In the years I've worked as an oil painter, I must admit that I have viewed white pigments in a fairly superficial way. I knew that the vast majority of modern paint companies only produced titanium and zinc (or some combination thereof) and I knew that zinc white was a bit more transparent and a bit cooler than titanium. I have rarely worked with zinc white and I have always struggled with handling and mixing with titanium white. And that is just about all I knew about whites.
Being a fan of the great English painter Lucian Freud, I had long ago read about how his preferred kind of white was to be discontinued, causing him to frantically purchase a massive quantity of it. This white pigment so essential to Freud was a form of lead white known as Cremnitz white.
We all know lead is dangerous. At least now we do - it has been regulated and has seriously fallen out of usage since the 1970's. And it makes plenty of sense to heavily regulate its use in any kind of paints, certainly household paints and paints used on children's toys and the like. But in artists pigments? I feel that is a wholly different matter. I already use pigments with cadmiums, cobalts, and iron oxides and those are plenty dangerous. But was lead ever banned in artist's pigments? Near as I can tell, they were not, but rather lead whites gradually fell out of use and fell out of production. I would imagine this was due to the rising popularity of synthetic pigments and mediums in the art world, along with with the decimation of the lead industry that came with the regulation of lead in most products (but again, not necessarily in artist's pigments).
I recently spoke to an art conservator on Reddit and she informed me that in her experience, zinc whites have terrible longevity, with intense flaking and crumbling. Apparently titanium whites are somewhat susceptible to darkening in the presence of certain environmental pollutants. Lead whites? They tend to last.
What I've also recently come to understand about whites in painting is that titanium white has only been in common use since 1921. Zinc came use a bit before that over the course of the 19th century. Prior to that, the two whites used in the long history of painting were the calcium-carbonated-based lime white and the lead-carbonate-based lead white.
Armed with this new information about whites and my frustration with titanium white, I started looking for a company that produces a true lead white. When you look for lead whites in the art supply stores on the internet, you will find that there are a few companies that produce faux lead whites, but that is about it. My initial thought was that lead whites must be just as scarce as they became after that Freud anecdote, but then I dug a bit deeper. I read scores of articles and forum threads on the virtues of lead whites and lamenting the lack of proper commercially-available lead whites or at least ones that are remotely affordable. Some really serious painters have taken to making their own lead white. One of these artists happens to own a paint company, RGH Artists Oil Paints and they now produce a few different variations of lead white, including the famed Cremnitz. While I've long been a devout supporter of the great Oregon paint company, M. Graham, I had to give lead white a try so I ordered their Cremnitz White in walnut oil.
The thing I first noticed about the cremnitz white from RGH Oils was that it has a far heavier body than the M Graham titanium white I have always used. It is stringy, almost ropey. It is warmer in tone and It mixes beautifully, retaining the purity of color far better than any white I've seen. Living in the high desert, paintings tend to dry relatively fast, but this cremnitz white dries absurdly fast. Too fast, really. Even through the crusty bits of paint, cremnitz white behaves how I want paint to behave. I am beginning to see what Freud saw in it and I can see why he valued it so, though I have no real way of knowing how the RGH cremnitz compares in composition to the cremnitz Freud used.
For my money, cremnitz white isn't just different - it is better in every way that matters to me.