The colours live a remarkable life of their own after they have been applied to the canvas.

(Edvard Munch)

What is your favourite colour? Part of a person’s identity is expressed through colour, and the way we choose it has much to do with the values associated with it. Geography and history determine the significance assigned to certain colours. In some cultures, white is associated with mourning, while Western cultures designate white for weddings, as it symbolises purity, innocence, and a new beginning. White is a special ‘colour’ in more ways than one.

Comprising all the hues of the visible light spectrum, white is not, technically, a colour. White represents the absence of hue, or chroma, and cannot be made from the three primaries. It is not visible in the spectrum but is the result of our eyes mixing wavelengths of light. White is what we see when all wavelengths of light are reflected off the canvas.

What we see is not colour; we see light. Standing at the top of a snow-covered mountain, the world seems vast. White makes space bigger.

Although not a colour, white is an essential ingredient in the artist’s palette.

Pure white is the holy grail of paint manufacturers and detergent users. Not an easy paint to create, white demanded sacrifices. For centuries, the only reliable white pigment used was lead-based; its toxicity claimed the lives of many artists who used it. Known as white vitriol, zinc sulphate was just as dangerous. In the 20th century, lead and zinc were replaced by titanium as the key ingredient of white paint.

The risks associated with white paint didn’t stop artists from using the queen of colours in their paintings.

A shade of goodness

Renaissance painters used toxic lead white both prior to painting, to prime the canvas, and during the painting process, for corrections. Titian, for example, painted large expanses of white drapery, like in Venus of Urbino, The Holy Family with a Shephard, and Flora.

Angels, Jesus, unmarried women and girls are innocent and pure. They are draped in white cloth and white dresses; light shines off them on the canvas. The volume and folds of white fabric are created by the addition of small amounts of black pigment, while fine brushes and diluted colour are creatively used to paint verdigris and animal hairs.

A naked body reclining on white linen emphasises the purity and cleanliness of the subject. Even when Venus exposes her pale body to the viewer, her hand resting between her legs to hide (or draw attention to?) her genitals, the expanse of white still conveys an image of innocence. The theme of the naked woman relaxing on a bed covered in white is present in the works of Ingres, Goya, Gauguin, and Manet, among others.

Manet’s interpretation caused controversy by featuring, in his painting Olympia, a prostitute reclining in the well-loved Venus pose. It was more than the righteous society of 19th-century Paris could tolerate.

Of sunshine and snow

On a white canvas, white paint is often used as a background for coloured objects and figures. In Bruegel’s Hunters in the Snow, it is the snow-covered landscape that takes centre stage as the subject of the composition. The dark figures in the foreground, tired men and their dogs, their footprints in the snow, the small figures far away playing on the ice, and the soaring black bird above - are just accessories to the scene of coldness of deep winter. Man is small and powerless in the face of the overwhelming will of nature.

When nature is not hostile, it regales us with warmth and light. In the works of Spanish painter Joaquín Sorolla, the landscape and the people are bathed in Mediterranean sunlight. White is used to convey this luminosity: on the dresses of women walking on the beach, on their parasol and elegant but unpractical shoes, on the white horses at sea. All white, yet somehow each is a different colour.

Of hope and innocence

White is an optimistic colour; the white canvas and the blank page are full of promise and possibilities.

There is little optimism in Gustave Courbet’s self-portrait entitled Le désespéré. The light coming from the left of the painting gives depth to the folds in his white shirt, on his arm and on his forehead. The eyes are round and wide open, staring at the viewer in terror. The sclera is a brilliant white, emphasising the brown irises.

Chefs in general, and pastry chefs especially, wear the kitchen white uniform like surgeons in the operating theatre: immaculate. Young pastry cooks are considered a comic subject by many French artists, but not so by Chaim Soutine. His Petit Patissier portrait of 1922 is a sad, tired figure. His ears are comically large, his gaze sorrowful, and his mouth twisted. The white hat and jacket, symbols of his apprenticeship, are too big for him. And what is supposed to be an immaculate, brilliant white uniform is made up of a palette of greens, greys, and blues—to create an imperfect white. The non-white, not-fitting pastry chef jacket reflects the inappropriateness the low mood of the little boy, who should probably be at school.

This little servant reminds us of another boy in a white costume: Pierrot. The large (184.5-tall) canvas by Jean-Antoine Watteau features the best-known commedia del’arte character, the popular sad clown, a symbol of the disenfranchised. In this painting, Pierrot looks like a dejected child, wearing oversize pyjamas. Standing at the centre of the canvas, he stares at the viewer with a dreamy expression. Watteau gives more importance to the character’s costume than to his face: the white long jacket and satin trousers dominate the composition, an expression of Pierrot’s innocence.

Trois crayons

Watteau was a master of the trois crayons, a technique first used in the 15th century. It involved drawing with red, black, and white chalk on mid-tone paper. Influenced by the drawings of Peter Paul Rubens, Watteau developed the technique and brought it into the 18th-century Rococo alongside Francois Boucher and Jean Honoré Fragonard. With its limited range of colours, the method promotes harmony and creative efficiency.

Painting and drawing with white enabled artists to create striking works, emphasise perspective and emotion, and enhance the effects of light and shadow.