The Key to Painting the Illusion of White

by Paint Tube 3 Minutes

The Key to Painting the Illusion of White

By Lori McNee 

Painting the illusion of white, such as in snow, clouds, animals, or still life objects, can be trickier than one might think. Often, a beginning painter will simply reach for the tube of white paint and call it good, but later wonders why the painting looks dull, flat, and lifeless. 

The reason is this: Although white makes a color lighter, it also removes its vibrancy and brightness.

To illustrate just how much color really goes into painting the illusion of white, let’s look at my still life painting Harey Situation (48 x 36 in., oil on canvas). 


( ©2019 LoriMcNee, “Harey Situation” 48x36 oil on canvas)


At first glance, this painting looks like I used a lot of white straight out of the tube to create the white tablecloth, the white snowy owl, the white snowshoe hares, and even the white snowflakes. 

But look again! I put a white piece of paper next to my still life painting to help you compare the whites. Note the pure white paper compared to the white in the painting. Can you see how much color really goes into painting the illusion of white?



I wanted this painting to feel mysterious and magical. I started with a Fredrix acrylic-primed canvas and applied very thick gesso for texture. I allowed it to dry and then applied two thin coats of gray gesso — I like painting snow scenes on a mid-tone gray ground. The mid-tone gray backdrop helped me build up my value scale.



To mix the whites, I used a variety of mixtures while keeping my cool light/warm shadow still life painting formula in mind. Primarily, I started with titanium white and added either Naples yellow or a touch of cadmium orange in the highlighted areas. Sometimes I added a bit of cobalt blue if I needed to cool the highlights even more.

To create the illusion of white in shadow, I used titanium white with various white mixtures, including a touch of ultramarine blue and transparent oxide red or raw umber. If needed, a thin glaze of cadmium red light is my secret weapon to warm up the shadows and keep them transparent. 



I used the same white formulas to create the feathers and fur. Check out this little Instagram video here. 



Without getting too technical and boring, here are a few basics to help you better understand white. There are two different categories of white: light-generated white and pigment white.


Light-Generated White

White = the sum of all the colors of light. White objects appear white because they reflect all colors. Black objects absorb all colors so no light is reflected. Therefore, white light is actually made up of all the colors of the rainbow! White reflects all the colors of the visible light spectrum to the eyes. 

But to our eyes, light appears colorless or white. Sunlight is white light that is composed of all the colors of the spectrum. The rainbow is proof!


Pigment White

This is the most important white to the artist.

Technically, pure white pigment is the absence of color. You cannot mix colors to create white. When you examine the pigment chemistry of white, you will find ground-up chalk and bone, or chemicals such as titanium and zinc. These substances are used to create the many nuances of white in paint, chalk, crayons — and even beauty products. It can be said that white is actually a color in the context of pigment chemistry.

Here is the key to painting the illusion of white: in order to paint convincing whites, we must be able to paint the subtle color shifts and value changes. Your white subject matter will reflect the colors of the objects that surround it! Therefore, the truth is this — convincing whites are actually quite colorful! 

Try using my formulas to mix up the illusion of white in your next still life or landscape painting! 


(©2018 LoriMcNee, “Golden Moment” 24x36 oil on canvas) 


***Lori McNee (Luminous Landscape Painting) is an American artist who specializes in landscape, still life, and plein air oil paintings. Inspired by nature, Lori’s paintings reflect her love of the great outdoors and respect for its creatures. When not in her studio painting or blogging, Lori enjoys skiing or trekking mountaintops, photographing nature, and teaching painting workshops around the world. Learn more about Lori and upcoming workshops at or