Best lead white alternatives

edited August 2021 in Color Mixing
My only white is titanium, and I don't touch zinc based on the research of its conservation issues.  But I'm curious about having a warmer and/or more transparent alternative for a couple of reasons:
  • Titanium can be chalky. Mark gives some good advice around managing this, but titanium is apparently worse than lead white for this.
  • Titanium is cool. It can slightly kill some of the warmer tones. I'm doing a big portrait of my four kids and noticing on my youtube research what appear to be strengths of the warmth of lead white for flesh tones. I lack the experience to know how MUCH of a difference the white makes or whether it can be compensated appropriately
  • Titanium is is not transparent. It is wonderfully opaque. But sometimes you want transparency (without using zinc.)
I only want an artist / professional* quality paint. I would consider TWO paints to achieve both the transparency and warmth in different situations. I notice that Langridge have a Tinting White (Synthetic Baryte / Titanium Dioxide) which is transparent. I've also noticed some warm whites and unbleached titanium.

What has been your experience with whites that deal with the three issues I've listed above?

I'm loath to include lead white in my palette since its toxicity is a bad match for my carelessness, although I may consider it. I do have cadmiums, after all.

(* An aside. I notice Alex Tzavaras divides paints into student/ Mid-range (artist grade)/ professional grade. I've not seen that before.) Source:
You tube - Simplify Drawing & Painting: Oil paints - what colours and brands should you use.


  • Abstraction

    Gamblin has a Flake (lead) White replacement.

    High tint strength and opacity are not for everyone. Renaissance style figurative painting, which strives to show the translucency of skin, is handled best by a more translucent white. Flake White Replacement, an exact copy of lead’s working properties, is most valuable for these sophisticated techniques. It can simulate the translucency of skin in a way that the more opaque whites can’t. Unlike lead whites, Flake White Replacement is non-toxic and can be disposed of without violating either local or national laws for the disposal of hazardous waste.

    I bought a tube of transparent white from W&N a few years back.

    Regarding temperature Gamblin goes on to say;

    Linseed oil whites are warmer; safflower oil whites are cooler in color. For most oil painters, the color temperature of the white, which is determined by the oil the white is made with, is not an important consideration.

    But this will be an important consideration for artists who routinely paint passages of pure white. This is especially true for abstract artists who use white as a color and not as the light within a painting.


  • Denis, what was your experience with the transparent white? Did you use it for mixes, glazes?
  • dencaldencal -
    edited August 2021

    Yes, predominately for misty glazes, but also seeking an alternative to the chalkiness of titanium white.
    Worked fine for the glazing. Never got back to the mixing issue.

    I have since learned to reduce titanium white to a minimum and to employ greying complementaries.


  • edited August 2021
    Interesting. I'm painting a snow scene at the moment. Some of the snow is the very brightest cool white.  But the titanium I'm using is warmer than that white.  I'd cool it with blue, but this also darkens it and so I lose the brilliance. Without a cool white the only alternative is to cool the titanium with blue and to make everything but the snow darker so that the relative values are right.  
  • Re: snow scene. Exactly. 'You can't put sunlight in a tube,' Des Johnston, my teacher long ago. So the opening move in a scene like yours in his teaching is to find the core values in 2-3 simplified tones (if possible) in covering the canvas - from the outset - to make sure the distance between darks and lights is correct and, voila, you've got the drama captured. It would lead to exactly what you said: making everything but the snow darker.
    I found this discipline he taught of capturing the relative values from the very start as valuable as learning to put my head under helped me to learn to swim. (As a former swim teacher, people who lift their head wonder why they're unbalanced and their legs sink and everything's skewiff.)
  • @Abstraction – I would suggest that you reconsider using lead paints. I reached the conclusion that they are easily used safely in oil painting in normal ways: no hazmat protective clothing, no vent hood, etc. I did a lot of research on this, and reached these conclusions, but don’t have the sources handy right now. I have had blood tests for heavy metals and the results were no heavy metal poisons.

    Normally, poison can enter the body through skin absorption, inhalation, and ingestion.  How effectively it assimilates in one’s body is based on its reactivity. Both lead oxide PW1 and lead sulphate PW2 are fairly inert. Both paints can’t be effectively absorbed through skin. Both are more easily assimilated through inhalation (but lead dust is much more poisonous than lead paint particles because in the paint particles, the lead is encapsulated in the oil) – so don’t sand or spray your lead paint. I don’t grind my own paints either.

    Ingestion: this is slightly more of a problem, so don’t eat your paint. I routinely eat and drink in my studio. I sometimes get lead paint on my hands; when I do I wipe it off and then wash my hands.

    If you have children in your studio, then take extra care. Disposal of contaminated rags: your trash service will have information on how to dispose. Usually this means paying a hazmat fee and separate processing.  

    I know that what I suggest is against common wisdom in the art world.  

  • edited August 2021
    Cadmium is a toxic heavy metal like lead and I use it a lot -  cadmium red, orange, yellow and green are all on my pallet. I worry that it might get absorbed through my skin. I'm not sure what to do about this other than wash it off as soon as I notice any of it on myself. I guess I could wear gloves but I'm always inadvertently getting it on not just my hands but on other parts of myself when I scratch my nose or rub my forehead etc and often don't notice it for hours. Maybe I need a mirror in the studio. What do others do? Can cadmium be absorbed through the skin? 
  • @tassieguy

    Cadmium is not easily absorbed through skin. I have trained myself to be careful (more careful than I normally am because I am clumsy!) in the studio and check my hands and equipment a few times an hour while painting. Similar to lead and other metals, ingestion is the best route to poisoning, but even then, it is not really feasible unless you suck your paint tubes.

    I use a lot of heavy metal paints and love them. I don’t wear gloves or finger stalls. I collect all my paint-contaminated rags and paper towels and dispose at the same time. This prevents downstream environmental contamination.


    Dermal toxicity and percutaneous absorption of cadmium in rats and mice - PubMed (

    Cadmium Toxicity and Treatment (    

  • Thanks, @Desertsky. Some great information there. Glad it's not absorbed through the skin. It seems that if I'm mindful of carefully washing my hands before eating I should be ok.  :)
  • dencaldencal -
    edited August 2021

    A little care and common sense will see you through. The cadmium toxic risk is related to large scale industrial and mining settings. The dry pigment is the problem substance.

    Cadmium in oil paint is fused with sulphides and bound in the oil medium, making it insoluble in water and less able to be absorbed. 

  • edited August 2021
    Thanks , Denis. I won't use Cadmium yellow anymore to get my scones to come out of the oven a nice golden colour. I'll make pumpkin scones instead. :)
  • i use cadmiums and recently started using white lead. I wear gloves but as with @tassieguy always got some paint on my face or clothes. Still i think we are pretty safe unless we ingest or inhale the stuff. 

     Lead white is a bit warmer and more transparent, using it for skin tones and they look more natural than with TW. It's rather expensive too :)
  • Rob, do you really need cadmiums as your colours aren't that high in chroma are they? Have you tried mixing a yellow like Hansa Yellow PY74 with Yellow Ocre PY42, Chrome titanate PBr24 or Nickel titanate PY53. They will have less chroma but more opacity than a synthetic yellow like PY74 on their own.
  • edited August 2021
    Im a bit of a fan of Michael Harding paints, and I have a Warm White in his brand, described as a Lead White alternative.

    Ive never used a genuine Lead White though.

  • edited August 2021
    Yes, @Richard_P,  I could probably use something other than Cadmium for the yellow but the Cadmium orange and Cadmium green I couldn't do without. I just can't make a pure orange exactly like Cadmium orange and any orange I do make with any other yellow and red doesn't mix the same way as Cadmium orange.  I love the way Cadmium orange mixes with Cadmium green to make wonderfully warm, natural looking greens. Ultramarine blue and Arylide alone just don't give the range of greens I need.  I also use Phthalo blue and green warmed with the cadmiums for stronger greens. Apart from the Cadmiums and Phthalos, the only other things I've added to my pallet are pure warm and cool violets - Ultramarine violet and Manganese violet. With the pallet I've arrived at after five years of experimenting I can mix any colour I see in nature.
  • I had to look up Landridge's Cadmium Green as of course there is no such thing.. ;) Turns out to be Cadmium Yellow with Ultramarine Blue. I'm surprised that you can't get the same greens with Ultramarine Blue and Arylide as it should have a bit higher chroma than Cadmium Yellow.

    As you like the way they mix then I agree you probably can't find anything exactly the same. But if you do want to switch from Cadmium's you do have some options :)
  • edited August 2021
    Desertsky said:
    I would suggest that you reconsider using lead paints.
    Ok, safety concerns aside - why? What are you getting from lead white that makes it worthwhile (given the cost and care required)? In what contexts do you use it in your painting and think: 'there's no replacement for this'? Or is it more that it's mildly better in some contexts particularly given that you know you can manage the risks?
  • @Abstraction – Excellent questions! For decades, I used Permalba original white (PW4 and PW6) made with alkyd and oil. It was wonderful! Not too strong, not too weak, not too warm, not too cool, and I liked the viscosity and quick drying. However, I gave it up because of the zinc oxide, even though I paint on firm surfaces and suspect the alkyd would help keep it from cracking and delaminating from the zinc oxide soaps later on, the way natural resins kept the pre-Raphaelite’s zinc oxide intact.

    I had always used lead white as well, but after I gave up Permalba, my replacement for the Permalba was lead oxide, lead sulphate PW2, and titanium oxide. I also bought but seldom use lithopone (PW5 – barium sulfate and zinc sulfide) and a few other kinds of white. However, I didn’t get any more usefulness out of these other whites, and I actually don’t enjoy figuring out a bunch of different types of white. I found a way to use the lead and tit whites in different combinations based on what I want, and will stick with these.

    I don’t like thinking about my paint chemistry and the nuances of different chemical formulas all for the same color. If I need a white a little warmer, cooler, more transparent, etc., I just add a little of another color (warmer, cooler, etc.) to it and move on. So, I think the coolness of tit white can be adjusted by adding some warm color; and its chalkiness can be adjusted by using less or adding some less chalky white (lead oxide) to it. For the portraits you are doing, I think a warmer white than titanium would be a lot easier to work with.

    I have a studio routine which I have had for decades, so the very little extra care I take safety-wise is part of it from the beginning and just invisible to me. It is no extra effort because I have always done it that way. I get my paint from Blue Ridge Paints here in the US, and it is usually 30%-50% as expensive as premium paints (Old Holland or Harding, for example) so it is inexpensive and excellent paint from the drawdowns I have done.

    If the Permalba tit-zinc white was proved to be good for making robust paintings, I would go back to it.

  • That's right, @Richard_P. It uses Cadmium yellow.  As well as the colour it's the mixing properties of the cadmiums that I like.
  • Still curious about zinc. Conflicting data. I don't have a full picture of the research and what here has been followed up or dismissed. With the very little I know...
    "Tens of Thousands Of Paintings Done With Zinc Oxide have Stood The Test Of Time From The 1780s to the Present Day Bridging From The Neoclassical Painters Through Postmodernism. (240 Years And Counting) The French Impressionists used Zinc Oxyde almost exclusively. They did direct paintings, i. e., Alla Prima, Au Premier Coup., These paintings consisted of very few ‘wet into wet’ layers and had very few problems with the cracking and delamination." (
    Conclusion: If that's the case the reasons should be explored.

    The central study by Mecklenberg that is widely used to demonstrate zinc's brittle effects - was subsequently acknowledged to have been only when the zinc white was used with acrylic grounds.
    ‘In the study by Mecklenberg et al at the Smithsonian the delamination was observed in zinc oxide oil paint applied over acrylic dispersion grounds, but not when the same paint was applied over oil or alkyd grounds, according to my original communication with Mecklenberg.’ GEORGE O’HANLON Director Rublev Natural Pigments.
    Conclusion: don't use acrylic grounds for zinc?

    If you recall Antonin posted an article on Wet Canvas that suggests:
    A) The consistent failure of zinc through soap formation began to be most apparent when the processing of zinc changed around WWII to much finer particles.
    The... "Direct Process (also called American Process) methods of pigment production were replaced by Indirect Process (sometimes called French Process) methods, and this manufacturing shift was accompanied by a precipitous rise in failure rates of oil‐based house paints containing zinc oxide pigment produced using the new method.... Direct Process oxides contained various percentages of acicular variations on the crystalline form, some joined to form “twins” and “threelings” (referred to as “brush‐heap” formations by Bussell), while Indirect Process zinc oxides (often marketed under the term “Seal” oxides) were typically irregularly shaped particles of uniform size distribution.*
    CONCLUSION: Can Direct Process zinc oxide still be sourced? Has anyone tested it? Has anyone examined zinc soaps in paintings and found them to contain these irregular particles and/ or unsaturated acids (see below.) - or are these the causes?

    B) The other factor was the use of different resins: Research from the University of Stuttgart built on rubber industry literature citing a possible link between the oil and resin vehicle and swelling behavior in zinc oxide paint films (Funke 1967), and related tests by Morley‐Smith on the influence of fatty acids in zinc oxide reactivity suggested that soap formation slowed with increasing acid chain length, and noted that “a marked difference was apparent between the behavior of the saturated and unsaturated acids, unsaturation reducing the rate of soap formation appreciably”.'*
    CONCLUSION: Identify the appropriate oils zinc should be used with containing unsaturated acids.

    Without further evidence it seems like someone in oil paint manufacture should explore this properly.
    a. Source Direct Process zinc pigment.
    b. Use appropriate oils with the pigment.
    c. Don't paint over acrylic grounds.
    I'm probably missing half the picture here. I know you researched extensively.
  • @Abstraction – You have encapsulated my thoughts exactly - except for the violent Tourettes that thinking about zinc oxide triggers in me. :) 

    I am not a chemist, and decided a few years ago to not try to explore paint chemistry anymore. At my level of access to primary data sources (no central repository and many sources are not in English) and personal understanding of paint chemistry, it is not a topic I will pursue. This kind of stuff is truly a rabbit hole for my personality because the conclusions are going to be indeterminate and likely indeterminable.

    I really wish someone in the commercial paint industry would take this research on – and oh God my Tourettes is starting again [email protected]#$@#%$$%^%$^

  • edited September 2021
    LOL! You're such are a card, @MichaelD:)

  • The Joker in the pack, I like to think  =)


    Thank you Rob
  • MichaelD - Yes, Tourette's blue language period was epic and informed all schools of art: Impressionist/Tourette, Dutch Golden Age/Blue, Cave Art/Blue Ugh. I wonder if Mr. Doak will come out with Tourette Blue oil paint, with his famous secret ingredients. :)  

  • Her was considered an impressionist but that was mainly due his tirades of foul language, which always left an impression.
  • On a serious note: Mr. Mecklenberg was not the only one who observed problems with zinc oxide. Many others also witnessed this, and in situations where the zinc oxide was not on an acrylic ground. The problem with disparate data sources, and internet opinions on those data sources, is that it is very difficult to figure out how the research was conducted, what the goals were, and how to interpret the different results. 

    I suspect that zinc oxide will not cause delamination (or not enough to care about) in situations with all the following:  a firm substrate like ACM, a lead oil ground (even if an acrylic ground is applied first) the paint is applied in thin layers, lead is used throughout, and an alkyd or other non-yellowing resin is used throughout. However, I have given up and moved on. It is a pervasive enough problem, and the solution in not using it is easy. 
  • Flake White Hue by Winsor & Newton, works well (in my opinion).
  • In the end I invested in a Michael Harding cremnitz white on Friday. I wanted to know if I was really missing something or whether a form of cultural mystique has developed around lead white. I confess on Saturday to getting completely lost attempting to mix flesh tones. On sunday I went back to titanium white alone and blocked in the four faces of my portrait. Immediate control.
    The lead white is very different and I'll need to learn how to use it. I can see the transparency is really nice - something I've wished for in a white - and I'm sure it will be useful when I figure it out.
    I won't use it much because my paranoia levels are slightly high - I make too many unconscious actions and get paint on my face or forget when I pick things up to eat. Unlike cadmiums, white goes everywhere on your palette and you can't see it any more. I want to maintain that awareness I have when I use the most dangerous power tools in woodworking.
  • @Abstraction,  Perhaps one of those very clear face shields (I use one when woodworking sometimes) would keep that awareness up that you are working in danger territory?
  • You could have a look at Gamblin 1980's Transparent White. They said:

    Like all our 1980 Oil Colors, Transparent White contains marble dust (calcium carbonate) as a colorless extender for the pigment formula. We also have other proprietary extenders used to make the normally opaque titanium dioxide look transparent. We developed this color as a flexible alternative to Zinc White. The benefit of our Transparent White compared to Zinc is that it impart flexibility and is not brittle like zinc. Transparent White works well as a standalone transparent white but is also excellent choice for a mixing white with a very low tinting strength.
  • The guys I have seen online who have really taken to heart the idea of not painting over acrylic grounds, are painting over lead grounds, and sanding those vigorously, which brings us back to lead paints.
  • edited September 2021
    Yes, I don't think I'll be sanding anything with lead, thank you.
    Although the alternatives are not acrylic grounds or lead grounds (I don't think you were implying that.) The two big headings are acrylic or oil, and but probably (given EU rules) most who use oil grounds don't use lead based grounds. There are a couple of groups associated with Rublev I'm aware of that favour lead (Painting Best Practices and Traditional Oil Painting - but very good groups to learn from.)
    This year I did a heap of research on best practices for conservation regarding preparation of surface. I was looking for recommendations and insights built on evidence-based research from groups like MITRA (University of Delaware). There's a lot of rubbish advice out there. It was really interesting to come to grips with the issues that need to be managed.
    Oil: There are many good reasons to use oil grounds and the lead or non-lead grounds are both widely used and backed by good conservation research with recommendations by groups like Mitra. I just used Gamblin Ground.
    Subset Lead: Lead certainly does perform well in grounds and paints. It appears to be best practice - but not essential practice given the risks.
    Acrylic grounds: Good acrylic grounds such as Golden Gac (precise version depends on surface) are also recommended. (I notice Michael James Smith just uses ordinary Dulux primer - I wonder if it has tooth and meets the conservation requirements?). Putting oil over acrylic paint (as opposed to the correct ground) is not good conservation practice as there is significant risk down the track on a number of issues.
    TamDeal I'm not suggesting you don't know any of this - you might understand it better than me. I'm just bouncing off your statement in discussion because it's interesting.
  • I have been using Holbein oil ground.  It’s lead based.  Not a good thing to sand down.  
    The Gamblin oil ground looks interesting though.
  • There is lots I don't know about this stuff.  For the moment I don't worry much because I don't seem my stuff being kept.  When my parents moved to a retirement home, and then passed away recently, my sister cleared up their effects, as she lived locally.  She threw out the only decent oil painting we had, Autumn Berries by Kemp Kieffer, which was really good; by an artist one can look up, though not a name; We had looked it up and found they only sold for a few hundred dollars, which itself was not the issue, but we knew no dealer would touch it for that level.  So it ended up in the dump.  My sister is very cultured, that is just what happens, sadly.

    Here is a painting by Kieffer, ours had more of a Halloween coloration, and it functioned with more abstraction as the reeds in question criscrossed a lot more:



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