Techniques and Tips

Painting with White: A Step-by-Step Demonstration

Painting with White: A Step-by-Step Demonstration

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In the January/February 2009 issue of Magazine, Ora Sorensen explains how to use the different hues that are perceived as “white.”

Painting white is a colorful experience!

By Ora Sorensen

White-on-white paintings are not necessarily without colorful hues. In fact, these paintings can reflect all colors and shimmer with vivid iridescence like the hypnotic color refractions thrown from a prism.

Defining white

First you must understand that although white isn’t a primary, secondary or tertiary color, it is a color—an achromatic color of maximum lightness. White is not the absence of color but a combination of all colors in the visible spectrum in equal proportions. Sir Isaac Newton showed us that a prism separates the colors already present in light. As an artist, you want to reweave all those colors in just the right balance so the combinations reveal multiple hues that are perceived as white.

Painting white

To keep the whites in a painting from looking like austere shades of cold gray, you must train your eyes to see the whole spectrum of colors in the white objects around you. Seashells, pearls, crystal, glass, silk, snow, daisies and silver all throw off different hues and yet are perceived as white. It’s up to you as a painter to see beyond the superficially monochromatic appearance of an all-white subject—to bring out all the reflected colors and then orchestrate them to make your whites come alive with refracted color.

But while an object in your painting should reflect all colors in order to read as white, those colors must be carefully weighed so as to appear to be reflected equally. Adding too much of one color shifts a viewer’s perception of white to that of the overweighted color.

In addition to balancing your whites, you must vary them so that in a painting with several white objects, each element is distinct from those next to it. For example, white flowers should be distinct from the white vase that holds them, and the vase should be distinct from the white surface it rests upon. One of the simplest ways to achieve luminous and carefully balanced whites while differentiating objects is to mix several sets of complementary colors into white paint. Use a different set of complements (such as red and green, yellow and purple or blue and orange) to form the shadows and contours of each white component. When these opposing-color mixes are placed next to each other, each object in the painting will glow as an individual entity apart from the others.

You can further intertwine the colors of the spectrum so they reflect many different forms of iridescent white by scumbling or glazing additional colors onto the planes of an object, enhancing the warm highlights or cool shadows. When adding these delicate hues, wait until your painting is dry, so as to keep the colors clear and unmuddied.

The perception of white, as well as the intrigue of a composition, is also enhanced by the use of contrasts. Varied textures, color temperatures, sizes, intensity and, of course, values make your paintings more compelling. Particularly emphasize the value differences of the deep shadows and brilliant light, for there’s no white without dark.

Mixing whites

The two white paints I use most are titanium dioxide and zinc oxide. I like titanium white, the more opaque of the two, for its high-coverage quality. This relatively new white, introduced to artists in the 1920s, is great for tinting and perfect for adding final highlights, as it is the brightest white. Zinc white, first developed as a pigment in the 18th century, is more transparent, slower drying and easily manipulated. I use it primarily for glazing.

As I’ve already mentioned, to make the glowing shadows and contours of white objects, I mix many different combinations of complementary colors. These are some of my favorite combinations that I mix with white (see Key to Paint Brands, at right):

  • cadmium orange (G) and ultramarine blue (G)
  • yellow ochre (WN) and dioxazine violet (WN)
  • burnt umber (WN) and ultramarine blue (G)
  • raw umber (WN) and ultramarine blue (G)
  • burnt sienna light (B) and cobalt blue (H)
  • burnt sienna (WN) and phthalo blue (VG)
  • alizarin crimson (H) and ultramarine blue (G)
  • phthalo blue (VG) and cadmium red light (H)
  • viridian green (WN) and phthalo red rose (G)
  • Naples yellow (WN) and cobalt violet (WN)

These combinations always yield beautiful grays that bounce and add luminosity throughout the painting. The complementary colors shimmer with the delicacy of an incandescent rainbow as they compete for attention in the white paint.

White is a fascinating subject for artists. Gather some of your favorite white things and try to find all the colors of white with your paints, as I did in the following demonstration.

Step by step

1. I start with a detailed drawing and then wash thinned gesso tinted with orange over the graphite to set it. The orange peeking through the paint will make the whites seem even brighter.

2. With my first white—a mixture of cadmium orange and ultramarine blue with titanium white—I block in the background drapery and tabletop. The colors bounce from blue to violet to orangey gray.

3. I continue with other complementary color combinations mixed into titanium white—blocking in the eggs with Naples yellow and cobalt violet, the pottery with phthalo blue and burnt sienna, and the shell with phthalo rose and viridian.

4. Utilizing the transparency of zinc white, I add both burnt sienna light and cobalt blue to paint the milky clear vase. To paint the small silver vase, I use titanium white with ultramarine blue and raw umber. For the glass of the bowl, I use viridian and phthalo rose mixed with titanium white.

5. I move on to the flowers, painting the gerbera daisy petals with a mixture of titanium white, yellow ochre and dioxazine violet. For the Peruvian lily’s petals, I use viridian and phthalo rose with titanium white.

6. For finishing touches I use contrasting colors to strengthen the shadows with glazes and to scumble white with yellow tint for highlights. I also add a white butterfly for interest in place of the bunched drapery (behind the eggs), which was too distracting. Whites (oil, 42×42) is finished.

Ora Sorensen’s work has appeared in numerous gallery exhibitions, as well as at the Museum of Art Fort Lauderdale. She is the owner of Ora Sorensen Gallery ( in Delray Beach, Florida. Visit her website at

This article appeared in the January/February 2009 issue of Magazine, which is available for order as a digital download. Click here to learn more.

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See an award-winning artists’ approach to oils. Click here for a link to a free preview of Expressive Oil Painting with George Allen Durkee from

Watch the video: Learn to Paint a Beach! Step-by-Step Real Time Demonstration for Beginners and Intermediate Artists (July 2022).


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