Color Temperatures of White in Art

White may appear so when placed alongside a dark color, but in isolation, white often has color temperature bias, which might be warm, as in the case of cream-whites, or cool as in the case of arctic-whites. Other pales exist around us, which when sensitively observed will add authenticity to a painting. But how can these different whites and highlights be mixed and accurately portrayed in art?

The Best White Colors for Art

Different white pigments can be found in the art shops to serve different purposes (as discussed in a separate article). Some whites are transparent in nature such as flake white and transparent white, and therefore would only recommend their use for the specific purposes which they are designed. For general color mixing, I would use titanium white. Titanium White Oil Paint

Titanium has a high refractive index, meaning it appears brilliant white. It is also highly opaque and has excellent covering power. A multitude of highlights and pales can be produced by adding a little color into this white. Experimentation is crucial when mixing different whites for painting, as a bright color, such as ultramarine, will appear to possess dazzling blue if applied neat as a glaze. But mix with white, and the blue quality of this pigment will alter to a grayish, violet-blue. Add more white, and the blue takes on a delicate, bone-china appearance, very much apart from its pure form. The same effect can be seen in other pigments such as permanent rose and burnt sienna.

Types of Highlight for Cool Colors

Add a little ultramarine with titanium and a delicate eggshell color will result. This is ideal for cool highlights in cumulus clouds or highlights in blond hair. Add a little pthalo blue into white and an icy cool highlight will result, ideal for snow, cirrus clouds or highlights in black hair. View the two pale blues side by side and their differences will be more apparent. Warm Highlights

Add the smallest amount of cadmium red into lots of white and a mellow pinkish white will result, great for highlights in skin or corals. Add the smallest amount of permanent rose into white, and a sharper, cooler pink-white will result, ideal for highlights in roses, wine or cherries. Place the two pale pinks side by side and the difference in these hues can be seen.

Contrasting Highlights

Place a cool white alongside a warm white and the difference will be quite obvious. Such diverse color temperatures in white can be seen in snow on a sunny winter’s day such as on footprints or snowdrifts. Cool highlights will appear to recede against warm highlights and vice versa. Interestingly, neat white will also appear warm or cool depending upon the color temperature of the neighbouring highlight. Place a pale pink next to white, and the white will appear cooler. Place a bluish highlight next to white, and the white will appear a little warmer.

Cream White Colors in Art

Lovely, warm rich creams can be produced by adding a little earth color into the white. A little burnt sienna is great for highlights in skin, eggshells or wood. This rich highlight can be used to provide focal points to a still life or a portrait. Conversely, adding a little burnt umber into lots of white, provides cool neutrals that hold a painting together, such the underpainting to set tones. Introduce a little pthalo blue into the earth color, and this will cool the color further. Add a little cadmium red or cadmium yellow (pale) into the earth color and it will add a little heat.

Highlights and White in Painting

Experimenting with how pigments mix with lots of white will raise awareness of the different colored highlights that exist around us. Many apparent whites are not merely white, but cream-white, pink-white or violet-white. Colors do not always behave as one might expect when mixed with white. Often the color will not merely appear paler, but appear to shift in hue or appear more muted. Pale colors in various juxtapositions will make some appear warmer or cooler than it appears when in isolation. This can be seen when a cream color is laid next to a pale blue.

External Articles on Color Use in Art

How to mix oil paint

My oil painting lacks realism

Why do my oil paintings look dull?