Lead white

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Fayum portrait with lead white
Portrait of a Woman, 2nd century, National Gallery of Art, Washington, D.C. The painting is an early documented instance of lead white's use.[1]

Lead white is a white pigment composed primarily of basic lead carbonate, 2PbCO3·Pb(OH)2.[2] It was the most widely used white pigment from antiquity until the nineteenth century, when it was displaced by zinc white.[2]: 69  In addition to being used independently, lead white is frequently used to produce tints of other colors. In combination with blue, it appears often in depictions of the sky, and it is commonly used with red and brown pigments to create flesh tones.[2]: 69  Most art supply companies now explicitly advise against the use of lead white because of the risk that it poses of lead poisoning.[3]

Production methods[edit]

A common production method in antiquity involved placing lead shavings above vinegar, allowing the acidic vapors to react with the lead. In 17th-century Holland, an alternative process was devised that involved placing lead above vinegar, then sealing them in a room full of horse manure, which served as a source of both heat and carbon dioxide.[4]

Notable occurrences[edit]

The ubiquity of lead white for much of recorded history makes its occurrences in art widespread.[2]: 78  Several examples, significant for their early date, are Fayum portraits from the second century CE.[1] Lead white can be found in paintings well into the 20th century, including in the work of major artists such as Picasso.[2]: 78 


  1. ^ a b Delaney, John K.; Dooley, Kathryn A.; Radpour, Roxanne; Kakoulli, Ioanna (2017-11-14). "Macroscale multimodal imaging reveals ancient painting production technology and the vogue in Greco-Roman Egypt". Scientific Reports. 7 (1): 15509. Bibcode:2017NatSR...715509D. doi:10.1038/s41598-017-15743-5. ISSN 2045-2322. PMC 5686187. PMID 29138483.
  2. ^ a b c d e Gettens, Rutherford J.; Kühn, Hermann; Chase, W. T. (1993). "Lead White". In Roy, Ashok (ed.). Artists' Pigments: A Handbook of Their History and Characteristics. Vol. 2. Archetype. pp. 67–82.
  3. ^ Finlay, Victoria (2002). Color: A Natural History of the Palette. Random House. p. 111.
  4. ^ Finlay, Victoria (2014). The Brilliant History of Color in Art. J. Paul Getty Museum. pp. 59–60.