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The Heraldry Society of Scotland


Page 3 Heraldic Design - The Basic Principles


Similarly, per saltire and quarterly are easily constructed. Note, incidentally, that all these lines give us the true fess point of the shield. Per chevron still leaves scope for skill. but the slope of the lines should usually be parallel to those of the saltire.

The use of this construction method will, in most cases, give very satisfactory proportions between colour and metal. This apparent equality should also be our aim when we construct the Ordinaries and sub-Ordinaries. When these are too narrow, they look weak and uninteresting. There is, however, no standard measurement for their width because, in order to achieve an optically acceptable effect, we have first to consider whether or not they are charged or accompanied by charges.

When neither is the case, the width of the pale should be rather less than one-third the top margin of the shield. The fess and the chief may be up to a third of the vertical height of the rectangle and the bend about a quarter of the top margin.


The saltire, the cross and the chevron should be about a quarter. The bordure, so important in Scots heraldry, may be from one-eighth to one-sixth of the top margin. When drawing the curves of the bordure, incidentally, be sure to use the same centres for the arcs as you used for the original outline of the shield. The Ordinaries will be slightly reduced in width when blazoned as "between" charges and all of them slightly wider if charged.


The final result will inevitably be a matter of the artist's skill. An extreme example of an ordinary made larger to accommodate a charge must be the bend of Bern; the result is nonetheless very successful, especially the lively "official" version (left), drawn by, Hans Jenni.


Proportion and disposition of charges

It is when we come to place charges on the shield that we have the greatest possibility of producing something beautiful - or disastrous. The charges themselves may be heraldic motifs, beasts and other so called living things, trees and plants and, unfortunately, "pictorial" arms. Each charge and its treatment would merit a paragraph of its own but, for the present, the important criteria are that each should be recognisable, properly positioned and well-proportioned in relation to the rest of the shield.

A few Golden Rules concerning charges are:

Aim to achieve an "equality" of metals and colours. If a blue shield with a white lion looks very blue, the lion is too small. The corollary to this is that charges should be spread until they fill the shield.

Use a certain amount of distortion in order to fit the charges, especially beasts and monsters, into the field.

When there are three of the same charge, try the effect of making the one in base a little bigger than the other two, but be careful.

Remember to use exaggerations of the qualities of charges - the claws and teeth of a lion, the beautiful curves of a fleur-de-lys, the prickles of a thistle, the horns and ring of a bull (but not his teeth... !) The fact that an inn-sign showing Warwick's bear and ragged staff gave rise to the name "Pig-and-Whistle" is not a very good recommendation for the heraldic artist concerned.

Colours, Metals and Furs

Depending upon the medium in which we are working, there will be a choice of colours available commercially. In fact, we shall normally need three colours for each heraldic tincture; the basic colour itself, e.g. cobalt blue for azure, and two others - a pastel version for highlights and a darker e.g. Oxford blue for shading. How much shading you employ is a matter of your own taste. On flags intended for flying, I use none at all except where it is necessary to show, for example, the face and mane of a lion guardant. A ceremonial banner, however, merits a little more attention to the modelling of the charges.

Many artists also vary the basic colours according to the other tinctures in the design, or in order to achieve a certain "atmosphere". For example, a deeper red may seem appropriate in ecclesiastical armorial bearings. A special case arises in those rare instances when the heraldic rules have been bent by the granting authority and a colour is placed on a colour, or when a field is divided and the result is two adjacent colours. Here, we may partially overcome the problem by selecting a darker shade of one of the colours and a lighter shade of the other, thus increasing the contrast between the two.

As far as the metals are concerned, most artists agree that silver is best treated as white, whether one is working on paper, wood or stone. There are few silver paints which give a good result, and reflections often cause the shield to look odd. Imitation gold paints, on the other hand, may give a pleasing appearance and gold leaf, especially on a gesso base, can look superb.

It is my strong opinion that a metallic effect should never be given to heraldic f lags or banners of any kind; in fact, in many countries it is the practice to blazon the same arms with gold for the arms and yellow for the banner, or silver and white respectively. An exception is found in Regimental colours, Girls' Life Brigade colours and their like which may have battle-honours, badges or lettering which can be executed in gold. I do not, however, count these as real heraldry! Among the banners of the Garter Knights at Windsor and the Knights of the Bath at Westminster, there are many which have gold applied to their surface, but they lack the liveliness which can be introduced by shades of yellow and ochre.

Certain ceremonial flags look well if made of materials which have a certain satin sheen but even this should not be overdone.

The furs are indicated by the presence of tails or, in the case of vair and vairy, the special arrangement of blue and white, or other combinations of colours. Each artist tends to develop a favourite method of depicting these and, with rare exceptions, one is always best to stay with what one draws best.

All your own work

You may not be a good artist, you may not consider yourself a good draughtsman. It doesn't matter, as long as you amuse yourself. Never be afraid to copy the greatest artists - You will find art students doing this in almost any gallery - as long as you gradually develop your own style.

You can always remember, too, that the medieval heraldic artist was often not a very good draughtsman either - that is precisely why this art form is so stylised. When your design is finished, there is one major criterion for judging its merit: is it recognisable and does it identify its owner?




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The Heraldry Society of Scotland   last Update 05 Jun 2017