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June 2006

June 2006: Halves



  • EMG News:
    June 2006: Halves
  • Wombat Droppings:
    After the Sketch
  • Healthy Green Artists:
    Beyond Paper
  • Behind the Art:
    Color Theory, Part 2
  • Myths and Symbols:
    Heraldry, Part 2; Color and Fur


  • When You Don't Quit Your Day Job
  • Dipping into Digital, Part 2: The Process
  • Cleaning Scans and Preparing Print Files


  • Poem: Half


  • Movie: Gubra
  • Movie: Lucky Number Slevin

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  • Heraldry, Part 2; Color and Fur
    Myths and Symbols
    by Marina Bonomi

    So, you have chosen the shield shape that, in your opinion, best fits the character, and there it is: a blank space waiting for you to fill it. Now what?

    A shield’s background, or field, can be filled with tinctures, which are divided into three groups: metals, colors, and furs.


    There are only two: or and argent (gold and silver). In painting and in flags they are represented by the colors yellow and white, respectively.


    Five colors are commonly used: gules (red), azure (blue), vert (green), sable (black) and purpure (purple), the rarest. Other colors, like orange or brown, have historically been present in heraldry but their use has been very limited and they are usually just mentioned as a side note in heraldry books. Only pure colors are used, no pastel shades.


    The ‘furs’ are patterns (not fields of solid colors): ermine represents the winter fur of the animal of the same name, with black points over a white field, vair is a pattern of bell-shaped figures alternated in silver and blue (argent and azure). Ermines (or counter-ermine) has white spots on a black field, while counter-vair has bells of the same colors placed base to base and point to point.

    One main rule is often quoted in reference to use of colors and metals:

    Metal must be placed on color and color on metal, not color on color or metal on metal.

    This was common practice, and helped in identifying coats at a distance, but wasn’t universally followed. In fact there was a whole “class” of coats of arms whose creators went out of their way not to follow general practice. These are called armes pour enquerir (arms for asking); by their irregularity they were to bring people who saw them to ask questions at their regard. The most famous among the armes pour enquerir is the coat of arms of the Kingdom of Jerusalem: a golden Jerusalem cross over a silver field, it is said to allude to psalm LXVIII v.15

    Furs are not included in this general rule. They can be placed either on (or under) colors or metals, and for this particularity are said to be amphibious.

    Both the colors and almost all the figures used in heraldry are known to have had strong symbolic meaning in the Middle Ages, and we know many of the meanings through the surviving literature. It is not known, however, if and to which point this symbolism was consciously adhered to in the designing of a coat of arms, with the exception of the so-called canting arms (armes parlantes). These arms are those that either have an imagery that is a pun on the name of the family (or of the place) or refer to a fact (or legend) that originated said arms. For instance, the arms of the Spanish kingdoms of Castile: gules a castle or (a golden castle over a red field) and Leon: argent a lion purpure (a purple lion over a silver field).

    Armes parlantes do not occur often in English heraldry after the time of King James I (1567-1625 as king of the Scots, 1603-1625 as king of England), during whose reign they began to be held in disrepute due to ignorance and misapplication. Before that time they were numerous, not only in England but in all kingdoms where heraldry was used.

    Another instance in which colors and images were consciously used for their meaning was in augmentations. A family who wanted to show support and allegiance to the king of France, for instance, could add a partition with an azure field and one or more fleur-de-lis on its coat.

    That said, colors used in their proper symbolic meaning may definitely be useful, if you mean to give the viewer a deeper insight into a character through non-obvious cues. (Quite a few studies have demonstrated that, for people of European ancestry, the cultural interpretation of colors relies heavily on the Middle Ages one, even though the subjects may be unaware of it.) Here are the most commonly quoted meanings for metals and colors:

    Or: generosity, elevation of the mind

    Argent: peace, honesty, sincerity (it may be worth of note the modern use of ‘sterling’, properly referring to purity of silver, to mean ‘of high quality’)

    Gules: referring to warriors or martyrs, bravery, military strength and magnanimity (also color of the field in the royal arms of England)

    Azure: truth, loyalty (color of the field in the royal arms of France)

    Vert: hope, joy, loyalty in love

    Sable: constancy, grief

    Purpure: royal majesty, sovereignty, justice

    Next month we will speak of charges, the images that are painted over the field of a shield, with their specific nomenclature and symbolic meaning (when known).

    As always, you are welcome to ask questions or propose topics you would like to see covered in this column.

    Illustration credits

    Bonomi-heraldryillo3: shield taken from Chiusano, Saporiti, Elementi di Araldica, Ufficio Storico Stato Maggiore dell’Esercito Roma 1995 modified by the Author.

    Bonomi-heraldryillo4: ibidem, modified by the Author as well.

    Bonomi-heraldryillo5: West Kingdom heraldic templates, artist Ysenda nicAlane

    Bonomi-heraldryillo6: from products.htm

    Marina Bonomi

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