The word “tincture” has more than one meaning in English. The Concise Oxford Dictionary has the following: “1 a slight flavor or trace. 2 a tinge (of a color). 3 a medicinal solution (of a drug) in alcohol (tincture of quinine). 4Heraldry an inclusive term for the metals, colors, and furs used in coats of arms.”
The word is used by specialists in particular fields and is uncommon in general conversation. However, some of the concepts associated with the word, if not the word itself, have potential value for those who are concerned with color and appearance. In meaning 2, the word refers to very subtle colors. A reporter might describe a bride’s dress as having a beautiful tincture, white with a tinge of pink.
The word has a particular meaning in heraldry (meaning 4), and this draws attention to the lack of a word in general English usage that could embrace several different aspects of appearance in a single word. In heraldry, tincture includes color, luster, and texture. In coats of arms, the designs can be rendered in colors, “metals” (luster), and “furs” (texture). If tincture could be understood to mean all three aspects of appearance, the tincture of the bride’s dress could mean that the dress fabric also had a smooth texture and a lustrous sheen as well as being white with a tinge of pink.
In heraldry, the names used to identify the tinctures are Norman French. There are five “colors”: gules (red), azure (blue), sable (black), vert (green), and purpure (purple). Three other colors are found in rare cases and are sometimes referred to as “stains”: sanguine (blood red), tenné (tawny orange), and murrey (mulberry). The “metals” are or (gold) and argent (silver) – often represented by yellow and white. The “furs” are variations on the theme of ermine and vair (squirrel skins) and are represented by stylized patterns.
Where a figure, such as a cross, is set over a background, the “rule of tincture” is applied: the figure must not be from the same group of tinctures as the background. So a red (color) cross can be placed on a gold (metal) background but not on blue (color). This is to ensure maximum light–dark contrast and, therefore, maximum legibility and ease of identification.
There are lessons in heraldry for graphic designers today. The principles embodied in the rule of tincture are as relevant today as they were in the Middle Ages, and the concept of heraldic tincture is a reminder that there are other aspects of appearance, besides color, that can be exploited in design.
It has been suggested that the word “tincture” might be adopted and promoted with something like its heraldic meaning. “Tincture” could mean the totality of appearance characteristics, not only color, texture, and luster, as in heraldry, but also those other aspects of appearance that have been collected under the term “cesia.” “Cesia” is a term coined by César Jannello. It refers to transparency, translucency, opacity, gloss, and specular reflection, each of which can also be represented in scales as from matte via semigloss to full gloss. And if the word “tincture” itself is problematic, with its meanings already established, perhaps another new word could be coined that would embrace all aspects of appearance: color, texture, and cesia.