Left: This rock will be called Rock A in the following discussion. It is a gouache painting of a Lake Superior rock from an on-going series of rock portraits. Click on the image and view an enlargement.
Please note that I am only talking about gouache in this post and the gouache I'm referring to is the gum arabic based watersoluble type, not any of the newer "acrylic" based products that carry "gouache" as part of their name or make claims for a "gouache-like matte finish when dried." If you use acrylics much of this discussion will still be helpful for you because it is about pigments, but you will be working with a paint that is waterproof (or water resistant) and will therefore you will encounter different constraints and joys.
I get lots of emails asking me about gouache. Most of those emails also ask me "which white gouache should I use—zinc white or titanium white?"
(Zinc white was also called Chinese white early when it was first introduced in the early 1800s.)
I categorize the two available white gouache paints in the following way: zinc white is warmer and translucent; titanium white is more opaque and cooler in color temperature. Based on that I use each for specific needs in my painting.
Now before we go further I should point out that while checking production dates for titanium white before posting this I came across a website called Pigments through the Ages. They state that titanium white came into production in the 1920s and that fits with what I already knew. But they state that zinc white is colder in temperature than titanium white.
I'm not a scientist. I'm just an artist. I don't have the fancy diagrams that they have on their site (check them out they are pretty interesting), or the equipment they have presumably used to derive their information. I have my eyes, and when I look at any zinc white I've seen on the market next to any titanium white, the zinc white appears warmer to me. Perhaps because of some early implanted suggestion or some perversity of mind? I would make up color samples for you but scanning whites is a bit problematic and takes time away from me getting to my main point. So while I think zinc white is warmer than titanium white I encourage you to compare them yourself. When I look at zinc white my eye sees the warmer cast of the yellows and when I look at titanium white I see it leaning towards the blue end of the spectrum. You're going to have to look at some paint and decide for yourself, because how your eye sees these two paints will influence how you as an artist can incorporate them in your paintings.
Left: A side note to this discussion of white gouache—After I wrote this post I remembered that I had taken some photos of the Arctic Fox at the zoo. I went to Como on New Year's day and sketched inside the buildings (puffins, kudu, that sort of animal). It was a little chilly to sketch outside (below freezing tends to make my niji waterbrush pump out ice), but I took some photos. I spied this fox in his enclosure. After writing this post I realized this fox is a great example of what I mean about the difference betwen zinc and titanium white. To my eye the fox is a warmer white (like zinc going towards the yellow) and the snow in which he sits is a cooler white (like titanium going towards the blue. When I put zinc white and titanium white paints next to each other I see this difference. One more point—even though I see this fox and snow this way does not necessarily mean I would use those whites to paint this image. It depends on the other color choices I make for the entire picture; and the working qualities I want the white paint to have. But I wanted to show you what my eyes see. Click on the image to view the enlargement.
Once you pick your side you'll be able to resolve half the issues of when you are going to use which white. The other half of the decision on when to use zinc white relates to its translucency. If you really want opaque coverage zinc white is not the gouache white for your purpose.
When might you use zinc white? Well if you were doing something atmospheric, like a mist in a landscape, or if you were putting a veil of white over something (either atmospherically or materially).
In Rock A you can see that I have used some white both in the pink inclusions in the rock and in areas of the brown rock surface. For the former I needed something more opaque and cooler and I relied on titanium white. For the veiled bits of rock surface where there are scuffs and smooth curves I relied on the translucent aspects of zinc white.
In Rock B you can see that I have created a veil over the entire surface of the rock to mimic the actual surface of that rock. To do this I employed zinc white in my mixtures because of its translucent qualities. There are a couple places on Rock B, however, notably around the central green mineral deposit, where I have used a diluted titanium white because I wanted a cooler temperature and more opacity to create a white "line."
Left: A familiar face, this is a gull study from my journal and it appears at the top of my blog in the banner. Click on the image to view an enlargement and read the different whites that were used in the various parts of the bird's head.
When you look at the third example in this post, the Gull's head, you'll see that while I used the most opaque white—titanium white—for the body and head of the bird, there are areas of the bird's body where that paint is not used opaquely and rubberstamping shows through the paint. Even titanium white can be used in this translucent manner.
I'm not telling you this to be confusing or difficult. I'm pointing this out to you so that you know there is a continuum for each white. And for each individual painter there will be many times when you reach for one white over the other based on what each will do and what it is that you are trying to achieve.
The only way that you can ever get a handle on any of this is to start painting first with one for all sorts of situations and then the other for the same situations. In that way you will get a feel for what works for you, your color palette, and your needs as a painter.
When I am out in the field typically my travel palettes only contain zinc white because I find that I have a lot more need for a translucent white in the field than I do for an opaque white. I can always go in and add opaque highlights after I return home (I'll also have a finer brush there with which to work).
Now, because I know you are sitting down I can make my next point with confidence that you won't run screaming from the room—each manufacturer's paint is going to be different.
Take a breath. You knew this already because you've used a different brand of French Ultramarine or Burnt Sienna or whatever your favorite color is. The same applies to whites, both of them. So that means that you're going to want to try a couple (or a few, or many). You don't have to go out and buy a bunch of them now. In fact I would argue and advise against that action.
If you currently use a brand of gouache use their zinc gouache for a week of solid painting. Next introduce their titanium white into your process for another week. Perhaps for that week you only use the titanium white or you can pick and choose between the two, whatever seems most useful to your approach and your self-study.
I would even encourage you to paint the same subject over multiple times, switching from zinc to titanium white. I would also encourage you to make large rectangles (2 x 6 inches) on a sheet of toned watercolor paper (Bockingford, Magnani's Annigoni [which is sized for wet media], etc.). Practice laying in washes of different dilutions on those rectangles, getting a feel for how the paint relates to what is underneath it. Practice laying in washes of both whites over other gouache layers previously applied to toned paper. Practice mixing tints with each white and a couple of your other colors and comparing your zinc/French Ultramarine Blue tint to your titanium/French Ultramarine Blue tint both over the same toned paper. Repeat with other pigment mixes until your eyes begin to tell you what each white does for you.
By then you'll probably have run through your tubes of zinc and titanium whites from the line of paint you typically use and you can purchase a tube from another line. In general I find that Holbein gouache is too chalky (and there are lots of fugitive pigments to contend with) but they make a very opaque white that can be quite fun to work with.
There is another factor that will feed into your selection of which white gouache to use. Do you mix white paint with all your colors to create tints and paint in a high key fashion? Do you use white paint for blending and for atmospheric use? Your particular approach will influence your choice of white gouache, both the specific pigment and the brand you decide on.
As you can see there is a lot of experimentation ahead of you. But what I hope you see from this discussion is that there are options you can create for yourself to give your work the look you want.
You have to get in and work with this stuff to really see what it is going to do for you. After you have spent some time with the paints you'll have your own little mantra about them. For me it is "zinc warm transluscent; titanium cool opaque." This doesn't mean I can't push a titanium wash out to a more translucent passage, but it does remind me that if that is my intent I'm going to go with the zinc in the first place and make my life easier—or rather, more fun. And that's what painting is for me, fun.
I hope you can have some fun with both whites and devise a working plan for yourself.
One more piece of advice. Keep your white paint away from your other paints. I have friends who keep a bit of white (zinc, titanium, or both) near their cool colors and the same near their warm colors and keep these separate in this way when mixing their paints. That's what they are positing to me.
I just have one blob of both and I keep them away from everything else. I also devise a painting plan to hold back from introducing the whites as long as possible. It easier to take a dark mix of two pigments and achieve the right hue and then change it with the addition of white than it is to bring back to a dark and satisfying richness any section of paint that has had white paint added to it. So do a little planning first and you'll be happier, and your experiements will make sense, and the act of painting will be less stressful.
And keep your rinse water separate too! I have a special rinse for my brush when it has either white on it.
Of course everything has to have an exception and I have one more thing to add, sometimes you have to begin with white paint because it is actually the "subject of your painting." I still stay away from mixes with the white until the white is established and the dark values are established. Then I can worry about transitions. All of this is just to say, you're going to have to experiment, but not to worry, because it is really, really fun.
But Wait There's More:
There is another white gouache that is even more opaque than titanium white—bottled white gouache for illustration (and corrections). I have used two brands of this type of paint interchangeably over the years and like both of them equally well. Dahler Rowney Pro White and Dr. Ph Martin's Bleed Proof White. Stir both before you use them (I typically use the butt end of my brush if it is clean and dry). I also recommend removing a dab of paint from the stirred bottle and placing it in a small porcelain mixing dish or well on your palette. You remove the risk of contaminating your full jar). It does re-wet on the palette, but it is always a bit more grainy, so just put out what you think you'll need. I use this type of gouache only for highlights that have to be very sharp. I typically tint the gouache as needed before applying it.