by Joelle Steele

The following is a short artist's guide to selecting black and white pgiments.


Throughout history, there have been many substances used to create black pigments, including burning many kinds of plants and trees, which resulted in poor quality pigments with blue undertones. Today, we have more reliable blacks that are in widespread use. Each of these black pigments — Carbon/Lamp, Mars/Iron Oxide, and Ivory/Bone — have an opacity of 2 (1 is opaque) and lightfastness of I (excellent). Their toxicity level is A (low), but it is still not safe to ingest it or to inhale the pigment in its powder form.

Black – Carbon or Lamp Black (PBK 6, ASTM 1)

Carbon and Lamp Black pigments are produced through the burning of substances such as creosote, naphthalene, petroleum products, or tar. The black that is produced has a blue or brown undertone, and it is suitable for use in most media. While this black was once very popular, it is quite slow drying when suspended in oil, and newer colors such as Ivory Black and Mars Black are better choices today.

Black – Mars or Iron Oxide (PBk 11, ASTM 1)

Iron Oxide or Mars Black is a strong and true black. It is a non-toxic and inorganic synthetic similar to naturally occurring earth-toned pigments. It has a warm brown undertone, is opaque and dense. It can be used successfully in all media, working well in water-based media and also in oils, particularly since it applies flexibly and is a good drier.

Black – Ivory or Bone (PBk 9, ASTM 1)

Ivory or Bone Black is composed of a synthetic carbon and calcium phosphate (animal bone). A true dark black in the early days, it has a yellow to brown undertone. It is a slow drier in oils and is not as popular as Mars Black, which is now the favored black pigment for most artists. Ivory Black should not be used in fresco (it effloresces) or in underpainting in oil.


The earliest whites were made of chalk, lead, and oyster shells. The lead whites were warm and opaque, extremely toxic, and known by such names as "Flake White" or "Silver White." They were eventually replaced with Zinc White, which is losing in popularity to the newer Titanium White. The following white pigments have an opacity of 1 (opaque) and lightfastness of I (excellent). Their toxicity level is A (low), but like the black pigments, they should not be ingested or inhaled in powder form.

White - Titanium or Titanium Dioxide (PW 6, ASTM 1)

Titanium White is an inorganic synthetic and non-toxic white pigment made from anatase (a rare form of Titanium Dioxide) or rutile ore (a common source of titanium). It is very white and very opaque, and it works well with all media.

White – Zinc, Chinese, or Permanent (PW 4, ASTM 1)

This white pigment is an inorganic synthetic made from heating/baking zinc or burning zinc metal that has been vaporized. The zinc whites come in Zinc Oxide (blue or yellow undertone, less opaque at level 2 opacity), Zinc Sulphide (white to yellow undertone), and Zinc Phosphate (true white). Good for use when transparency is desirable, so probably not as reliable with oils.

White – Chalk, Calcium, or Precipitated Chalk (PW 18, ASTM 1)

An inorganic synthetic, Calcium Carbonate White was originally made from natural chalk. In its modern-day form, it is very white and opaque. Depending on the manufacturer, it may have an undertone of cream or blue-gray. The modern pigments are free of the impurities that existed in organic chalk that resulted in an off-white color. Chalk/Calcium White is very popular for use in gouache and pastels (where it has a very soft consistency).


As you can see, it is necessary to think a bit before you buy any old white or black paint in the store. They are all different. It is up to each individual artist to select what works best for them in the media they prefer. In my experience, I have found that Mars Black and Titanium White are generally superior to their competition when used with water-based media such as watercolors, gouache, and acrylic.

This article last updated: 11/17/2014.