Friday, August 12, 2011

Cremnitz White and Freud

In later years two significant features of Lucian Freud's paintings were the colour of flesh and the texture of the paint in the finished portrait.

Freud used Cremnitz White to achieve both of these characteristics of his paintings of portraits and nudes.
In the mid-1970s, he began using the heavy, granular pigment called cremnitz white, which he has since then reserved for the painting of flesh.
Tate - Lucian Freud - Technique
I'd never heard of Cremnitz White before I read about this aspect of his technique - so decided to do some research - hence this post.
In Lucian Freud's pictures, the human skin has almost infinite nuances, from delicate opalescent pink to blood red and the full range of cream, oncre and bistre tones.  The discrimnatory power of the painter's eye enables him to go further than what we could ourselves.  The nakedness of the bodies is intensified by this, while the roughness, overloading and impasto of the paint itself imbues the skin with an almost tactile reality: skin as fragile and sensitive as an exposed mucous membrane
Lucian Freud: The Studio
What is Cremnitz White?

Cremnitz White is made of lead carbonate (PbCO3) and is another name for for a particular type of Lead White - much loved of the old masters.  Lead white is a warm yellowish white.

It's called Cremnitz White because originally it was made in a town in a town called Cremnitz (by the Hapsburgs) which was formerly known as Kormeriz.

Cremnitz White is a particular version of pure Lead White which gives it a stringy consistency.

It comprises lead carbonate (white lead) and does not include the Zinc Oxide (as Flake White does) which helps it to dry quickly.

Its actual performance and drying time depends on the oil it is mixed with - as explained below in relation to the three different variations of Cremnitz White supplied by Michael Harding.  Click the relevant links to get a lot more information.

Who supplies Cremnitz White?

Art materials manufacturers who supply Cremnitz White include:
Presumably a somewhat historical image
on the Michael Harding website
given current EU requirements
re supply?
It looks so much nicer in the tubes though!
  • Michael Harding - who has three Cremnitz Whites.  My understanding is that Freud used Michael Harding oil paints (but please correct me if you know better)
Pure Lead Carbonate in a binder which makes a heavy, tactile white with a very robust surface. The ideal white for furrowed, granular or impasto mark-making.
The toxicity of Cremnitz / Lead White

Lead is very toxic and hence precautions have to be taken over its use.  It's impossible to buy the dry pigment. The European Union has passed a directive controlling lead paint use - mainly affecting the way it can be handled and sold when used as artists materials and methods for its disposal.

Official sites (UK)
Art Materials Suppliers
In 1992, lead was banned in the EU in household paints whilst artists' materials manufacturers successfully gained an exemption for artists' colours.  The EU has continued to legislate against lead, in a number of categories.  From the 31st July 1995 in the UK, lead compounds and products containing lead compounds were reclassified as ‘toxic for reproduction'.For the UK this has the following implications:

i] Products labelled as toxic require child resistant closures if sold to the general public.
ii] Products labelled as toxic require tactile warnings of danger if sold to the general public.
I quote below the precedence taken by Winsor & Newton in early July 1995.The mandatory guidelines affect the retailer/supplier as follows:
  • Flake White, Foundation White and Cremnitz White can no longer be supplied in tubes.
  • These products are available in 150ml childproof tins.
  • Each tin is labelled with mandatory warnings and a further special instructions leaflet is provided in the outer box.
  • These products will not be displayed on open shelves.  They will either be behind the counter or in a locked display.



  1. Hmmm. Very interesting. I wonder if the difference between the results of the toxic pigment and a non-toxic pigment were sufficient to make it worth the risk. Plan to discuss this with paint manufacturer friend - just out of interest.

  2. Do you know how Freud died? Did it have anything to do with the Cremitz white toxicity? I think he also smoked while working and didn't wear gloves -gives one pause!

  3. Sharon - if anything his working practices rather go to support that there has to be an exception to every rule.

    He died age 88 having painted virtually every day - for two sessions a day (morning and evening) for DECADES.

    So at a rough guess he spent the equivalent of normal working hours using a toxic paint - and smoking.

    I think I read somewhere that his death was due to respiratory arrest (he stopped breathing) - but as you may be aware that's associated with a number of conditions - one of which is "old age".

  4. Amazing! Thanks for taking the time to respond. I wonder how he could afford to pay his models at the beginning of his career before he made the big time??? I guess that is the reason for the heavy reliance on friends and family :)

  5. No - the friends and family thing is to do with the psychology of the man. He tended to only like painting people he likes and knows very well.

    Those that sit get interviewed before sitting!

  6. Very interesting article - best I could find about the topic of current lead whites.

    In Amsterdam at least I found the brand of Old-Holland to sell Cremitz White and Flake White No.1 in small tubes (40ML). I bought lots of them, and will try them over the next months. The Flake white works well so far, but I can't really say that I feel anything superior to Flake White Hue (from Windsor) that served me very well so far.

    Harding does not sell tubes at all anymore. Only the cartridges.

    Oh and on Freud: In the little video of his last painting session I see only Windsor colors - no Harding.

  7. @Thomas That page link to Michael Harding which I reference in the post seems to have been updated since I wrote this post

    It's still the best reference I know on the current state of play on Cremnitz White

  8. Now that's interesting: so Cremnitz refers to Kroměříž / Kromeriz? That is a very pretty little renaissance town in what is now the eastern part of the Czech Republic. I think a Titian (?) painting used to, or maybe still does hang in the local castle. The flaying of Marysas or something like that it is called.

  9. Apparently the exemption for artist’s materials with lead was due to the lobbying of Freud himself! He had an acquaintance in the House of Lords who achieved the exemption through legislation.


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