Tinctures

Last revised April 1997

The Basic Tinctures

Colors are called Tinctures in heraldry (émaux, or enamels, in French). Traditionally, in French and Anglo-Norman heraldry, they are subdivided into metals, colors and furs. The following table gives the names in the various languages. It also displays the traditional hatching method for indicating colors in black-and-white illustrations. This method is usually attributed to the Jesuit S. da Pietra Santa (1638) although it was in use earlier. Its widespread adoption did not come until the early 18th c., but its use is now universal.

English French German Dutch
Metals Métaux Metalle Metalen
Or Or Gold Goud yellow
Argent Argent Silber Zilver white
Colors Couleurs Farben Kleuren
Gules gueules Rot Keel (rood) red
Azure azur Blau Azuur (blauw) blue
Sable sable Schwarz Sabel (zwart) black
Vert sinople Grün Sinopel (groen) green
Purpure pourpre Purpur Purper purple
Furs Fourrrures Pelzwerk Pelswerk
Ermine hermine Hermelin Hermelijn
Vair vair (Eisenhut)feh Vair

Note that the colors shown here are merely indicative. Since the concept of primary colors appears in the 18th century at the earliest, no one could precisely define colors until then. The actual shades of color used can range widely, depending on tastes and circumstances. Thus, the choice of a particular shade is a matter of aesthetics.

The component colors of the furs can be changed to produce other furs, such as ermines (contre-hermine in French, Gegenhermelin in German), erminois and pean (which are read as ... herminé de ... in French). Likewise, a pattern similar to vair but with different colors will be read as vairy of ... and ... (vairé de ... et de ... in French, Eisenhutbuntfeh in German).

Other Tinctures

Those tinctures are pretty much well established. Anglo-Norman heraldry uses the term proper to mean that a charge is represented with its usual, or natural, or expected colors; in French, the charge would be said to be au naturel.

Beyond that, some tinctures are occasionally found, such as sanguine (between red and purple, also called murrey) and tenny (orange, also called orangé). Whether those two are really tinctures is a matter of dispute. Clayhills, of Innergowrie, Scotland, bears: Per bend sanguine and vert, two greyhounds courent bendways argent (the only known use of the tincture in the Lyon Register of Scottish arms). Tickell in England bears: Argent a maunch tenné. But examples remain rare, and these two tinctures are mainly mentioned in connection with the rather dubious concept of abatements (see A.C. Fox-Davies' Complete Guide to Heraldry, p.72). Woodward cites the Prussian counts of Bose: Azure a Latin cross patée alésée tenny. Bose in Saxony (counts in 1715) bear this coat in one of their quarters (Rietstap).

French blazon uses the term carnation for flesh tones, and also refers to the tincture orange. German arms sometimes use Braun and Eisen (brown and grey respectively), although Eisen seems to be restricted to helmets and other metal objects, and could therefore be seen as a form of "proper".

Fur proper, treated as a tincture, appears in a few German coats: Neuburg in Austria (per fess gules and fur proper), Schwemke in Westphalia (per fess or a lion passant guardant gules and fur proper), Jarsdorff in Franconia (quarterly fur proper in the form of scales and gules), Storck von Plankenberg in Styria (Fur proper a pale gules).

Exotic Colors

Very rare colors which occasionally appear are (from Woodward's Treatise):

  • amaranth or columbine: field in a coat granted to a Bohemian knight in 1701,
  • bleu céleste or sky-blue: Cinti or Cini in Florence bears per pale azure and bleu-celeste an estoile counterchanged, although other sources give the second tincture as or,
  • cendré or ash-colored: found in several German coats, for example the barons Aschau in Austria, over all an inescutcheon cendré with a mound of three hillocks or (note the canting arms),
  • brunâtre or brown: found in a Silesian coat.

For further discussion of etymology, meaning and examples, see the tinctures:

  • Gules
  • Purpure
  • Vert
  • Sable
  • Azure
  • Or
  • Argent
  • Ermine
  • Vair
  • The Tincture Rule

    Textbooks never fail to spell out the "Tincture Rule", namely that metal should not be placed on metal, nor color on color. The rule is meant to apply to blatant cases, such as: azure a lion gules. The rule is far from absolute, however, and there are many counter-examples in all sorts of countries (in fact, the following families bear Azure a lion gules according to Rietstap: Avila in Castile, Bemdorf in Saxony, Betti in Florence, Christol in Toulouse, Molnet in Lorraine and Strodl in Erlangen).

    The rule of tincture considers furs to be "amphibious", and they can go on metal or color. Fur on fur occurs: Fox-Davies cites the coat of Richardson: sable two hawks belled or, on a chief indented ermine a pale ermines and three lions heads counterchanged. A more spectacular example, however, is offered by the arms of the city (or the advocate) of Bregenz in the 15th c. Wappenrolle von Zurich: vair a pale ermine (both furs are depicted proper). You can see the picture for yourself (it's Strip II front page 1, number 32: 2d row, 1st coat of the first picture).


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    François Velde

    Jun 04, 2004