When it comes to painting, there are often several whites to choose from, and not all whites are the same!  Whether you paint in oils, acrylics, watercolours, gouache, encaustics, inks, or pastels, there are a few things you should know about whites.

At the very least, most paint manufacturers offer two options: Titanium White or Zinc White.  These two whites have little in common so it's a good idea to get familiar with them so you can make the right choice for your art. 

Titanium vs. Zinc         

titanium zinc


Properties         & Uses

Titanium White

Zinc White


Titanium Dioxide, Titan White, Chinese White

Permanent White, Chinese White

Pigment Classification


Pigment is composed of Anatase or Rutile ore


Pigment is composed of heated or burnt Zinc ore

Chemical  Description

Titanium Dioxide Rutile

Zinc Oxide

Colour     Temperature



Opacity/ Transparency


Ideal as a “white-out” for mistakes



(And how it pertains to tinting)

Extremely effective for mixing into and tinting other colours. It’s so essential that most acrylic/oil painters go through more Titanium White than any other colour

Not recommended for tinting:

You can add gobs of zinc white to another colour and it will barely affect the tint


(And how it pertains to glazing)

Not recommended for glazing:

Even diluted 30:1 with a clear medium Titanium will still look foggy or chalky when applied over other colours. Titanium will never be translucent, no matter what you do.

Excellent for glazing:

Zinc is ideal for creating luminous, glowing highlights. Outstanding translucency.







Colour Index Name

(Pigment Name)

PW 6

PW 4


Considered Non-Toxic only when suspended in a binder (such as oil, or acrylic). Dry, powdered Titanium Dioxide pigment is toxic when inhaled.  (This warning pertains mainly to soft pastels as Titanium Dioxide pigment is used in many pastel colour formulations)



Chinese Whites

To make matters more confusing, sometimes paint manufacturers call colours by different names.  You may have noticed in the chart that Chinese White could be either a Titanium or Zinc White.  In fact, it can contain a mixture of both Zinc and Titanium pigment (again depending on the manufacturer).  This is where it becomes important to make note of the actual pigments used so you'll have a clearer idea of what to expect.


Titanium Buff and Unbleached

Also noteworthy are Titanium Buff and Unbleached Titanium.  The creation of Unbleached Titanium was originally a production accident in 1960 involving a batch of sub-par Titanium Dioxide pigment which became an instant favorite.  The popularity proved problematic as it's difficult to reliably recreate an accident, so Titanium Buff was formulated to mimic the look of Unbleached Titanium: it contains a single pigment (Titanium Dioxide - PW 6) that has been chemically bonded with a tiny amount of Iron Oxide (Buff's Colour Index Name - PW 6:1).

unbleached titanium titanium buff


Gesso is an artist quality paint primer featuring a stark white appearance and chalky feel (once dry).  Applying Gesso to a surface before you paint serves several purposes:

  • it literally whitewashes away any blemishes, discoloration or even previous sketches or paintings
  • it creates an toothy, absorbent layer for your paint to adhere to
  • it prevents the substrate (canvas or board, etc) from absorbing too much of your paint; improving paint application and saving you time and money
    The whiteness of Gesso comes from Titanium Dioxide pigment, but of a different quality than the pigment used in white paint-making.  The pigment used in Gesso is comprised of much larger Titanium Dioxide particles which imparts a coarser texture and is what makes the Gesso so absorbent.  It's not recommended, but, if you're out of white and are absolutely desperate, you can mix Gesso into acrylic paints to tint them.  However, be aware that adding Gesso to paint can drastically thicken the paint, lower the viscosity, and dull the sheen, akin to mixing drywall compound into your colours.

      Other Whites

      Although Titanium and Zinc are the most common whites, some old-school oil painters will know about traditional whites often named Flake White, Silver White, Underpainting White, Foundation White, or Cremnitz White.  They are undeniably the most opaque whites, however, the pigment used for these whites is made of powdered lead!  They are mind-bogglingly toxic and many paint makers have discontinued making them.  For this lead-based pigment, the Colour Index Name is PW 1, so if you see this particular pigment listed on a tube of paint, maybe avoid buying that one...

      Above is a test showing a selection of lead-based white oil paints, some of which are no longer available.
      (testing done by artist Jonathan Linton)

      Remember to stay safe, have fun, and live to paint another day!

      lead white pigment

      June 23, 2022 — Karen Bullaro