Foundation White

Lead white is the main pigment in foundation white (an oil paint developed by Winsor and Newton). Lead is the traditional pigment used for priming and underpainting. Foundation white is made of lead, zinc oxyde, linseed oil and a little stand oil. It's designed to be fast drying. Lead and lead sulphate are flexible and strong, and they outspeed all other pigments in drying. It's almost as if the good Lord wanted to give the oil painting artists a break. There are a few catches, but once you know them, they can be avoided.

Features of lead pigment

Lead white is a warm, almost yellowish white, that has a tendency to yellow further over time. For this reason (and also for its quick drying), it's best to use it in the underlayers. In the top layers, it's likely to cause cracks (the slowest drying paint should be on top, check here for more on layering). Lead white can be used for building structure (enabling you to create unique color effects). One needs stiff, lean lead white paint for that (foundation white, or cremnitz by Oldholland paints).

Lead pigment is very toxic. The dry pigment has been taken out of retail to prevent people like us from making our own lead white paint. It was done with good reason: inhaling the dust can cause cancer and serious brain damage. Using lead-white paint is not dangerous as long as skin contact is avoided. Check for the pigment number: PW1, PW2 and PW3 are all leads. Only PW10 (barium carbonate) is even more poisonous. Zinc and titanium are both considered harmless.

Colors of white

Lead or lead sulphate is more of a yellowish white, that's why often zinc oxyde is combined with lead (also in foundation white). Zinc is a very bright white and it also dries relatively fast. Together they make a nice clear fastdrying white. In oil painting techniques, having to wait for weeks for a layer to dry is pretty normal. There are other lead or lead-sulphate oil paints as well, under the names flake- cremser, cremnitz- and foundation white - but: most of them were made with safflour or poppy-oil (which dries slower than linseed oil).

Lead white can be a primer on itself, which is great to build structure. It can only be used on panel (mdf, masonite) and it has to dry for six months before you can start painting (really: six). A primer needs to be dry through and through before you can start painting. In the old days painters planned ahead, they created stock by making a few panels every month.

Beware of sulphur

Another glitch of lead and lead sulphate: it reacts to sulphur. It makes the white go dark grey. Real vermillion (PR106) may have this effect. To keep it safe, only use lead white in the underlayer, and switch to titanium white after that. Rembrandt sells it both in linseed-oil (for mixing warm colors) and safflour oil (for mixing cold colors).

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The oil in white oil paint

Most flake, cremser and other lead and lead sulphate whites (also foundation white) are made of linseed oil, because it has the best drying capacities. Foundation white has a little stand oil as well (that's polymerized linseed oil - the best quality, less yellowing, but it dries slower). But the flake white of Sennelier and W&N are made of safflour oil, which is less yellowing but slower drying - not good for underpainting. Zinc and Titanium whites usually are made with poppy- or safflour oil, unless linseed oil is explicitly mentioned on the tube. Rembrandt sells Titanium white in safflour- and linseed oil. All these brands are available at Blick Art Materials.

Lead white as an oil primer

lead white is the traditional oil primer. Lean oil paint stands on it beatifully, keeping its gloss and structure. Both the cremser white and the foundation white can be used for priming. Only: it's too brittle for a canvas, it's only sutiable for painting boards, and they have to dry for (hold on) six months. I had to stop myself from making funny noises when first I heard that. But in the old days, painters actually prepared boards, to paint on them half a year later. The first half year you still wait, but after that, you take an old one for painting, and prepare a new one to use in six months. In an english university, they had to replace an oak ceiling. Then someone found out, that a small oak forest was planted when the ceiling was built, for having oak to replace that same ceiling 100 years later....

New replacements for quick drying oil primers have been developed but most of them contain alkyds. Adding alkyds to oil paint produces a fake dryness - the paint goes stiff, but the oil itself dries just as slow as before. I don't know - it's probably better to take a half-oil primer, or an acrylic-caseine gesso ground, let it dry as it should, and then seal it with a first lead white layer (eventually mixed with alkyds). It might be good to let it dry for a few days, but then one can safely move on.

Check here for more on canvas and painting board subjects:

Alternatives to foundation white

Other brands also have fast-drying lead and lead sulphate whites. Old Holland paints sells lead white under the name "cremnitz white" (pure lead white) or "flake white" (which is lead and zinc white), both in linseed oil. Cremnitz white is the purest classical oil primer, even though it's expensive to use Old Holland paint just for priming. Both O.H. cremnitz and flake white is very stiff, good for creating texture. Most flake- cremser and cremnitz whites (also foundation white) are made with linseed oil, exept Sennelier's and w&n flake white. Zinc also dries relatively fast, but on its own it can be brittle. It's used in top layers only. Zinc and Titanium dry pigments can be used in a half oil painting ground - which is dry in two weeks.

And, there's Gamblin oil painting ground, a replacement for the traditional lead-and-linseed ground. I'm not sure what's in it, but it's said to be non-toxic and dry withing a week. I haven't tried it yet, because I like absorbent grounds, but the reviews are good. You can order it at Blick Art Materials).

If you still want to use foundation white as a primer, use it on board (mdf or plywood panel), and let it dry for 6 months. Click here for more on painting boards.

Alternatives to white priming

A primer doesn't have to be white - when you start on a colored canvas, you'll have a general moodset and you need less paint. An imprimature or underpainting has the same purpose. Earth colors are best suitable for that. Check here for priming recipes, in which you can replace the white pigment for an earth pigment.

Oil painting guide

If you like to read more stuff like this: please check my oil painting guide. It's about classical oil painting techniques (modern naterials are included), and explains about the function of every seperate ingredient such as acrylic gesso, caseine, shellac, dammar varnish, alkyds, different oils and pigments and canvases/painting boards. It has lots of recipes for making your own paints and primers. And, more important: it tells you how to make your paintings last (and prevent cracking, chipping, peeling etc).

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