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Heraldic contrast

Tra­di­tional Euro­pean her­aldry (coats of arms) has a lot of rules regard­ing how designs can be con­structed. One of the fun­da­men­tal rules is this: no metal on metal or color on color. There are two met­als: gold (rep­re­sented as yel­low) and sil­ver (rep­re­sented as white). All the other hues that can be used are “col­ors.” The rule is that col­ors can’t be placed next to other col­ors, only met­als. Met­als can’t be placed next to other met­als, only colors.

This may seem like an anti­quated piece of trivia, use­ful only to those who are des­per­ate to be the fifth cousin twice removed of the Duke of Corn­wall or some­such, until you look at street signs. In the U.S. (and those parts of Europe and Canada I’ve vis­ited) almost all street signs fol­low the heraldic metal on color and color on metal rule. A U.S. stop sign is a metal (white/argent) on a color (red/gules). High­way direc­tion signs also (white/argent on green/vert). Speed limit signs? Black/sable on white/argent. Those few signs that don’t fol­low the heraldic con­ven­tion, such as con­struc­tion signs with black text on an orange field, are much less notice­able than the vast major­ity that do.

What’s going on here? Her­aldry was orig­i­nally designed so that painted shields and ban­ners would be clearly vis­i­ble at a great dis­tance on the bat­tle­field. For that to hap­pen, you need to have a lot of con­trast. As it turns out, with the pig­ments they had avail­able, white and yel­low had the best con­trast against the other pig­ments. Thus the avoid­ance of color con­trasted against color or metal con­trasted against metal. Even with mod­ern pig­ments and spe­cial reflec­tive sur­face treat­ments, the rule pretty much holds up, so sign design­ers fol­low it even if they don’t know where it came from. Next time you’re on the road, try to find signs that break this rule. If you do find one, note that the con­trast is poor com­pared to signs that fol­low the rule. Same with signs on buildings.

This rule can be use­ful when you are design­ing a color scheme and want to high­light a focal area of a paint­ing. If you fol­low this old heraldic rule, you will have all the con­trast you could need.

Posted in art history, art technique, color.

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3 Responses

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  1. Jeff Hayes says

    What a cool bit of Arcana! :)

  2. Gregg from Houston says

    Great advice, Its not some­thing I really noticed before. All of those signs just “kind of work”, now I know why.

  3. Jeane Nevarez says

    Wow, that was fas­ci­nat­ing infor­ma­tion. Thanks for shar­ing it. I feel enlight­ened today!

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