What you can learn about color composition from old coat of arms

On of the roles of the composition of an image is to depict the most important elements of the picture in a clear, recognizable manner. For color pictures, not only the placement of the elements is playing a central role, but the color composition as well.

An obvious method is to separate diffrent elements or layers within the image like foreground and background by different color saturations of a difference in lightness.

There are many approaches for setting up a color composition. To acquire some helpful rules of thumb, it can be useful to look at some of the oldest works of visual design in history: Coat of arms and flags.

The role of color compositions in heraldry

Heraldry is concerned with the design of the coat of arms for a city or a noble family. A stately coat of arms not only was meant to represent the status of the owner. Insignia needed to be clearly recognizable in battle as well.

Different designs on banners and standards not being sufficiently distinguishable from each other could have very unpleasent consequences during combat. A mix-up could lead to attacking allied troops by accident or finding yourself among enemy knights. Both are situations that commanders understandably wanted to avoid.

Due to this, artists needed to solve very practical problems concerning visiblity and recognizability when designing coats of arms. While handling this task, rules have been established in heraldry that were applied to most designs.

Beerdigung von Elizabeth I.
Quelle: Wikimedia Commons

Color rules for coats of arms


The colors used for coats of arms were called tinctures. Traditionally, tinctures are separated into colors and metals.

Colors include blue, red, purple, black and green. Metals refer to gold and silver. On some flags, metals are literally reproduced using i.e. leaf gold. However, for practical reasons gold and silver are often represented using the colors yellow and white, respectively.

One of the rules of heraldry states, that on a coat of arms, metal can’t border on metal and colors can’t border on colors. Especially metallic colors are difficult to distinguish from each other over great distances. A similar effect is occuring for saturated colors like blue, purple and red. By making sure to separate colored areas from each other by using metal areas the contrast of the motif is increased and with it it’s visibilty.

Examples for color palettes in coats of arms

Wappen der Stadt Leipzig

This is the coat of arms of the city of Hamburg, followed by the coat of arms of the city of Leipzig.

Despite the motif of the coat of arms of the city of Hamburg being relatively complex, the color composition is pretty simple. It is made up from the metal silver and the color red, simply creating a strong contrast.

The color design of the coat of arms of the city of Leipzig is more elaborate. The base color is provided by the metal gold. On each half are blue and black color areas, respectively. Neither the blue stripes nor the black lion are touching each other, however. Instead, they are seperated by the metal.

You can also see that these rules are not unbreakable laws, but rather rules of thumb. Strictly speaking, the red claws of the lion shouldn’t touch the black color areas. Similarily, the black outlines of the castle shouldn’t neighbour the red areas. Especially with details like these the rules are bent a little.

Most european coats of arms adhere to these rules, especially when they were created in medival times.

Color compositions in logos

The concepts used when designing coats of arms can be applied in the same or a similar manner in other areas as well.

Logos share a lot of aspects with coats of arms since they server similar purposes. Here, too, it’s important for distinct elements to be clearly and quickly recognizable.

This often results in similar color combinations comparable to flags and coats of arms. Areas using saturated colors are separated from each other with white areas here as well.

The rules that have proven themselves as useful centuries ago when designing symbols for noble families are applied here as well, whether this is happening intentionally or unintentionally.

Color composition in movie scenes

Movie scenes are considerably more complex than coats of arms or logos in terms of content and color composition. However, even in these cases similar problems need to be solved. How is it possible to direct the eye of the audience, how can important objects in the picture be emphasized?

Source: film-grab.com, A Wrinkle in Time

This scene from “A Wrinkle in Time” is already set up as rather minimalistic and graphic. The reddish skin tone of Chris Pine could blend into the orange-reddish background.

A brighter, yellow area right behind him already helps to set up a contrast. The effect is reinforced due to the dark hair and dark clothing framing his face and making it stand out even more.

Source: film-grab.com, The Ballad of Buster Scruggs

This scene from “The Ballad of Buster Scruggs” is a lot more detailed. However, here as well color areas are used to focus on distinct elements.

The skin tone of the lead actor would probably be difficult to distinguish from the wall behind him which is using a reddish color as well. That is, if it weren’t framed by the white hat, separating it from the surrounding similiar color hues.

In a comparable way, the arm in the foreground, clouded in dark shadows is emphasized by the bright window in its background.

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