Lead White

(flake white, cremnitz white, kerms white, Berlin white, silver white, slate white)

white Lead pigment

Origin, History and Characteristics

Prepared artificially since the earliest historical times and used until the nineteenth century, this warm white is very opaque, has outstanding brushing qualities and mixes well with every color on the artist's palette. As the name lead white suggests, it is a by-product of lead, and whatever the form of manufacture used, the purity of the color depends on the purity of the lead. Purifying processes greatly increase the cost of the product. White lead has always been one of the most important pigments in many painting techniques.

Its importance has been immeasurable, and is the only material that has been consistently used from ancient times until the present. The monopoly in lead white production was not broken until the nineteenth century, when zinc oxide became a competitor, and in the twentieth century, it has been almost completely replaced by titanium dioxide, which is superior to lead in some properties, and unlike zinc oxide, has the strong covering ability that lead white possesses. Since white in painting is the equivalent of light in nature, it has been essential to every aspect of painting: from flesh to skies, and so on.

In the Dutch and Old German process strips of lead rolled up into spirals were placed in closed earthenware jars containing acetic acid, and then pots were hen buried under tanner's bark or dung; the heat evolved by fermentation aids in the formation of white lead through an increase of carbonic acid. Very soon a thin coat of white coating forms. The white lead is then washed of and cleaned. White lead is extremely poisonous and must be handled with care.

White Lead in Vermeer's Painting

Lady Writing a Letter with her Maid (detail), Johannes Vermeer
Lady Writing a Letter with her Maid (detail)
Johannes Vermeer
c. 1670–1671
Oil on canvas, 71.1 x 58.4 cm.
National Gallery of Ireland, Dublin

Lead-white was used to render the illuminated folds of the lady's sleeve and admixed with brown and black pigments to produced the sleeve's shadows and the light gray background wall.

White has always played an important part in the art and craft of painting. The great part of pigments on a progressive scale of gray would fall into the medium dark to dark category. Only lead-tin yellow and lead-tin yellow are by themselves light pigments. In order to portray the light areas which are for indispensable to convey the sense of natural illumination, white must be added to heighten most of the darker pigments.

Vermeer, as all other painters of the time, used it extensively to lighten other colors and as the principal component used to depict the characteristic white-washed walls seen in so many of his paintings.

A grainy texture can be seen on the surface of many of the lightest areas are cause d by aggregates of white-lead particles. These lumpy aggregates that can "found in Vermeer's paintings have also been noted in several Frans Hal's paintings and are typical for the stack process of white lead production for which Holland was famous in the seventeenth century. "1

  1. Nicola Costaras, "A Study of the Materials and Techniques of Johannes Vermeer," in Vermeer Studies, edited by Ivan Gaskell, 1998, 160.