement for lead white in artists’ pigments because of its lack of toxicity, its thermal and environmental stability, and its opacity.

The Penance of Eleanor, Duchess of Glouster by Edwin Austin Abbey.
The Penance of Eleanor, Duchess of Glouster by Edwin Austin Abbey.

The titanium pigment, titanium dioxide, now accounts for almost 70% of the total production volume of all pigments worldwide. As artists, we know it as the strong, brilliant white pigment available for oil painting, but that use is just a drop in the bucket compared to the thousands of other commercial and industrial uses it has. It is used extensively to provide opacity and whiteness to plastics, foods and toothpastes, as well as cosmetics, skin care products, and sunblocks. It is sometimes used to whiten skimmed milk and to mark the white lines on tennis courts. Interestingly, it was also used by NASA to paint the exterior of the Saturn V rocket!

In painting, the addition of white gives us advantages and deficits at the same time. White is needed to lighten dark colors, and is used to mix colors to create tints, pastels, or high-value areas in a painting. The trouble with mixing colors with white is that white also cools a color. This may result in the necessity of adding additional warm colors to color schemes to bring the resulting mixture back to the proper temperature.

All in all, we consider this a very small drawback of the reliable, more stable and safer substitute we now have for the beloved but cruel lead white of old. What about you? What do you think of mixing colors with white? Which white(s) do you use? Leave a comment and let us know.

For more great articles please join us on The Artist’s Road.

–John & Ann




Related Posts:


The Artist's Life Blog
John Hulsey and Ann Trusty

About John Hulsey and Ann Trusty

John Hulsey and his wife, Ann Trusty created the website, The Artist's Road - Painting the World's Beautiful Places.  The Artist's Road inspires with practical art tips and painting techniques for the traveling artist, video painting tutorials and demonstrations, workshop resources, artist profiles and interviews and remarkable painting locations.  The Artist's Road is an artist community for oil, watercolor and pastel artists.  Articles cover intriguing art travel experiences artists have had while painting the world's beautiful places. "I believe I must speak through my art, for the preservation of Nature and the natural landscape from which I take my inspiration and living." John Hulsey is an accomplished artist, author and teacher who has been working professionally for over thirty years. In addition to producing new work for exhibition and teaching workshops, Mr. Hulsey continues to write educational articles about painting for national art magazines, including Watercolor magazine and American Artist Magazine. He has been selected as a "Master Painter of the United States" by International Artist Magazine where his work was previously chosen to be included in the top ten of their international landscape painting competition. He was awarded residencies at Yosemite, Glacier and Rocky Mountain National Parks. "I strive in my art to celebrate the mysteries of Nature - the fleeting light on the landscape, the unimaginable diversity of creatures, the beauty of each leaf and flower." Ann Trusty  is an accomplished third generation artist whose work embodies the natural world and is created through direct observation and translation of her subjects into her paintings. She has found inspiration in the dancing light across the water of the Hudson River (where she had a studio for ten years), as well as the big sky and waving tall grasses of the open plains of the Midwest (her current home). Her work has been exhibited throughout the United States, France and Turkey in both museum and gallery exhibitions, and has been reviewed favorably by the New York Times.

11 thoughts on “Is White Really a Color?

  1. Yes, I consider white to be a color.

    In the additive method of color, you are dealing with light, namely white light which is refracted into the primary colors of red, green, blue. While black is the presence of all colors in the subtractive method, it is the absence in the additive method.

    Here’s my opinion – The “is it color” question is relative to whatever color mode your working with so I just forget about the extra philosophy/science of white and stick to what I see. Even white has a little bit of color, black too. If you have white with a drop of crimson, it has color. Some whites are warmer while others are cooler. Yes you can refer to this as temperature, but it still implies color. Most everything white is really not pure – so it has a drop of color. It becomes a matter of how you will portray what you see.

    In general, I use titanium white. I like zinc every now and then because of its transparency and bright cool white color. I’ve used the soft mixing white which is a mix of the two and it’s fine.

  2. Is white a color? Yes. Just because it can’t be put into a color wheel, it’s not a color? The color white was around before the color wheel, and those that made it. Maybe the color wheel needs to be adjusted a little. Or better defined.

  3. Yes, white is not only “a color”–it is the presence and reflectance of ALL the colors. Black is the absence of “color”, because in order to be black it is reflecting no color, at all.

    The primary colors of light, of which white is composed are Red, Green, and Blue light. It is the absence, or absorption, of one of these colors from white that create the primary colors of pigment (paint) in which we are all very interested.

    The absorption of Blue creates equal reflection of Red and Green Light, which appears as Yellow, a primary color of pigment.

    The absorption of Green creates equal reflection of Blue and Red Light, which appears as Magenta, a primary color of pigment.

    The absorption of Red creates equal reflecton of Blue and Green Light, which appears as Cyan, a primary color of pigment.

  4. White is a colour!!..Why not??
    It is the color produced by the reflection, transmission or emission of all wavelengths of visible light, without absorption..
    All the colours when mixed will give white only…
    it indispensible….it is not colourless as water…

  5. So far the dispute is not here, I do not see any testimony that lays claim that white is not a color. Furthermore, the simple thought that it exists as an acryllic, oil, pencil, or pastel, etc. should be enough to categorize it as a color,…I don’t know if I would actually call it a colour.

  6. I’m new to oils and I’ve just been contemplating the problem of how to choose whites myself.

    For my grisaille underpaintings I need both a transparent and an opaque white. Zinc seems to cause delamination, while pure titanium apparently dries to a sponge when mixed with oil! The solution may be to use a combination of titanium and lead, using a colourless paint like Natural Pigments Impasto or Velazquez mediums to make the white mixture more transparent. I was hoping to avoid the lead completely, but Gamblin’s flake white replacement, for example, yellows terribly.

    What do you think?

  7. “It is no longer manufactured in the U.S.”

    Not entirely true. Many artists felt so strongly about the pigment that they successfully lobbied for an exemption allowing artist-grade oils and some temperas to continue to be pigmented with lead.

    As to whether “white” is a color, it is, in fact, ALL colors. Newton proved that.

  8. I would argue that white and black are both colors in the traditional sense. Maybe when you think of the ways that computers interpret color values, or when you look at it from a scientific angle, you can argue otherwise. However, as they relate to traditional art, they are colors.

    Without white, the variations of all other colors would be severely limited. No pinks or baby blues without white!

  9. Many interesting answers to this question, here. And each of them has its valid argument. Just to add more confusion to the mix, I once saw a demonstration that showed that white is the presence of all colors, …and, as the demonstrator pointed out, the obverse was true about black, seeing as how it was on the other end of the spectrum.

    The demo consisted of three lights – red, blue and yellow – mounted on a circular piece of plywood about 12″ in dia. whose facing surface was painted flat black. The lights were mounted equidistant around the circle (a color wheel in effect) and were connected to a battery mounted on the back side of the plywood.

    The plywood was equipped with an axle at its mid-point. In turn, this axle was attached to a motor (geared down with pulleys to control the speed). When the motor was turned on the plywood “wheel” spun and the three lights formed a continuous white streak around the plywood disk. Ergo white is the presence of all colors (if you consider that the three primary colors can theoretically be used to produce any other color). A very impressive demo – especially for a young teenage boy destined for architecture school. My pennies worth. ~ gy

  10. White is certainly a powerfull color because without it, there are many colors that we woudn´t know.
    When I think about “purity”, “light” and “peace”, it is white that comes to my mind.
    These three things keep the human being integrity, so I believe that white could be considered as the king of the colors.
    Thinking this way and going to a human example, we also have a ruler or a president or maybe a king, but just because this person is the one that rules us, it doens´t make him less human that us. It happens the same thing with the white: its a king but its still a color.