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Heraldic Dictionary: 1. Tinctures

Last modified: 2013-12-09 by rob raeside
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HERALDRY I: Tinctures

I'll start this series with the TINCTURES (that is, colours) used in heraldry.

Tinctures are divided into three kinds - COLOURS, METALS and FURS.

In general practice, there are relatively few colours, and only eight are usually seen. Even then, some of these are rare. The nine colours are:1

Color Color Name R-G-B Value
  Azure (Blue) 0-0-255
  Bleu Celeste (Sky blue) 150-200-250
  Gules (Red) 255-0-0
  Murrey (Mulberry) 140-0-75
  Purpure (Purple) 170-0-170
  Sable (Black) 0-0-0
  Sanguine (Blood red) 190-0-0
  Tenne (Tawny orange 250-150-50
  Vert (Green) 0-150-0

Note that there are no separate terms for light and dark blue. Tenne, Murrey and Sanguine are 'stains' that are used in British Heraldry and as they are not 'colours' are not subject to the 'colour rule'. [Stains (in British heraldry, anyway) are considered to have the same properties as the colours and are, when used, treated as such.] Bleu Celeste is also used extensively these days especially in conjunction with arms and flags associated with Aviation.

The two metals are:1

Color Metal Name R-G-B Value
Or (Gold) 255-220-10
  Argent (Silver) 240-240-240

The furs, of which there are several forms are very rarely found in vexillology. Suffice to say that the commonest, silver fur with black "tails" is called ERMINE.

  • ERMINE
    [ermine]

This can be seen in the canton of the flag of Breizh/Brittany (the arms of Brittany are a Shield Ermine) and as the background to the bows on the personal standard of H.M. the late Queen Mother. There are also a plethora of different variations of the Vair and Vairy furs which can (as you have partially done) be added as an addendum. Vair of Four is termed 'Vairy' and is not restricted to those four tinctures mentioned above  and can also include furs. The term 'Vairy' can consist of any number of tinctures above two.

In addition to this, objects may be coloured naturally. The bear on the flag of California, and the tree on the flag of Lebanon are examples of this. These are said to be PROPER (that is, in their proper colours).

  • PROPER

By tradition - a tradition not always kept in the designing of flags - some tinctures may not be used together.

A colour may not be placed on another colour, and nor metal on metal.

There are many examples, especially in Continental European heraldry, where these basic tenets are not observed - there are also some [but not many] in British heraldry as well.

All tinctures can be placed against any other tincture - the only guidance there is that they do not merge when viewed from a distance. Whilst it is permissible to have a shield parted of the two metals, it is not considered 'kosher' as the tinctures do not retain their distinctive colour signature when viewed from a distance. Also, a field divided of Argent and Ermine (or Erminois and Or) would also not be a wise choice, although it doesn't break the rule.

Thus a blue star could be placed on a gold or ermine background, but not on a red one. A gold star could be placed on a green or ermine background, but not on silver. An ermine star (a rare sight) could be placed against colour or metal, except when arms are constructed by QUARTERING - placing several sets of arms together side-by-side (e.g., Maryland), or by INESCUTCHEON - the placing of a small set of arms in the centre of the main design (e.g., Slovakia). Here, each section is regarded as entire, and the rules of tincture do not apply at the borders between the different shields. Thus in the British Royal Standard, the red background behind the lions and the blue behind the harp can meet without problem. Similarly, the white and yellow of the flag of Maryland can exist alongside each other, since they are in different quarters of the flag.

Editor's Note: This page was originally the result of information sent to FOTW by James Dignan. Until November, 2003, it has was hosted at Željko Heimer's Flags and Arms of the Modern Era webpage. The work is incomplete, but presented as a very basic primer for heraldry. Additional information and corrections by Geoff Kingman-Sugars are in italics, dated 2 January 2004 and 18 April 2006.

1 Information adapted to R-G-B format by International Association of Amateur Heralds, submitted by Geoff Kingman-Sugars, 31 December 2003 and as amended by Mike Oettle, 15 April 2006


Uncommon Heraldic Colours

Editor's note: The following information is from an FOTW discussion on 6 January 2006.

  • brunâtre / brown
  • terry / earth color
  • acqua / water color
  • carnation / flesh color
  • cendrée / ashen grey

list provided by António Martins-Tuválkin, 6 January 2006


None of these are very common, if to be found at all, in the heraldry of English-speaking countries, but brunâtre, carnation, and cendrée are translated as brown, [Caucasian] flesh color, and ashen gray respectively. I've never run across acqua or terry in a blazon.

Or can be and often is represented as anything from bright lemon yellow to darkish metallic gold. Argent can be metallic silver to light gray to white and is quite often shown as white in printed renditions.

When arms are painted by hand rather than printed, argent areas are usually shown as white because silver leaf and metallic silver paints tarnish rapidly and become sable; that may be why flags derived from arms rarely use silver-gray--the arms on which they were based were seldom rendered in actual silver. (Nowadays there are aluminum based paints that can produce a durable silver color, but they don't seem to be widely used, presumably for reasons of tradition.)
Joe McMillan, 6 January 2006


Fox-Davies lists and agrees with your description of brunâtre, cendrée and carnation, though he adds that they aren't encountered in English heraldry. He mentions "water colour", "earth colour" and "iron-grey" as being common in German heraldry but gives no English equivalent term (again, they're rarely if ever met in English heraldry). He also mentions "amaranth or columbine", but gives no description of what this colour is like (my guess would be a reddish purple).
James Dignan, 6 January 2006