Bright, warm, absent or deadly? The colour that is also a paradox

White is a colour that has defied definition for centuries and its use, formula, popularity and ability to affect our thinking has never stop changing.
An explosion of white powder against a black background.
Inge Hazewinkel

Written by Inge Hazewinkel

Senior Manager Strategic Communications

Our use of colour began simply, as most ideas do. Crude depictions in ancient caves, rendered using naturally occurring pigments – ground up hematite for red, carbon for black and, of course, lime, chalk and clay for white. Blended with water or animal fat, so it could be applied with fingers, moss or twigs, white was only as opaque as the density with which it was mixed and applied. In the years since, this white paste has taken many new forms. It has been embraced, ignored, improved… and even deadly.

White, as a colour, has moved in and out of fashion. The Ancient Egyptians, for example, considered ‘hedj’ (their word for white) to be the opposite of red (the colour of danger and chaos) and so valued it for its symbolic calm. It played a huge role in art as well as daily life and Ancient Egyptians were thrilled to get their hands on pure white cloth. Conveniently, they also had ready access to unlimited amounts of chalk and gypsum – a kind of chicken/egg relationship, perhaps? Either way, it was a colour of import in both quotidian and spiritual matters and as essential in artists palettes as it was in wardrobes, despite its translucency and permanence being less than ideal.

In the 3rd century BC, however, the Greeks solved white’s opacity issue by creating what painters call ‘lead white’. Lead mining was a huge industry in Ancient Greece and Rome, and so much was made from lead – plumbing, pots and pans, make-up and, of course, paint. Extraction and treatment of lead were long, drawn-out processes and its place in the country’s economies was such that even though its toxicity was well recorded, nothing was done about the widespread lead poisoning of people and places for many many years. For artists, lead white seemed to be a gift – it was opaque without requiring the application of layer after layer. And it was a warm, gentle shade of yellow white, which Baroque artists like Rembrandt and Caravaggio used to create the stunning contrasts of light and dark. Later Vermeer too would find lead white an irresistible addition to his palette, even going so far as to adapt and improve it. Yet, it was the allure of lead white which may have contributed to the long-term sickness and death of many artists, including Caravaggio, Goya and even Van Gogh.

View of Delft by Johannes Vermeer. A cloudy sky over the river Schie, with the Schiedam Gate in the middle of the composition, and the Rotterdam Gate and its barbican to the right, all reflected in the water of the harbour.

View of Delft by Johannes Vermeer (1632-1675) is a superb example of how lead white was capable of creating extraordinary atmosphere.(Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons)

Ironically, while lead white may have taken their lives too soon, it is also credited with giving their paintings durability and longevity – preventing damage and cracking to the art and perhaps keeping them safe century after century. And in doing so, it has allowed these infamous painters to inspire generations of artists and designers who now ‘play with light’ as they did. Although, it could be argued that they were actually ‘playing with white’. There are thousands of artworks – painted, drawn, printed, designed and even photographed ­– that have been made more powerful and emotive by clever use of techniques such as chiaroscuro, that use light and shadow to create a sense of depth, volume, and drama. These are techniques which would not have been possible without such a ‘technological breakthrough’ as lead white.

And yet the colour could be creatively divisive. Some have explored white as a singular creative force and plenty of others refuse to acknowledge it has a place as a colour at all. Robert Rauschenberg's 1951 White Painting, for example, used canvases painted entirely white to challenge ideas of what painting should actually be. “Eschewing taste, they are neither good nor bad, as art. They complicate what art has been, is, and can be, for people who are inclined to ponder those matters,” said Peter Schjeldahl, Art Critic at the New Yorker. And he was absolutely correct. Through a single colour, how it reflects light and shadow and urges the viewer to understand the space they occupy in relation to the canvases, Rauschenberg has given artists cause to contemplate the purpose of their work ever since.

Of course, the use of lead white could not continue and it was soon replaced, both culturally and legally, by titanium dioxide. This is something still lamented by some artists, as this new equally opaque alternative is a strong, brilliant white, rather than the soft and creamy white of Vermeer and Rembrandt. It seems that lead white was intoxicating in more ways than one and plenty of artists today are still seeking the last vestiges of a colour that is nearly impossible to come by. By contrast, however, the world is awash with the relatively new titanium pigment, and it can be found in all sorts of places, not just in painting. Commercially it is used in cosmetics and skincare, toothpaste and sunscreen, industrial paint and coatings. The world is a brighter, whiter place.

A close up of the printer rollers of a black and silver Canon Colorado M-series printer as it prints a white banner onto a clear substrate. There is a digital display to the right of the printed area.

The new Canon Colorado M-series uses UVgel technology to print documents with high-opacity white ink.

But despite this, Pop Art seemed to make a deliberate choice to omit white and it is no coincidence that this is where creativity and commerciality collided like never before. Colour for the Pop Artists was a tool to achieve the visual language of popular culture and they, more than other previous genres, were happy to explore any media that allowed them to mass reproduce their images and works, quickly and efficiently. Synthetic colours over natural, industrial materials over handmade, adopting and manipulating the styles of 50s and 60s print advertising. It is here that we see the familiarity of those exaggerated halftone dots in Andy Warhol’s subversive silkscreens and the famous Ben Day comic book-style dots of Roy Lichtenstein’s ‘low brow’ art. Printing processes were the obvious place to realise their ad age aesthetic. And, of course, back then printers didn’t use white ink, so any white in these works was substrate, incidental, necessary but not actively applied.

In this respect, fashion comes in waves and today it can be hard to discern influence versus influencer. As we know, technology and progress go hand in hand – mass media feeding into Pop Art in a similar way that the lead mining economy ultimately resulted in the luminous chiaroscuro of Caravaggio. But there are more subtle complexities at play when it comes to the desire for white ink in print – a world where, traditionally, the substrate did all the heavy lifting and white was simply an ‘absence of colour’. Our familiarity with digital art, brightening filters, the desirability of pure white product design and the clean vibe of a white web page can make everything around them look dull by comparison. Even our homes are influenced, with bright snow white being among the colours of choice for Instagrammable interiors.

This makes life a little tricky for anyone wanting their printed work to stand out in the real world. But, as it always has, innovation finds a way. This time, instead of considering white as an absence of colour or relying on our substrate to bring the bright (and definitely not risking any lives for creativity!), we are inverting the traditional and making like Caravaggio all over again – using white as a tool to bring designs to life. By layering an opaque bright UV white ink over the surface, but behind the traditional four colour (CMYK) layer, today’s printers are now able to bring that familiar essence of the ‘screen bright’ into the everyday.

The essence of whiteness has changed over centuries – from translucent to opaque, creamy to bright, dangerous to safe – but the need for white has not. It exists almost not to exist but white pigment in ink and paint is necessary, whether to elevate a scene into a masterpiece or to connect and acquaint us with the familiar. It can show us the beauty of shadows by contrast or make us question its necessity at all. It is a colour, a tool, a signifier and a paradox, all rolled into one.

Learn more about the Canon Colorado M-series, modular UVgel roll-to-roll printer which can be easily configured to include white ink.

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