What’s Good Contrast?

The Heretical Herald Volume 1 Issue 1 February 11, AS XXXVIII being 2004 AD

What’s Good Contrast?

ood Contrast is a term used in SCA Heraldry for ensuring that a heraldic design is recognisable at a distance and distinct from others. At its most basic it refers to what is commonly known as the “Rule of Tincture“. Simply stated it says “You may not place a colour on a colour or a metal on a metal.” Simply stated this way it might seem very arbitrary and not make much sense. But there is reason behind it, just as there is reason behind what might even seem more arbitrary, the limited palette the heraldic designer is restricted to.

Traditional Medieval Heraldry restricts itself to 7 basic tinctures plus 2 stains. Other colours come up rarely and even then more in post Medieval Heraldry. The 2 stains are very rare and we won’t be getting into the discussion on their exclusion in this article, they are called “tenné” and “sanguine”. (“tenné” is a colour orange or a tan brown. “sanguine” is a colour deep blood red, sometimes a colour somewhat between purpure and gules.)

The 7 basic tinctures are divided into 2 metals and 5 colours. The 2 metals are gold and silver, the 5 colours being red, blue, green, purple, and black. Normally here the furs would be mentioned. I will get to them later. Gold and silver are more often on paper represented using yellow for gold and white for silver. The proper heraldic terms for the colours are:

Black – sable; red – gules; green – vert; blue – azure; purple – purpure; Gold – Or; and silver – argent.

The furs are also considered tinctures, but for the purpose of contrast essentially they are considered as if they were made of the basic 7 tinctures. Ermine is the fur that is white with black spots. This once represented the white winter coat of the ermine with the black tip of the tail showing. For the purpose of Contrast or the “Rule of Tincture” you would consider ermine to be the colour of the background, which would be considered as argent, a metal. Counter ermine, which is a black background with white spots, would be considered as sable, a colour. Vair and the other furs of similar nature consist of equal parts of a metal and a colour and are considered to be a neutral tincture which is a third category after the metals and the colours.

The colours of this palette are restricted in a sense further in that not all blues are really acceptable. A herald should not use a very dark blue or a very light blue, not a very grey blue nor a very bright blue. The blue should be fairly middle of the road and very obviously blue and not to be mistaken for purple, green, black or off white. The same goes for the other colours. While Or can be either yellow or gold, the yellow should not be orangey and the gold should be metallic gold. On the other hand, argent is rarely illustrated with metallic silver because in period silver and silver inks tended to tarnish very quickly and no longer be metallic silver so most often argent was always white. Argent should never be grey. (It is heraldic convention that only the first letter in a blazon is capitalized unless it is a proper name or the tincture “Or”. All the other tinctures are not capitalized.)

The “Rule of Tincture” if followed ensures that heraldic designs have good contrast. All of the “colours” will show up well on all of the “metals” and all of the “metals” will show up well on all of the “colours”. If you place a metal on a metal, they will at any distance appear indistinct and it will begin to be difficult to tell a lion from a bear from a deer. Possibly some combinations of colours on colours if given just the right shade might be okay, but the “Rule of Tincture” takes the guesswork out of it.

There are what are called items of “neutral tincture”. The fur “vair” has already been mentioned. Vair consists of a pattern of azure and argent bell shaped swatches in equal amounts. This makes anything in a heraldic design with the tincture of vair to be neither metal nor colour. It is considered neutral. What this means is that you may place either a colour or a metal on it with some restrictions. What you place on it may not include a tincture that is included in the neutral tincture. In the example of vair, since vair is made up of azure and argent you may not place a charge on a vair background that is azure or argent. Another restriction is with very delicate or complicated charges. If a charge would disappear on a neutral field like a needle in a haystack then it likely won’t pass. Also if the details which make a charge distinctive become confusing or indistinct on a neutral field then it is likely it won’t pass. After all a leopard in a tree can be hard to see.

There are actually some other colours you will rarely come across. Often they come under the broad category “proper”. “Proper” stands for the object in its natural colour. For a zebra it is black and white striping, for a hare it is brown, for a tree it is green leaves and a brown trunk, for a rose it is red petals, yellow seeds, and green barbs. You would have to look into the SCA Glossary or Heraldic Terms to determine if there is a “proper” tincture for an item, or look for it in the heraldic precedents of the past Laurel Heralds. One of the more common proper tinctures is “brown” a common colour found in nature. Note that it is most common in medieval period heraldry to use the standard 7 heraldic tinctures rather than realistic colours. Lions are as often blue as any natural colour.

ven things which are tinctured proper are defined as to whether they are metal, colour or neutral tincture. A zebra proper being an even mix of white and black is considered a neutral tincture. A natural dolphin proper is considered to be grey and that is considered to be a metal. A heraldic dolphin is considered to be green with red fins and so is considered to be a colour. A hare proper is brown and brown is considered a colour. The rule of thumb is that if the item is light in colour it is considered a metal and if dark it is considered a metal. Items of leather or wood when tinctured proper are considered to be brown and thus colour. Human skin when Caucasian is considered to be light and so a metal. A mermaid proper is considered to have Caucasian skin, a green fish’s tail, and gold hair and is considered to be half metal and half colour and thus neutral in tincture. Of course since the hair has both argent and Or you’d still have to place it on a colour background and the colour could not be vert.

One bit of complication comes with regards to divisions of the field and ordinaries. It is perfectly okay to divide a shield in half and have each half in a different tincture regardless of metal or colour. The division is large enough and bold enough to handle it. It is also acceptable to use the two field divisions that divide the field into 4 sections and not worry about metal and colour. So dividing per saltire or per cross (or quarterly) it is okay to use two metals or two colours) But if you divide the field into three one needs to be different, either two metals and a colour; or two colours and a metal. If you divide the field into more sections then they must alternate colour and metal as in dividing the field in gyronny or checky or barry or with other repeated backgrounds.

What might seem contradictory are the charges called ordinaries, in particular the “chief” “fess” “pale” and “base”. Perhaps the other ordinaries, but less so and I won’t go into them in this article. A shield with a chief on it looks like it has had the field divided into two, almost like the division “per fess”. It makes you think you could have a coloured chief with a coloured field or a metal chief on a metal field. But the chief is a charge an on the field just as if it were a lion on the field. The same goes for the fess, pale and base. They look like simple divisions of the field but are considered to be charge placed on the field.

The rules for good contrast or the Rule of Tincture is there to ensure good contrast. A red horse on a purple background not only would make your eyes hurt, would be hard to figure out what it was at any distance. A gold star on a white background would give problems as well. But any of the colours on any of the metals, or any of the metals on any of the colours would give good contrast and be identifiable. Any intelligently used neutral tincture should be identifiable as well.

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3 thoughts on “What’s Good Contrast?

  1. Pingback: But I Really Wanted Sanguine! | The Heretical Herald

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