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In water­color, the tra­di­tional tech­nique involves the use of no white paint, instead depend­ing on the white of the paper (i.e., areas with no paint on them) for whites and on dilu­tion of paint to deter­mine the value of any par­tic­u­lar part of the paint­ing. (There are, of course, ways to “cheat” by using white.)

In paint­ing with oil, it’s stan­dard to use white to lighten mix­tures. White (whether lead white, tita­nium white, or zinc white) is incred­i­bly use­ful as there are many col­ors that can’t be obtained with­out it. Con­trari­wise, there are also col­ors that can’t be mixed if you use white. White light­ens, but it also cools (in most cir­cum­stances), decreases chroma (except when applied in small amounts with some cool col­ors), and increases opac­ity. There are some cir­cum­stances in which you want to lighten (increase the color’s value) with­out the other effects of adding white. For example:

  • In tra­di­tional oil paint­ing tech­nique, it is often appro­pri­ate to keep shad­ows trans­par­ent. That basi­cally means mix­ing shadow col­ors with­out any white.
  • Because white usu­ally decreases chroma, mix­tures involv­ing white can be lower in chroma than you want. As a result, painters some­times com­plain of paint mix­tures that are too “chalky.” They get lights that have a pas­tel look with low chroma. While that is some­times exactly the right color (in which case no one com­plains) we some­times want lights that are as high in chroma as possible.

While oil painters don’t gen­er­ally depend on white-freen paint mix­tures to nearly the degree that water­color painters do, it’s impor­tant to know how to paint with­out white when you need to. If you just need a dark color, that’s easy. If you need to paint a range of val­ues, then you’ll need to find mix­tures that achieve that value range. The ease of doing so depends on what part of the color wheel you’re work­ing with.

There are plenty of high-value yel­lows, for exam­ple. If you need to lighten a yel­low or brown mix­ture, you can usu­ally do so by mix­ing in a lighter yel­low (I like lead-tin yel­low for this pur­pose, or a cad­mium yel­low if I’m look­ing for higher chroma). Reds are more difficult—it’s hard to mix a light red with­out drop­ping the chroma (i.e., mak­ing it pink). Gen­uine ver­mil­lion is some­times use­ful because it is some­what light and doesn’t drop chroma in mix­tures the way cad­mi­ums of sim­i­lar color can do. Oranges can be light­ened by adding a lighter yel­low and then, if nec­es­sary, adjust­ing back to the right hue with a bit of red. A yel­low green can sim­i­larly be light­ened with yellow.

Cooler col­ors (blue, green, blue-green, pur­ple) are more dif­fi­cult to lighten, since the tube col­ors in this range are often pretty dark. Some cobalt blues can be rel­a­tively light and there­fore quite valu­able (although they are also opaque, so they don’t help as much if you are look­ing for transparency).

The other solu­tion, of course, is to paint thinly onto a white sur­face, just as in tra­di­tional water­color. The method used by Ted Seth Jacobs and his stu­dents such as Tony Ryder, for exam­ple, typ­i­cally begins with a “color wash.” That means apply­ing the first layer of paint very thinly, mixed with dilu­tant. While wet, the color can be light­ened by wip­ing away paint with a dry rag or brush; or one dipped in dilu­tant. In this method, the ini­tial color wash layer is later painted over with opaque paint mixed with white. A sim­i­lar method can be used with tra­di­tional glaz­ing tech­nique or when a cer­tainly watercolor-ish look is desired.

If you’re not used to paint­ing with­out white, a good exer­cise is to try to com­plete a paint­ing while using white only when absolutely nec­es­sary. That can gen­er­ate an over­all range of value and chroma that is markedly dif­fer­ent than a paint­ing in which white is used lib­er­ally. If you strug­gle with “chalky” mix­tures, a min­i­mal white approach can really help.

Posted in art materials, art technique, color, oil painting, painting.

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9 Responses

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  1. Margaret Garciaq says

    My stu­dent told me about Robert Doak. Thought I would check out this site. It is inter­est­ing to me that you have this arti­cle on WHITELESSNESS. Part of my process in teach­ing is that I limit or actu­ally take away the student’s use of white until they have under­stood the value of the col­ors they are using. Even if in an arbi­trary fash­ion. It is part of my own per­sonal per­spec­tive in truly under­stand­ing COLOR. I work in oil and am known as a col­orist and have been devel­op­ing my ideas on color for the last 39 years.

    • David says


      Thanks for your thoughts. I think that requir­ing a stu­dent to do stud­ies with­out white is a very good idea, although I don’t think that you have a full under­stand­ing of color mix­ing until you can also use white to make col­ors that are unob­tain­able with­out it.

      Best wishes,


  2. margaret Garcia says

    AGREED. But if you let them use the white too soon, I find that they become sort of depen­dent on it. Kinda like black too. Bet­ter to elim­i­nate it in the begin­ning then return it when they’ve got the idea. When they push their col­ors they know how far they can go.

  3. Anwar says

    Per­haps a most nat­ural tran­si­tion for a begin­ning painter would be to work only in say an umber and round brushes with dilu­ent. After work­ing in char­coal this sort of neu­tral mono­chrome approach with­out white seems bound to advance the stu­dent quickly.

    • David says


      That’s cer­tainly one way to go about it. A wash paint­ing, espe­cially as a first layer, is a very effec­tive begin­ning. In the method taught by Ted Seth Jacobs, teacher of well-known real­ists such as Jacob Collins and Tony Ryder, paint­ings start with a col­ored wash paint­ing using no white, then pro­ceed to direct opaque paint­ing using a full palette. That seems to work pretty well, but learn­ing to do it in mono­chrome before pro­ceed­ing to color makes sense to me.

  4. Sherlock Holmes says

    cal­cium car­bon­ate might gets handy for full chroma impas­tos , just mix the pigment/tube paint­ing with lots of cal­cium car­bon­ate! no need for white.

    • David says

      That can work, although there are lim­its to what you can achieve with chalk.

  5. Cindi says

    David, I am a self taught artist, using oils. I do a fair amount of kids pho­tog­ra­phy that I then trans­fer to can­vas and paint into the pho­to­graph. I have been rel­a­tively suc­cess­ful and have some of my work in a cou­ple of gal­leries. My ques­tion is where to I start to bet­ter under­stand a vari­ety of things such as prospec­tive, dry­ing, and col­ors. Thanks, Cindi

    • David says


      I’d sug­gest you look through the archives on this site. Also search the web for other artist’s sites that have infor­ma­tion on technique.

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