For the serious oil painter, it is a serious question; which white? There are several variations of white pigment to choose from in oil color. Some white hues are more
universal, and some are indigenous to the manufacturer. Moreover, some whites may have the same hue in common, but contain a different oil base that will significantly change the use of the paint. In all cases, choosing the whites to use in a painting can truly be a complicated issue. The same can be said of any pigment in oil painting, but since white is used predominantly in just about every palette as the foundation, tint, and highlight of a painting, many painters make sure to choose precisely the best whites for their needs.
The most obvious difference between whites in oil painting is the hue variance. The most common and universal whites (Titanium, Zinc & Flake) are easily identified by their hue characteristics, usually regardless of the manufacturer, as long as they are made from high quality pigments.
Titanium white is the most brilliant because titanium dioxide reflects 97.2% of incident light and is neutral in color. It is also less prone to yellowing. Zinc white, made from zinc dioxide, is the coolest white, as it has a slightly bluish cast. Flake white is the most traditional lead white in oil color and has a slightly warmer color.
If making a choice between Titanium, Zinc or Flake white on hue alone, it is simple when trying to achieve a certain tone in a painting. For example, if painting a warm sunrise landscape it would be beneficial to use Flake White in the palette because of its warmer hue. In contrast, Zinc White would fair well in a painting of a winter scene.
Being that each different white color is composed of their own pigment or blend of pigments, and that they vary in the oil binder used, they each have their own unique texture and consistency. Titanium White is heavier and thicker in texture rather than creamy. Zinc White is also heavy-bodied but has a nice creamy texture, and as such it is the preferred white for ala prima painting. Flake White, traditionally a lead-based paint, is the thickest white giving a long ropy stroke or short brush mark. Artists prefer Flake White when creating heavy impasto applications or where several layers of color must be built up.
Drying Time and Durability
Most white pigments are either bound in safflower oil or linseed oil. Safflower whites are generally not recommended for extensive underpainting or priming because the slow drying nature of the oil may cause subsequent layers to crack. Titanium, Zinc, Flake, and Cremnitz whites are usually safflower oil based. Underpainting White and Foundation White are formulated with linseed oil and are better for underpainting and extensive layering because of the quicker drying time of the oil.