Materials and Components: Flake White- a little knowledge goes a long way?

Is painting with lead white worth it?  Is it so dangerous that we artists shouldn't use it?

I often hear students and artists propagating exaggerated and untrue information about this indispensable pigment. I feel compelled to clarify some of the misconceptions and even paranoia about one of the greatest pigments for artists of all time! With just a few simple precautions everyone can learn to enjoy the unique properties of lead white.

Before we begin, let me ask you a question.

Do you think Sargent used titanium white to paint this sumptuous portrait?


How about Rembrandt?



How about Waterhouse?


The answer to all of the above is NO!

They used flake white, cremnitz white or perhaps flemish white. Yes folks, those are all lead whites.

 Let me throw out a few other names that used lead white as their white:

Velasquez, Vermeer,  Rubens, Titan, Caravaggio, Reynolds, Repin, Courbet,

Zorn, Fechin, Inness...the list is endless. In fact lead white has been used for thousands of years and its history goes back to ancient Greece and Rome.

Now don't get me wrong, titanium white is a fantastic pigment, and is a perfectly good white to use for many artists in many situations. I simply want to point out some of the unique properties of lead white.

Note: In this article I will just use the generic term lead white to describe artist pigments such as

flake white, cremnitz white, flemish white and a few other not so common names. The base pigment used in all these paints is either basic lead carbonate PW1 or lead sulfide PW3 (in flemish white). Typically cremnitz white is PW1, and flake white is PW1 mixed with some PW4(zinc oxide).  I've noticed companies will change that around sometimes and in some cases will even add titanium PW6 to their flake white. I'm sorry it has to be so confusing.

Second Note: Most titanium whites are mixed with PW4 (zinc oxide). In my opinion this is the only usable titanium. Titanium by itself is best used for painting your house.


 First off let me talk about the handling properties of lead white vs titanium white. 

 1-Titanium white is a very strong white with a high tinting strength.Coupled with its opaqueness it can over take many of the other colors you have on your palette. For example, have you ever painted a face (or other objects for that matter) and stepped back to realize it's all too chalky? What happened? Well, there are many reasons for this but the overpowering strength and opaqueness of titanium white cannot be over- looked.

2-Lead white, on the other hand, is semi-opaque and the pigment tinting strength is lower. In fact, because of the lower tinting strength you don't have to use as much of your other colors for your mixtures, especially those very expensive cadmiums and cobalts. When using lead white I find it much easier to change the color temperatures in my paint mixtures without changing the values. I also find it easier to bulk up my paint layers simply because I'm using more of the lead white in my mixtures.

3-Lead white is a warmer white than titanium. This warm softness of tone lends itself beautifully to painting flesh tones. It also has a soft creamy, yet stiff consistency which I love. It's sorta like painting with butter and it retains brush strokes easily. Works great for those impasto areas. Note: I need to point out that flemish white PW3 has a different handling characteristic to flake PW1,PW4 or cremnitz white PW1, in that it has a long ropey consistency (kind of stringy) and has a leveling effect, meaning your brush strokes will tend to level off and lose their brush marks. It takes a little getting use to.

 4- Lead white dries faster than titanium, which might be a good characteristic for you plein air painters. 

5- Lead white has a lower oil absorption than titanium white. Which means it takes less oil to make it into an oil paint. This makes it a fantastic paint for anyone doing layers or under-painting. It fits the fat over lean rule of painting.


Now let me address the toxic aspects of the lead pigments. First off I want to point out there are really only three ways that lead might be introduced into your system as an artist.

1. Inhalation (you breathe it in)

2. Skin absorption

3. Through your mouth, tongue, eyes and nose.

1. Inhalation: lead white is in it's most dangerous state as a dry pigment. It becomes easily inhaled into the lungs and introduced directly into the blood stream. Bad! But let me ask all the artists out there, do you use lead white dry pigment? Some do, but the vast majority do not. We use it in a premixed tube of paint. One other way it might be inhaled is through sanding. That is, sanding down the surface of your dry painting. But regardless of what pigments you've used, it would make sense to take all precautions available when doing this. There are several pigments I wouldn't want to inhale such as all the cadmiums, cobalts, cerulean and a few others. So lead white is no different.

2. Absorption through the skin: This is not generally true. The lead pigment particle is actually quite large and is not readily able to be absorbed directly through healthy skin. However, If you have open sores and cracks on your hands it would allow the particles to get down through your skin. Again, Bad! But a simple solution for that is to wear gloves. Besides, gloves aren't a bad idea in general, I use them just to make clean up easier.

3. In through your mouth, eyes and nose: Okay, my rule-- DON'T eat while painting. Don't smoke while painting, (well there's a myriad of unhealthy things going on there, maybe just don't smoke PERIOD!). And basically just be aware of where your hands and your brushes are going. I mean not in your mouth! Just simply keep your face out of the painting process. Not too hard right?! Nicoli Fechin's liberal use of his saliva in his paint led to lead poisoning and I believe it killed him. This is also the primary cause of children getting lead poisoning from flaking exterior paint on old buildings. The old (apparently sweet tasting)dry paint flakes off and falls in the soil. The children play in the dirt and as all children do, they put the dirt and things that have been in the dirt, in their mouths. Voila--lead poisoning. And we all know young children are particularly susceptible to the effects of lead. Anyway I digress. After you're done painting,  simply wash your hands. Then go get that snack you've been craving.


So bottom line, yes it is toxic, but I really think a little knowledge goes a long way and always supersedes any form of ignorance or paranoia. As a painter it's your responsibility to know about all of the components you're using and how they work together. Being a painter means you're also a chemist! Always look to see what pigments are in your tubes of paint regardless of the color. If they don't state what they're made of, don't buy them. 

I highly recommend a book every artists should have at his/her disposal:

The Painters Handbook by Mark David Gottsegan

There is just so much to discuss about white that I couldn't get to all of it here. But remember, white is the most important color we artists use. It goes into nearly every mixture we make.


I've included a few links below to companies that still make lead white. I believe all the major art paint manufacturers have stopped production entirely.

Blue Ridge Oil Colors

RGH Artist Oil Paints

Williamsburg Artist Materials

Natural Pigments

Michael Harding

This site is a great resource regarding pigments and their corresponding chemical names.

Color of Art Pigment Database

If you'd like to know more about lead white, I discuss it in more depth in my workshops. And remember if we, as artists, allow lead white to be villianized,  are cadmiums next? How about cobalts or cerulean? In all of these cases there is no suitable replacement. We are allowing our hands to be tied.

My Upcoming Workshops:

Scottsdale Artist's School

Fredericksburg Artists School

Whidbey Island Fine Art Studio