Color the Emotion

Pick a few colors and create without stiffness.

Using White as a Color in Painting and Drawing

In this post, we explore the color white and find ideas on how we could change the way we use it in art-making.

Käännekohta - Turning Point, oil on canvas, 50 x 61 cm, by Paivi Eerola, Finland.
Käännekohta – Turning Point, oil on canvas, 50 x 61 cm.

I posted this painting about a month ago, but I still had to fix it! You might not notice the difference, but it matters to me. I have changed the center of the painting so that it is more abstract.

Painting over details with a thin brush.

A long time ago I thought that it doesn’t matter if I don’t like some detail of my work or if I don’t like some of my work in general. I thought there would always be someone who would like it.

But the longer I’ve been painting, the more important it has become that I have to be a fan of my own work. When you are a beginner, quantity is more important than quality. But I’ve been working for a long time and the equation has thus turned the other way.

Before and after - fixing a white painting.
Before and after. I changed the center and some other details.

I know some would prefer the more realistic flowers, but I don’t! I have too much reality around me, especially now when the weather has been too cold to be spring.

Living in a White Country

This painting is also special because it has so much color that is difficult for me – white! There is far too much white here in Finland. Even if now is the end of April, we got a lot of snow a couple of days ago!

Spring in Finland - snowing can still happen.

I think white is a terrible color because it is full of emptiness.

Artist Paivi Eerola and her oil paintings.

Finnish people usually have white walls and white furniture, but our home is full of colors. I love to display my paintings on this yellow wall.

Not One White But Many Whites

In the recent painting, I wanted to play with pastels and show the side of white that is often not talked about.

A detail of a white oil painting by Paivi Eerola. Many whites and pastel shades in one painting.

For an artist, there is not just one white. There is a warm white that holds the promise of the sun. There is a purple-toned white that falls in love when it sees a deep cold red. There is a white that allures you with a hint of sweet mint. So, many whites, not just one Finnish white!

It’s exciting to mix various whites and then see how the pastel colors slowly begin to appear. You need a lot of white and just a little bit of color to get the toned whites and pale pastels.

Titanium or Zinc White?

The most common white in paint tubes are Titanium White and Zinc White. In oils, you have to be careful with zinc white because it can cause crackles. I mostly use only Titanium White. I would love to use Zinc White because it’s more transparent. In this painting, I have tried my best to bring the soft transparent effects mostly with Titanium White, but it’s not easy!

Vapauden puolesta - For Liberty, oil on board, 45 x 45 cm. By Päivi Eerola, Finland.
Vapauden puolesta – For Liberty, oil on board, 45 x 45 cm.

In acrylics and gouache paints, you can use Zinc White more freely.

When White is Not Needed

Beginners think that adding white on top can fix everything. Ten years ago, I was madly doodling with a white gel pen. What went wrong, got covered with white circles. But white also can make the piece busy and destroy depth. Here’s a quick example of the small collage piece that I made in 2014 (here’s the old blog post with the video too). The first is the old piece and the second is a photoshopped version showing how I would fix it now.

A collage piece that lacks depth and has too much white and a demonstration of how it could be fixed.

When I tone down the white, the image gets clearer and the depth grows. The highlights in the central parts get more attention and it’s easier to know where to look. I wish someone would have pointed this out to me back then. It took a lot of time to realize this!

If White Were a Person …

I am pretty sure that if White were a person she would say: “I have much more potential than you think. Stop seeing me as a blank background or a quick fix to a piece that lacks contrasts!”

Paivi Eerola and her paintings.

What’s your relationship with White?

4 thoughts on “Using White as a Color in Painting and Drawing

  1. Using white with watercolors is tricky as you well know. I use different products when I have to, usually some kind of gauche or acrylic and even the occasional gel pen. But you’ve “whet my whistle” to try something. I’ll let you know how it works out.

    1. I am glad you brought up watercolors because they were missing in the post! I think that for watercolors the best bright white is the blank paper and then the pastel whites can be made with a very diluted color. I try to never add white when painting with watercolors, but save the white paper where I want the brightest areas, for example in the middle.

  2. White isn’t just one colour. It includes shades of grey.
    Päivi, thank you for this post. It was 1 degree below 0C last night, here in Comrie, Perthshire, Scotland. So you’re not alone in having snow. There’s still some snow on the tops of the mountains.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

Scroll to top