Lead or Titanium White?

I get asked this a lot, and have strong feelings about it, so I thought I’d quickly put down a couple thoughts.

For portraiture you absolutely have to use lead white (Cremnitz, flake, d’argent etc…). Titanium white kills all the other colors, and lacks the beautiful transparency that almost mimics human flesh that lead has. Every great portrait was painted with lead.

For plein air painting, on the other hand, I think titanium is vastly superior. Keying a sky with lead takes hours, with titanium just minutes. Lead can still be useful for impastos below the horizon (especially if hand-ground), but titanium is really all you need outdoors.

I’d just like to add that anyone who disagrees with me on this is wrong.


  1. thank you for that…. i have been frustrated with titanium for quite some time for the reasons you have stated above but wasn’t sure where to turn… tried transparent white, it didn’t work and didn’t think of lead white….

  2. Marc:

    I completely agree with what you say in your post. Besides, lead white has other benefits to offer the oil painter as well. It acts as a (mild) accelerant for the rest of the other colors, without endangering the paint film over time, and in fact, the lead salt actually strengthens the oil film that contains it.

    However, I do keep a tube of titanium white in my indoor studio for one purpose. When indoors, I prefer to paint with LW as long as I can and hold the titanium in reserve. If I need that last 2 to 3% “bump” in a highlight, I’ll pull the out TW and mix with it then, as any highlight in that value range tends to turn cool in nature anyway. But I do try to confine my use of TW to the extreme highlights for the reason your state. TW will chalk up the midtone color all too quickly, if used without care. That’s one of the first things I go over with my students.

    Of course, it is a good idea to understand that LW will saponify relatively quickly — more quickly than TW does. But what are we going to do? All oil colors yellow and increase in transparency over time so it’s a good idea to anticipate the effect in our work..

    You post some great stuff to look at. Always happy to see more. Keep it coming!

    Thomas Kitts

  3. I was doing portraits with Flake white and things were fine. I switched to Titanium and they started to look like zombies. Quite creepy. I forked up some more cash for some handground Flake and voila, problem solved.

    Thanks for your explaination.

    Is Flake and Lead white similar or two different beasts?

  4. The Kremer lead white is it grounded already?

    I did made lead white myselve last sommer, very easy to do, and very fine pigment size already. Anyone interested and I will try to explain.

    You can also make beautifull other colors, from warm white, yellow till warm ochre colors from lead white by burning the pigment in a pan above a fire, (fumes are not very healty..)

  5. Janice:

    Zinc White is often added to Titanium white by commercial paintmakers to lower its opacity, and to soften the physical working property. That is why you often see the two sold combined in a tube color. However, recent studies have strongly indicated that zinc white is a major contributor, if not the reason for the failure of a paint film.* (Google Zinc White and paint film failure to find Meckelberg’s study.) So I no longer recommend using it, despite it’s helpful properties. If lowering the opacity of a TW is desired, and often there is a need to do so, mixing Lead White into TW instead of Zinc is one option, or, substituting
    an inert materials such as calcium carbonate may work as well. It’s somewhat ironic to add calcium carbonate to a quality paint though, as it is often mixed into student-grade paint to extend an expensive pigment.

    But then, sometimes a weak tinting strength is what’s needed.

    *Meckelberg’s study showed that failures occurred when the paint film consisted of more than 10% zinc white. Less than that, the study was inconclusive.

    Thomas Jefferson Kitts

  6. To support Marc’s opinion I add that Lucian Freud always used for portraits flake white, actually Cremnitz white, thicker in pigment than regular lead white. He would not use it for anything that wasn’t alive. It was used for flesh, or even on the hairs of a dog (see Robert Hughes book about Freud ).
    Lead Carbonate has an index of refraction lower than the Titanium Oxide, and that accounts for the reduced opacity and lack of unpleasant chalkiness.
    It should be added that lead white offers an incredibly creamy texture that produces impastos that would be otherwise impossible. Flowers from impressionists could not have been possible without it. Also, try to copy brushstroke work from a Freud portrait with Titanium white. Total failure guaranteed

    Rather surprisingly, transparent white is also made with Titanium Oxide, but the trick here is to use extremely fine particles (nanoparticles?). When particles are real small, then scattering efficiency reduces drastically (reducing by ten the size reduces scattering by one million!!!). A thin wash over a black imprimitura will generate an atmospheric light blue, exactly for the same reason the sky is blue. The thickness of the sky in a brushstroke!

    Marc is always right! And bravo!

    W&N makes a Flake White hue. But really lead white is a different story.
    Warning for grinders: when in powder, lead carbonate is much more dangerous than when ground in oil.

  7. i have a two-year-old tube of lead white that i’d like to use, but i’m still not sure about using it because i’m not sure how to handle it properly—while painting, skin contact, cleaning, and disposal.

  8. The comments about lead white and zinc are quite accurate, especially about zinc which will cause paint film to fail by delamination when it is used in high concentration, as shown in the Mecklemburg study cited above. Everyone interested in longevity of their work will be interested in being aware.

  9. Hi.
    I took up painting in 2015 and I am still have a lot to learn about oil painting.

    I just bought a tube of Lead White. But now I discovered in researching that Lead White is considered very toxic! So now I’m scared to use it.

    I don’t like wearing gloves when I paint. I use instead a shielding lotion – “Gloves In A Bottle” which I simple rub on my hands.

    I would be grateful for any thoughts you have on Lead White being toxic. Thanks.

    • Lead white should be fine to use in oil paint. If you’re worried, or you regularly get paint all over your hands, you can use gloves. I have no idea what ‘Gloves in a Bottle’ is, but it sounds more terrifying to me than lead white.

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