Should you use white watercolor paint?

Hi friends! Today we are going to discuss a rather controversial topic in the watercolor world: Using white paint! Some of you may faint at the thought of using white preferring to reserve the white of the paper while others may think since companies make white it’s fine to use.

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Well, I think both opinions are correct! Used intentionally white can be a valuable asset in your watercolor painting but it can also lead to a chalky and muddy mess depending when and how you use it. It todays video I will talk about the different kinds of white watercolor paint and how you can achieve some spectacular effects if you choose to use it.


Let’s look at the kinds of white watercolor:

  • Chinese White (PW4 Zink oxide white) is a translucent white. Use it for mixing, not for highlights as it is brittle and prone to cracking. *Note a diluted PW6 is often substituted for PW4 in Chinese white yielding a cooler white that you might need to warm up or neutralize a bit. I think this substitution may be made to solve the cracking issue.
  • Titanium White (PW6) is a mostly opaque white. This is a cool white and very opaque, if you want a warmer off white you can try PW6:1 Buff titanium or tint your white with a neutral.
  • Titanium white gouache is a completely opaque white containing PW6 but also may contain PW18 (chalk) to increase the opacity and matte finish.

*There is also an extender or base for lake pigments called Lithopone (PW5) that is used in gouache to make it opaque because it has a low tinting strength and also in cheap student paints as an extender. PW5 does not have to be disclosed on a pigment label because it is used as an extender not a pigment.

Also to note PW20 is mica added to paints for sparkle, very reflective. It is usually listed on paint labels as mica and not PW20.

Pros & Cons of Using White!

The cons:

  • It can ruin the luminosity of you watercolor and make your painting more prone to mud.
  • It can make your paintings look chalky if used in layers and it is often used as a last-ditch attempt to save a painting but it is usually unsuccessful.
  • It makes your paint more prone to lifting and granulating (if you don’t want that effect)

The Pros:

  • It adds granulation and softness to a wash.
  • It makes the paint easier to lift.
  • It gives volume and substance to things like fabric (check out the masterful way John Singer Sargent used white to create volume in his portraits) where the white of the paper would feel a bit thin and flat.
  • White can also be successfully used to paint the sparkle highlight in an eye or a bright reflection on a shiny opaque object.

When deciding to add white ask yourself “What is the truth of my subject and how can I paint it most effectively?”

A row of colorful glass bottles on a windowsill for instance is very transparent so avoid white and paint it with transparent glazes reserving (you can use masking fluid) your white.

A boat at sea on a misty day can effectively use white to capture the thick air and billowing sails.

What do you think? Do you use white in your watercolor paintings? If not would you try it knowing what it can do? Did this explain why some attempts at using white are successful and others are not. I’d love to hear what you have to say in the comments below and if you like this article please share it on social media using one of the handy sharing links below, thanks! Til next time happy crafting!

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9 Responses

  1. Lindsey, I so enjoy watching your videos. I still consider myself a beginner in cardmaking to establish my experience level. I watch your videos mostly for the cards but do watch some of your painting videos. This video felt so much over my head that I don’t remember anything at all about it. I have always loved the watercolor look and am struggling to achieve anything at all. I am using Montval Aquarelle watercolor paper, student grade watercolor pencils and markers. My paper seems to pill and I can’t get anything to blend. I probably need to invest in better quality materials but I have watched, for example, Kristin Warner paint with Crayola six pan paints and she gets beautiful results. I am not comparing my work to hers but just the basic technique of blending. Any suggestions?

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    • opt for a better paper, you can get arches at a big box store with a coupon in a pad or try the affordable Bee watercolor paper on amazon. Go for a 100% cotton paper, it will make everything look better. I use the bee a lot as it is cotton and really high quality and cheap! https://amzn.to/2D5ToMn

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  2. I love, love, love your hair color.  The larger picture of you in the middle of the email.  It matches your eyebrows and goes great with your skin color and eyes.  You have never looked more beautiful!   Tricia Kelly  

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  3. Question ? What are binary colors and how does that translate on a color wheel? I have been on YouTube but unable to understand binary color Still.
    Thank you for your time.
    Rosalie
    I and a group of friends failure and discuss your technique’s and findings thank you. 🌿

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    • There are a couple of theory’s, first would be a 3 color mixing primary wheel consisting of a cool red like Permanent rose,a Cool blue like Phthalo blue and a warm yellow like Gamboge and they will give you a large variety of colors and when you mix all 3 you can get shades of brown and black. It is much the same as a computer printer. The other method (I prefer) is a split primary color mixing palette where you have a warm and cool version of each primary like cadmium red and permanent rose, Ultramarine blue and phthalo blue, Gamboge and lemon yellow so you can get a more rich and robust color range.

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