An example of a watercolor painting that includes white paint.
I use Titanium White watercolor paint to add small highlight details to my paintings. You can see the white highlights on the boats and water.

When you’re first learning how to paint with watercolors, you’ll wonder if it’s okay to use white in your paintings. Teachers sometimes discourage the use of white, but famous watercolor artists use it successfully in their paintings. So, what’s the answer?

Can you use white in a watercolor painting? Yes, you can use white in a watercolor painting. Watercolor artists commonly use white paint to add small highlights to shiny objects. You can also mix white into a wash of color to create a milky, atmospheric effect.

I believe the idea that it’s somehow wrong to use white in watercolor painting stems from two sources.

First, teachers often tell their students not to use white because they need to learn how to use the white of the paper to lighten colors instead of adding white like you would in an oil painting. 

Second, there are transparent watercolor enthusiasts who believe you should only use transparent colors because it capitalizes on the unique qualities of the medium.

All of the links within this post that lead to Blick Art Materials are affiliate links. This means if you click on a link and make a purchase, I earn a commission at no cost to you.

I discuss both of these points further in the next section. 

In the rest of the post, I cover the different types of white paint that you can use for watercolors, and when to use it. I also include examples from famous artists who frequently used white in their paintings. 

A Winslow Homer watercolor painting that uses white paint for the seagulls.
Boy with Anchor
Winslow Homer
Watercolor and gouache with graphite
Image Courtesy of The Cleveland Museum of Art.

You May Want to Avoid Using White as a Beginner

Adding white to make colors lighter is common in other opaque mediums such as oils, acrylics, or gouache. Students often try to carry this practice over to watercolor painting which can lead to frustration.

The indiscriminate use of white can quickly go awry and lead to dull and chalky colors.

Therefore, watercolor teachers may instruct their students to put the white aside and not to use it in their paintings. This helps them to get used to using water to dilute the paint to make it lighter.

You don’t normally use watercolor paint straight from the tube. It’s very concentrated so you can add plenty of water to it and get it to flow on the paper and still achieve vibrant colors. 

The water makes the paint very fluid which will allow you to create the effects that make watercolor paintings appealing.

As you add more water to the paint it becomes more transparent which is how you lighten it.

I discuss the concentration of pigment in watercolor paints in my post about why watercolor paint is so expensive.

Beginners sometimes want to use white to cover over mistakes. While you can get away with this in an acrylic painting, it will stand out in a watercolor painting. 

It takes some skill and experience to effectively use white in a watercolor painting. You can use white in your paintings once you gain confidence in the basic watercolor techniques. 

Transparent Watercolor Enthusiasts

What sets watercolor paintings apart from other painting mediums such as oils, acrylics, or gouache, is that they’re almost exclusively transparent.

Even the opaque watercolor pigments, such as the cadmiums, can often take on a transparent effect because of how thinly they’re applied.

It’s the transparency that makes the colors so vivid and lively–watercolor paintings are often compared to stain glass windows.

There are professional watercolor artists who are adamant about not using white in their watercolor paintings for this reason. 

Their perspective is that the transparency of the paint is what makes the medium unique. They reason that if you’re going to mix white with your colors, you might as well use gouache or some other opaque medium. 

Just in case you’re wondering, gouache is opaque watercolor paint. 

There are enough watercolor artists that feel watercolor paintings shouldn’t include the use of white paint that they have their own association.

The Transparent Watercolor Society

The Transparent Watercolor Society only accepts watercolor paintings into their exhibits that are painted with transparent pigments. They won’t accept watercolor paintings that include the use of gouache or white watercolor. 

Here’s a link to what the Transparent Watercolor Society considers to be a transparent watercolor painting.

You shouldn’t enter a watercolor painting that contains white into an exhibition of transparent watercolors. Not because it’s wrong to use white in a watercolor painting but because it’s misleading–you’re claiming that it’s a transparent watercolor painting when it really isn’t.

When to Use White Paint in a Watercolor Painting

When you develop a sense for when to use white you can use it to your advantage. For example, you can add white to a wash to create atmospheric effects, storm clouds, or to add solidity to an object.

The use of white paint in watercolor at the wrong time can ruin a painting. Once you add white to a wash, it’s impossible to bring back the vibrancy. So you’ll want to limit the use of white and use it strategically.

Below are the most common uses for white paint in watercolor.

Using White Gouache for Adding Highlights

Most commonly, artists use pure white gouache to add small white highlights. These white highlights give the impression of the glints of sunlight reflecting off of shiny objects. 

For example, in his painting “A Basket of Clams” by Winslow Homer, there are opaque white highlights throughout the painting. You can see these details better in the closeup that follows.

In this watercolor painting, white is used to create highlights on people and boats.
A Basket of Clams
Winslow Homer
Watercolor on wove paper
Image Courtesy of The Metropolitan Museum of Art
A close up of a painting that shows the white highlights.
In this closeup of “A Basket of Clams,” the opaque white paint stands out. He also uses opaque colors throughout the painting. The white stands out the most on the boat and the shoulders of the boy. 

While it’s possible to use masking fluid to preserve these small white details, I find that it’s easier to apply white at the end of the painting.

The reason for this is it’s not easy to judge where these small highlights should go at the beginning of the painting. Nor is it easy to judge how many white highlights you should put in. 

It’s easier to make these decisions once you establish all of the colors and values.

If you do use masking fluid for this purpose and find that you put in too many highlights, you can fill them in with thin washes of paint so they don’t stand out as much.

Using Masking Fluid to Preserve Whites

As I mentioned above, you can use masking fluid to create pure white highlights in a painting without resorting using white paint. This is an alternative to using white which is useful if you want to paint using only transparent colors.

Masking fluid contains latex so you want to avoid it if you’re allergic to it. 

The full details on how to use masking fluid requires a separate post that I may write in the future. 

In short, you brush on the fluid in the areas where you want to preserve the white of the paper and allow it to dry. The rubber will protect the white paper as you paint over it.

Once the painting is dry, you can peel away the masking fluid which reveals the pure white of the paper. 

The process is messy and the fluid is rough on your brushes which is why I recommend using masking fluid markers instead.

I recommend the Molotow GRAFX Masking Fluid Pump Marker which is shown below.

Molotow Grafx Art Masking Liquid Pump Markers

from: Blick Art Materials

It’s extremely convenient to use because it works just like a marker. The fluid is light blue so you can easily see where you applied it to the paper. 

The best part is there’s no cleanup since you’re not using brushes to apply the masking fluid–it’s a real time saver. 

I even use it when I’m sketching with watercolors outdoors, it’s that easy to use. 

As with any other masking fluid, you’ll want to test it out on your favorite papers to see how easy it is to remove before using it on an important painting.

Adding White to Washes for Atmospheric Effects

There are times when adding a small amount of white to a wash can help you to achieve a milky and atmospheric effect. 

Watercolor paints are bright and transparent. This is useful most of the time, but not if you’re trying to paint a fog bank, or sinister storm clouds. 

Additionally, a touch of white in a wash can help you to add substance to objects that’s hard to achieve solely with transparent colors.

Below is an ink drawing by Thomas Moran where he uses white to create a misty effect above a river. The museum doesn’t specify what type of paint the white is, but I suspect it is white gouache or watercolor.

An example of a white watercolor on toned paper, it's used to create white mist and snow.
The Cañon of the Belle Fourche, Wyoming
Thomas Moran
Image Courtesy of the Smithsonian

One tip for working with white is to keep a separate mixing area for it. Sometimes I use a sheet of disposable palette paper for mixing washes that contain white.

Here’s a 9×12 pad of palette paper from Blick.

The idea is that you don’t want to contaminate your palette with white paint. If you get white into your wells of transparent colors, your washes may be slightly cloudy when you don’t want them to be.

Using White Watercolor on Toned Watercolor Paper 

While watercolor paper is predominately available in white, some watercolor artists enjoy working on toned paper for variety. 

Some of the lighter cream colors may not require the use of white, but white is useful for creating highlights on the darker papers.

The two paintings by Thomas Moran, that I include in this post, incorporate the use of white on toned paper. He uses white paint to render clouds, water, and snowy mountains.

In “Smelting Works at Denver,” he uses white to create clouds and puffs of smoke emanating from smokestacks. It works well with the warm color of the paper. 

It would be impossible to create the lightest highlights on a paper like this without using white paint.

Another example of a watercolor painting on toned paper which uses white for the clouds and smoke effects.
Smelting Works at Denver
Thomas Moran
Watercolor and gouache on light brown wove paper

You can buy sheets of toned paper that you can use for watercolor or gouache.

I haven’t found Arches watercolor paper in anything but white or natural white.

However, there are art papers that are made for mixed media. Canson’s Mi-Teintes is such an example–their website states is suitable for watercolor and gouache.

Canson Mi-Teintes Pads

from: Blick Art Materials

You’ll want to keep in mind the weight of this paper is 98lb, which means it’s thinner than the typical 140lb watercolor paper.

Additionally, some watercolor sketchbooks are available with white or beige paper.

Stillman & Birn offer sketchbooks that contain beige, black, and gray paper. Here’s a link to their sketchbooks that contain toned paper at Blick. Look for the “color” in the column to determine what color the paper is.

Stillman & Birn Nova Mixed Media Sketchbooks

from: Blick Art Materials

Strathmore also offers sketchbooks that contain gray or beige paper. It’s part of their 400 Series which is supposed to be good quality.

John Ruskin uses white in his watercolor paintings and in some of his drawings. Below is a graphite drawing of his that contains highlights in white gouache.

Mixed media is another instance where artists use white in combination with watercolors or drawing materials.

A mixed media drawing that uses graphite, white gouache, on cream paper.
Budding Sycamore
John Ruskin
Black and gray wash, gouache, and graphite on cream wove paper.
Image Courtesy of the Cleveland Museum of Art

Which White Paint Should I Use for Watercolor?

Regardless of the name on the tube, there are two basic white pigments available for use in paints– Zinc White and Titanium Dioxide. Zinc White is very transparent and is useful for lightening colors in a subtle manner. Titanium White is what you want to use when you need opacity. 

Zinc White

Chinese White, Zinc White, Mixing White are usually made from Zinc White. 

It doesn’t have much covering power and you can use it when you want to lighten a color in a subtle manner. It’s good for adding a smoky atmospheric quality to your skies. 

One thing to keep in mind is zinc has a reputation for cracking so you don’t want to use it in a thick manner.

Titanium White

Titanium White is what you want to use when you need opacity. It’s the most opaque white that’s available. Occasionally you’ll find it under a different name. 

For example, Holbein’s Permanent White contains Titanium White.

If you’re not sure about the pigment a color contains, it’s usually listed on the tube. The label often includes the color index number which you can lookup online.

When I need covering power, I usually opt for Titanium White watercolor paint. Titanium white is very opaque so it’s great for adding thin white lines to a watercolor painting. 

In addition to painting white lines and specular highlights, you can also add it to a wash to give it a milky appearance.

Gouache has a tendency to crack in thick applications. In fact, it often cracks when you allow it to dry on the palette.

I prefer to use the Titanium White from Golden’s line of QoR watercolors. They use Aquazol© as the binder instead of gum arabic. Golden’s QoR website promotes it as having “a much greater resistance to flaking or cracking even with heavy applications.” 

In a more in depth article from Golden, they discuss the results of accelerated aging tests and found that it remained flexible. 

“In controlled accelerated aging studies testing against traditional binders, Aquazol© remained attached and flexible where the exposed samples of traditional watercolors all became brittle and cleaved from the test supports.”

The Science Behind QoR” from Just Paint 8/2014

Famous Watercolor Artists Who Use White Paint

Artists often look to the masters of the medium for insights about techniques and materials. In this section, I include examples of watercolor paintings that contain white paint by famous artists. 

John Singer Sargent 

When the topic of using white in watercolor paintings comes up in a conversation, someone invariably mentions that John Singer Sargent used white in his paintings. 

Sargent is considered to be a great painter so I think people look to him to validate the use of white in watercolor. 

You don’t have to look far to find examples of his paintings that use white or opaque colors. Below are a few of my favorites.

A John Singer Sargent painting that uses white brushstrokes to create reflected light.
White Ships
John Singer Sargent
Translucent and touches of opaque watercolor and wax resist with graphite underdrawing
Image Courtesy of the Brooklyn Museum.

In “White Ships” you can see white brush strokes on the hulls of the ships which indicate reflected light from the water. The painting also includes opaque watercolor–the anchor is an opaque beige color which is painted over the previous layers of color.

The other two Sargent watercolors are painted in a similar manner. He uses white to paint over darker areas and to indicate highlights and reflected light.

In a Levantine Port
John Singer Sargent
Translucent watercolor and touches of opaque watercolor
Image Courtesy of the Brooklyn Museum.
The Bridge of Sighs
John Singer Sargent
Translucent watercolor and opaque watercolor
Image Courtesy of the Brooklyn Museum.

Winslow Homer

Homer is a famous American painter who’s known for his paintings of boats and seascapes. 

Many of his watercolor paintings include the use of white. He even combines gouache and watercolor in the same painting.

A Winslow Homer painting that uses both watercolor and gouache.
Boys in a Dory
Winslow Homer
Watercolor washes and gouache over graphite underdrawing on medium rough textured white wove paper
Image Courtesy of The Metropolitan Museum of Art


Whether or not to use white in watercolor painting is an interesting debate but the choice is up to you.

There are two different perspectives regarding the use of white in watercolor painting. Both are valid and I don’t see either viewpoint as being “wrong.” 

You can combine watercolor and gouache in the same painting, or limit your palette to transparent colors.

Personally, some of my watercolor paintings contain white, while others only contain transparent pigments. I make the decision based upon the subject matter and the mood that I’m trying to capture in a painting.

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