The color white is the lightest color. Being achromatic, it has no hue and is the opposite of black. Seeing the white color means you're looking at the reflection and scattering of the full spectrum of light, unlike black that's the complete absence of all color.
As an artist, it's important to understand the lightest color, how it's used in the past until today, what it means and the different emotions it evokes, as well as its different shades, and how to produce them.
This article aims to help you do just that.
A Brief History of the Color White
The color white was one of the very first colors used by our ancestors. Paleolithic artists used calcite or chalk to draw figures of animals and other objects on cave walls, including the ones in Lascaux Cave, France. These prehistoric artists used white as a background or as a highlight for other pigments like charcoal and red or yellow ochre.
The ancient Egyptians associated the color white with the goddess Isis. Their priests and priestesses wore only white robes and wrapped their mummies in white linen.
To other ancient civilizations, including ancient Greece, white was also associated with mother's milk. Ancient Greek artists saw white as a fundamental color and only painted with a palette of white, red, yellow, and black. They used a pigment called lead white, a highly toxic material.
The ancient Romans required their youth to wear white togas to show their status as citizens. This color was also favored by their magistrates and some priestesses.
The early Roman Catholic church adopted the color white as a symbol of virtue, sacrifice, and purity. White even became the official color worn by the Pope. Postclassical art depicted a white lamb as the symbol of Christ's sacrifice.
It was also during the time of postclassical history that artists began mixing white to make brighter colors.
During the 16th century, white was the preferred color of mourning for widows. It was also a color worn by knights, together with a red cloak, to symbolize their willingness to sacrifice themselves for the king or Church.
White became popular for architectural interiors during the Baroque period and the Rococo style of the 18th century. The color was also a popular fashion choice for people of this time. Members of the aristocracy wore powdered wigs, white stockings, and white pastel gowns.
The 19th-century painter James McNeill Whistler created a series of musically titled paintings and used white to create moods the way composers used music. By the end of the 19th century, lead white was still in common use until Norwegian companies started producing titanium white from titanium oxide.
Modernist painters at this time greatly favored the color white for its absoluteness. Kazimir Malevich, a Russian suprematist painter, used the color in his 1917 painting "the white square".
White Colors: Psychology and Meaning
Being one of humanity's earliest known pigments, it's no surprise that we've given the color white various symbolic meanings and associations.
One of the earliest associations with the color white was that of purity. This was why ancient Romans wore white togas to represent their citizenship and why white became the favored color of priests and magistrates. A white unicorn also represented chastity in the middle ages.
The color white's association with purity has persisted through the centuries (especially in Europe and the USA) and has evolved to also include associations with goodness, cleanliness, perfection, honesty, exactitude, the new, the beginning, and neutrality.
White isn't always a "good" color. To widows in the 16th century, as well as in many Asian countries today, white is the color for mourning and loss.
Being the color of snow and winter, white is also associated with cold, starkness, emptiness, and isolation.
Since white is symbolic of neutrality, it can also be linked to being boring, bland, and indecisive.
Shades of White
Most people don't know how to use the color white when making art. But, to experienced painters, white can be used as a base for developing subtler versions of other colors.
With so many possible color combinations that can make an "off-white" shade, the exact number of shades of white becomes debatable.
As of writing this article, white has 315 shades according to PPG Industries, Inc.
Here are just a few of them:
Ivory is characterized by its pale yellow-green shade.
It's made to represent ivory, the material from which animal teeth and tusks are made of.
2. Floral White
Cream is a light yellow-green color.
As you may have guessed, this color was made to represent the color of the dairy product of the same name.
4. Antique White
Antique white is characterized by its pale yellow color. Just like floral white, antique white first saw use as a color name in 1987 when X11 colors were first formulated.
Bone is a yellowish-gray shade of white.
As the name suggests, this shade was developed to represent the color of bones. This color name was first used in the 19th century.
Flax is characterized by its light greenish-yellow color. This color name's first recorded use was in 1915.
Alabaster is a pale yellow-green shade of white.
This shade was made to represent the whitish color of the mineral of the same name.
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Modifying White Acrylic Paints
Now that you have a deeper understanding of the color white and some of its shades, it's time to learn how to make some of your own.
As artists, we usually look for the right shade of color to really make our painting pop. When it comes to the achromatic color white, we use it as a highlighting color.
If you don't happen to have the exact shade you need, here's how you can modify your white acrylic paint to achieve your desired shade.
How to Create Warmer Shades of White
How to Create Cooler White Shades
If you want to produce the opposite and make a cooler white, start with the same white base and mix in some black. You can then make it cooler by adding in some blue.
Use White to Mute Other Colors
Since white is an achromatic color, you can add it to other colors to make a muted but brighter version of those colors.