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Tincture (heraldry)

Tinctures are the colours used to blazon coats of arms in heraldry.

Table of contents
1 Basic tinctures
2 The rule of tincture
3 Furs
4 Proper
5 Blazon
6 Counterchanging

Basic tinctures

There are seven tinctures, consisting of two metals (light tinctures) and five colours (dark tinctures).

TinctureHeraldic name
Gold/Yellow Or *
Silver/White Argent
Blue Azure
Red Gules
Purple Purpure
Black Sable
Green Vert

* "Or" is usually spelled with a capital letter (Gules, a fess Or) so as not to confuse it with the conjunction "or.")

Sometimes the word "gold" is used for "or" in blazon to prevent repetition of the word "or."

Arthur Charles Fox-Davies has argued that in extremely rare circumstances, white can be a different heraldic colour from argent.

The names of the tinctures mainly come to us from French. Azure is from the Arabic lazward meaning lapis lazuli; sable is named for the fur of the sable marten; and gules is from the French gueules, which is thought to refer to animal's red throats.

Although the English term vert is also from French, the French themselves use the word sinople to refer to the tincture.

The patterns illustrated are occasionally used to depict arms in a monochromatic context, such as a "hatching" (sketch) or engraving.

Later tinctures

Later heraldry introduced some more colours. Only two are of more than exceptional use in British heraldry: sanguine (blood-red) and tenné (orange or tan, though in Dutch and South African heraldry orange is regarded as a different colour). These were sometimes called stainand colours, as some rebatements of honour were said to be blazoned of these colours.

Other colours, particularly those used in Europe, include:

These are rare - the seven primary tinctures are the most common ones, and rarer still are other such Continental colours as "Brunatre." Brunatre, can be seen in the brown lion rampant in the arms of Simon Bolivar, and is blazoned "Braun" in German heraldry. In German heraldry there is also the colour "Eisen". (iron). The colour "amaranth" or "columbine" was used "in a coat granted to a Bohemian knight in 1701".[1]

There is some evidence that bleu celeste has been treated as a metal, as azure charges have been placed on a bleu celeste field, and vice versa. In addition to bleu celeste, there is also an apparently unique example in British heraldry of the use of "dark blue" and "light blue," in the arms of the Borough of Barnes, through which the Oxford verus Cambridge boat race passes on the Thames, showing the respective blades of the teams' oars.[1]

The arms of the Jewish Autonomous Region in Russia have a field of aquamarine, which is emblazoned more as a kind of dark green than a true aquamarine colour.

The arms of Hoërskool P. J. Olivier contain the tincture blue-grey.

In 1997 the colours rose and copper appeared in Canada, and the arms of the University of Transkei provide an example of ochre[1].

The rule of tincture

The first rule of heraldry is the rule of tincture: metal must never be placed upon metal, nor colour upon colour, for the sake of contrast.

The main duty of a heraldic device is to be recognized, and the dark colours or light metals are supposed to be too difficult to distinguish if they are placed on top of other dark or light colours.

The rule of tincture does not apply to furs (so furs are sometimes called "amphibious"), nor to charges proper (see below).

Divisions of the field are considered to be beside each other, not one on top of the other; so the rule of tincture does not apply. The rule also does not apply to party-coloured (divided) fields; a field party of a colour and metal may have a charge of either colour or metal placed on it. Likewise, a party-coloured (of colour and metal) charge may be placed on either a colour or metal background. Neither does the rule apply to the tongue, horns, claws, hoofs of beasts (for instance, a lion or on an azure field could be langued [with his tongue] gules) when of a different tincture than the rest of the animal.

This rule is so closely followed that arms that violate it are called armes à enquerre, or arms of enquiry; any violation is presumed to be intentional, to the point that one is supposed to enquire how it came to pass. (For example, such arms are sometimes caused by the addition of honourable augmentations granted by the monarch, which always ignore the rule of tincture.) One of the most famous armes à enquerre was the shield of the Kingdom of Jerusalem, which had gold crosses on white (thus, metal on metal). An example of "colour on colour" is the arms of Albania, with its sable two-headed eagle on a gules field.

On the rare occasions this rule has been violated, the offending charge has perhaps most often been a chief (see Ordinaries and sub-ordinaries), which has led some commentators to question whether the rule should apply to a chief, or even whether a chief should be considered a charge at all, but rather a division of the field. (These violations usually occur in the case of landscape heraldry and augmentations, although French civic heraldry, with its frequent chiefs of France [with either three fleurs-de-lys or on an azure field or azure, seme-de-lys or], often violate this rule when the field is of a colour; the arms of Harvard Law School, with its gules chief on an azure field, is another example.) However, this is a radically minorial view.

In French heraldry the term cousu ("sewn") is sometimes in blazon used to get around what would otherwise be a violation of the rule. In Italian heraldry terms such as per inchiesta are used in the blazons of the extremely rare violations of the rule, to acknowledge their exceptionality, or impropriety.[1]

Marks of cadency (whether bordures, the marks of the English cadency system, or any other mark) (and presumably marks of distinction), can be exceptions to this rule. (An example would be the arms of Anjou: Azure three fleurs-de-lys or and a bordure gules.[1] Also, in Great Britain, cantons added to indicate baronetcy of Ulster (showing a gules hand couped on an argent field) ignore this rule; otherwise they could be displayed by no one with a metal field.

Another violation which is usually not worried about is a green mount on a blue field representing the sky.

Fimbriation, the surrounding of a charge by a thin border, can obviate what would otherwise be a violation of the rule, as in the Union Jack (which, although a flag rather than a shield, was designed using heraldic principles). The rule of tincture has had an influence reaching far beyond heraldry. It has been imposed on flags, or perhaps it should be put, applied to the design of flags, so that the flag of Saxe-Weimar-Eisenach was modified to conform to the rule.[1] The rule of tincture has also influenced World Wide Web design with respect to what color font should be placed on what color background.


Furs, such as ermine, ermines, or vair, are regular variations of the field that represent various types of actual fur. Any charge may be of a fur. (In German heraldry, "fur proper" is sometimes used, but this is rare in the extreme.)

(Although the name "sable" comes from a kind of fur, the colour sable is not considered a heraldic fur.)

Ermine and its variants

Ermine is a field argent, semé (see
variations of the field) of ermine-spots sable. An ermine-spot is a small bell-shaped item, variously depicted, that occasionally figures as a charge in its own right. Ermine represents the white coat of the animal to which tufts of its black tail fur were sewn.

Ermines is the reverse of ermine - a field sable semé of ermine-spots argent.

Erminois is ermine with a field Or instead of argent, and pean is the reverse of erminois.

James Parker says that "erminites" is like ermine except with a red hair on each side of the "spot," but by his own admission this is of doubtful existence.[1]

Other colours may be obtained, but they must be blazoned as, for example, gules, semé of ermine-spots Or.

Vair and its variants

Basic vair is a row of small items shaped like bells with straight edges. The bells on the next row down are placed with their bottoms facing the bottoms of the bells on the row above, and so forth down. The top row has the upright bells being argent, the next row down has them being azure.

The old depictions of vair are similar in appearance to bars of azure and argent divided by alternate straight lines and lines wavy. In the past this would simply be blazoned "vair," but nowadays this is usually (though not always) blazoned vair ancient.

Counter-vair is like vair, except that bells with their bottoms facing have the same tincture. The effect is one of vertical columns of bells of the same colour, alternately upside-down and right side up.

Vairy en pointe can be seen in the arms of Dr. Malcolm Robert Golin.[1]

Vair is thought to originate from the white and blue-grey fur of a type of squirrel being sewn together.

Potent and counter-potent follow the same rules as vair, except using a T-shaped item instead of the vair bell. (The word "potent" means crutch; it is thought to derive from badly-drawn vair.)

Other tinctures may be used, described as vairy, counter-vairy, potenty, or counter-potenty of (say) Or and gules. In extremely rare circumstances there is vairy of four colours, but apparently vairy is always either of two or four colours.


Objects may also be depicted in their natural colours. In this case, they are described as "proper". Sometimes a colour must also then be given (e.g. a white horse proper).

Some consider it bad form to depict too many charges as "proper," especially when those charges create a landscape. This experienced a vogue during the Victorian period, but came to be deprecated as being excessively difficult to draw from blazon, and somewhat contrary to the spirit of heraldry as favouring bold, clear, and unmistakable designs.


The custom in English blazon is to reduce redundancy by only referring to a particular colour once in the blazon.

For example, instead of saying Gules, on a fess Or a rose gules seeded Or, one would say, Gules, on a fess Or a rose of the field, seeded of the second.

Likewise, instead of Vert, a fess Or between two lions passant Or, one would say, Vert, a fess between two lions passant Or.


When a charge is placed across a division line, variation, or ordinary, it may be blazoned counterchanged.

This means that the charge is divided the same way as the field it is placed upon, with the colours reverse.

A shield which is green on the upper half and silver on the lower, charged at the center with a lion whose upper half is silver and lower half green, would be blazoned: Per fess vert and argent, a lion counterchanged.

In Scots heraldry, a charge may be blazoned as counterchanged of different colours from the field; e.g. Per fess gules and azure, a sun in splendour counterchanged Or and of the first. In English heraldry, this would be described as Per fess gules and azure, a sun in splendour per fess Or and of the first.