There's no such thing as just plain white. In fact, the Eskimos have over 300 words for it. And while we don't go quite that far, there are many variations in what is commonly known as white. There are times when the whiteness of a white doesn't matter. But the purity of a white often does matter, particularly in the world of design. Consider, for example, the harmonious appearance of pure white bone china on a beautiful white linen tablecloth. If either were less than white, the effect would be lost. One pure white demands another.
One important point here is that we're not talking about the tinted “whites" you find in a color card or fandeck, such as Dunn-Edwards' Pearl White (DEW328), Cottage White (DEW318) or Swiss Coffee (DEW341). Colors of this type are often referred to as “off-whites." In this article, we're addressing paints that are labeled and sold as plain old, ordinary, straight-up white.
You might wonder what makes one white different from another. Isn't white white? Well, yes and no. There are several raw materials that contribute to the color of finished white paint. In many cases, the quality of the raw materials affects the brightness of a white. Premium-quality materials produce the brightest white; cheaper grades, a more gray-brown tone. In addition, the formula or “recipe" for the product has a big influence on the paint produced. Some whites even contain a small amount of colorant as an intentional part of the formula, despite the “white" label. This practice, called “toning," always results in a dulling or graying of the paint.
If toning produces a duller white, why in the world would any manufacturer do it? Well, there's a very practical answer for that: profit. Toning enables a manufacturer to save money on raw materials, without sacrificing hiding power. White pigment is expensive. So many manufacturers choose to substitute a little of the in expensive black pigment, which has very high hiding ability, even at low levels. The result is a less expensive white paint with high hiding ability. The downside? The paint produced has a dull, lackluster color. If not compared to a vibrant white, the toned paint looks generally white. But compared side by side with a pure white, the difference is striking. Look at the following picture of two paints on the market, both of them labeled “White".
The average consumer might not be educated on the subtle differences in whites. But for a design professional dealing with architects who spec a certain Light Reflectance Value (LRV), the differences take on great significance. In the picture above, the LRV of the pure white paint on the right is 93. The toned one on the left is only 81. If a paint with LRV “above 85" is specified, a toned white is just not going to give a satisfactory result.
So if sharp contrast is required when styling with white, remember that combinations will pop as they should only with a pure white, because the purity of paint materials ultimately reflects on you.