Theoretically Speaking: Painting White

Theory for the artfully inquisitive mind.™

Painting objects at the polar ends of the value scale can be a challenge even for the experienced artist. How do you highlight white or shade black? Following are a few pointers on painting white. 


Painting White

  • White reflects colors of surrounding objects taking on these nearby hues.
  • White objects must begin with a lower value than white in order to allow room for lighter values.
  • The base color can lean toward any hue to harmonize with the overall color scheme.  Toned green, gold or beige create warm whites while violet and blues create cool whites.  
  • Both warm and cool hues can be combined in the same object for impact.
  • White objects painted purely with neutral grey tones lack luminosity and appear dull.  
  • Using a mixed rich black to create greys will add warmth and interest.
  • Rich black can be created using a deep pure blue like ultramarine blue and a warm brown such as burnt umber.

In the accompanying images you can view the lighthouse as it appears in my original photo at left.  Due to the lighting, as result of the time of day, some blue hues are evident.  Since it is a white object, you may be inclined to render it in shades of grey.  Unfortunately, doing so will result in an image that appears very flat and one-note.  On the other hand, if you distinguish the form using subtle tints of color, like you see in the digitally enhanced image at right, the final rendering will be both more vibrant and interesting. 

How about a challenge?  Paint (or otherwise render in your medium of choice) a white object.  It can be one of your own choosing or you can use these lighthouse images.  The only guideline is that you may not use any commercially produced black (grey) to create your values.  

Painting neutral objects such as black or white items using varied hues, will produce more interesting results than basic shades of grey.  The rope image shown is painted using watercolor hues that can be classified as subdued versions of the three primaries, red, yellow and blue.  To create neutral objects, you can use complementary colors (two colors directly opposite one another on the color wheel) or, for more variation, all three primaries.  Either way, the neutral rendition is the result of all three primaries being present since complementary colors consist of a primary and secondary (mix of the other two primary) hue.

The challenge with painting white is to create the form and definition of the object without making the object too dark.  One way to augment a white object is to modify the surrounding area or elements.  This is illustrated by the gradient background surrounding the rope.  Notice that the darker the background becomes, the more intensely "white" the rope appears.  Hue, value, temperature and intensity (saturation) are relative.  The next time you are struggling with "white", try adjusting the properties of the surrounding elements to achieve the desired result.