Is White a Color?

 

 

 

 

oil painting on board,
by Beth
As far back as ancient Egypt, white has signified omnipotence and purity. Other cultures have added innocence and freedom. Egyptians at  their holy ceremonies wore white sandals to signify purity. For China though, white means death and illness. According to Taoism, white next to black symbolizes contrast like that of ying-yang.

 

Sissinghurst Gardens in England

Artists like Russia’s Wassily Kandinsky and Dutch artist Piet Mondrian comment on their likeness and use of white in their paintings. Familiar with the Impressionist painters view of white, Kandinsky appreciates “white” to be the absence of color, being like a great silence. White harmonizes negatively as well as acting full of possibility like the nothingness just before birth.

                  
Blue and White, Piet Mondrian

Between 1923 and 1935, Mondrian painted Composition A, Red, White, and Blue. Between 1923 and 1935, Mondrian painted Composition A, Red, White, and Blue, and Blue and White.Each included areas of white pigment. In Red, White, and Blue, the simple and larger white areas drew interest because everything about these white squares seemed spotless. Mondrian did admit that he added color to his white subject to cheer up his paintings for whom a lot of white seemed gloomy. He writes:

” The persisting white field in heightened contrast to the black             lines is a luminous ground, it has what may  be called after               Keats: the power of white    Simplicity…”

to read more: Mondrian on the Painting of Abstract  Painting,  by MeyerShapiro  p.26                                                   

White as a pigment is not all the same. Four different types of whites are used by painters from prehistoric times to the present: lime white, lead white, flake white, and Cremnitz white.

                 Blue Snow, oil painting, Saul Bellows

Most of what was known about lime white, which was often referred inaccurately to chalk, was from Cennini’s The Craftsman’s Handbook of the Middle ages. The process of making lime white was more complex than making chalk.The first step was to soak lime powder in water for 8 days after which small cakes were dried in the sun thus making lime white. Unfortunately, Lead white was banned by 19th-century European painters when it was discovered how poisonous lead was to painters. A curious story tells of the blackening of angel faces painted in British 14th-century manuscripts. Theses angel faces were painted with lead white that turned black when exposed to the hydrogen sulfide of the gas lamps used in reading these manuscripts. These discolored angels became known as the Black Angels. Titanium white is twice as opaque as lead white and is a brilliant all-purpose white. The dried residue of titanium ore is very spongy and not conducive for paints so zinc oxide with its brittle residue was added and the mix created a pliable medium for oil paints which most professional artists use. Zinc white is slow drying and very clean which makes it valuable for tinting with other colors.But zinc white also dries to a brittle film that could crack a painting loaded with this pigment. A winter landscape would be better served by using another white like titanium instead of zinc white.

Is white a color? One way to answer this question is to emphasize that pure white is the absence of color and unlike black cannot be mixed from paint tubes of other colors. Another way to answer this question is to consider the physical properties of white pigment coming from ores grounded into white mixes. Titanium and zinc oxide after grinding produce excellent nuances of white.

hibiscus from my yard