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Colors of flags

Last modified: 2011-12-23 by rob raeside
Keywords: color | pantone | vexillology | blue | greece | israel | purple | red |
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Pantone Matching System and flags

The Flag Institute has used standard colours for some time, derived from the Pantone Matching System, but making allowance for the prevailing system of printing from four process colours. As has been pointed out, most Mac programmes cater for PMS colours, including the one we use for graphics, which is Adobe Illustrator. Our object is to restrain the growth of colours to unmanageable proportions, and so we have listed some standard flag colours, with a few allowable variations. These variations come into effect where a flag's specifications call for them, eg 'azul turquesi' in some Central American flags, 'Yale Blue' in the flag of Israel, and where official specifications list either Pantone matches, eg Finland, Estonia, Australia, or other colour identification matches than can be 'translated' into Pantone matches. The standard PMS colours are: 032, red; 286, blue; 354, green; 109, yellow; 165, orange; and 167, brown. Some frequent variations are: 185, red for 'Old Glory Red' also used in Australia; 280 blue, ditto; 355 green as in the flag of Saudi Arabia, etc. Gold is 116, as in the flag of Europe and of Germany, and silver is 420. So far we have kept to our resolution to use not more than 30 shades of colour. A printout of these is available on request. Our position is that flags normally employ the 'default' colours unless some good reason can be shown for departing from them.
William Crampton, 14 October 1995

Pantone matches are widely used, but not all countries have officially specified matches. I know the Flag Institute keeps records of officially set Pantone matches and that they have set their own matches for those flags where no official specification is made. For example, the Flag Institute's Pantone matches for the UK flag is Red 032 and Blue 286.
Jan Oskar Engene, 11 December 1996

The British Navy's "Flags of all nations" give us general Pantone colours:

  • Azure blue 549C
  • Intermediate blue 300C
  • Royal blue 281C
  • Navy Blue 282C
  • Crimson 202C
  • Green 364C
  • Red 186C
  • Yellow YellowC
  • Deep yellow 123C
  • Orange 165C
  • Tartan green 357C
  • Red brown 477C
  • Dark green 350C
  • Heraldic blue 286C
  • Grey 409C

With the specification: "The Pantone colour reference is for printers' use only". But, is a good colour reference.
Sebastia Herreros, 13 December 1996

Shade of Blue in some flags

On 26 February 1996 Bill Grimes-Wyatt stated "there is no question that the flags of Israel and Greece are a light blue, not dark blue as your charts might suggest."

Blues can be very confusing. In Flags Through the Ages and Across the World (W. Smith, 1975) [smi75b] you will find that Israel and Greece both use a fairly dark blue, though they are slightly different from each other. The Israeli blue is as dark as any of the Blue Ensigns shown in the book, and the Greek flag is of a very slightly lighter shade. They both stand in sharp contrast to the light blue of Argentina, Botswana, Fiji, etc. The Greek flag, like the Finnish flag, used to be what we would think of as "light blue" but both have changed to darker shades. I have a Greek flag made in Greece of paper and it is of the lighter blue shade. I purchased it over a dozen years ago, so I don't know what shade of blue the locals would recognize as proper, but according to regulations it is no longer "light blue."

Nick Artimovich, 26 February 1996

The blue colour in Israel's flag is definitely dark. Some time ago I got a folder on national symbols from the Embassy of Israel in Washington. In the flag drawing the blue is dark, the text defines it as Yale Blue.

Jan Oskar Engene, 27 January 1996

The flag of Israel was a dark blue (navy) until the late 50's or early 60's at which time it was changed to a lighter blue. This is from memory.

Ronnie Kay, 27 February 1996

The odd thing is that at the time I called the Israeli mission to the U.N. to verify the color before producing the flag, and the impression I got was that they didn't care which color was used.

R. Nathan Bliss, 27 February 1996

Actually, the color is officially declared to be "blue". However, it can be any kind of blue - light, cyan or whatever shade, so long as it's 'blue' and have the 'magen david' sign in between the lines.
Goren S, 9 February 1996

The flag of Israel is decidedly not any single shade of blue. It is based on a tallit, a religious article of clothing. The color of blue meant to be used on the tallit is not known and in fact everything from black to reddish purple is used to denote it with different religious and political connotations. The most common color (the light blue) comes from the fact that the tallit most people wear (including mine) is a light blue with the deliberate statement of "this is most probably not the right color." Many people, including me, would find black as acceptable as the current shade of blue. The reddish tones of purple could get you into an argument. For the State of Israel to make any definite proclamation beyond "blue" could incite violence (!) and questions as to what exactly what shade of the color it is are probably viewed with suspicion of "looking for a fight." There are enough people opposed to using blue at all, to begin with.
Jacob Faturechi, 21 October 1996

Something interesting: in Taiwanese vexillological regulations, the Chinese word for 'blue' is never used - the word 'qing' is used instead. The problem is, in layman's language, 'qing' usually means green rather than blue! Even more interesting is the use of politically correct terms for the colour red. When English is used, the Taiwanese flag is described as 'blue sky, white sun, crimson field' and never 'red field' so as to avoid any links with 'Red China' (the Communists). When Chinese is used, however, the word for 'red' ('hong') is used regardless. This is because, when the colour red is associated with the Communists, the Taiwanese authorities uses the word 'chi' (sanguine) instead!
Miles Li, 28 September 2001

Reading official descriptions of Brazilian flags has taught me (sometimes the hard way) that color designations don't necessarily mean in Portuguese what I would think they'd mean in English. For example, "azul celeste" in Brazil seems to mean regular bright blue (B), not the pale blue that an American raised on Crayola crayons would expect.

I've encountered in descriptions of Brazilian military flags the term "azul-turquesa." The English cognate would obviously be "turquoise blue," a light greenish blue color. But I suppose it could also mean Turkish blue, which could be a medium light blue between B and Argentine-style celeste, perhaps B-. Or it could mean something else altogether.
Joe McMillan, 18 September 2002

I have noted similar things while looking Slovenian (and some others) legal documents. (I find difference in what I would expect it to be in Croatian cognates and also English). However, what seems to me is that not always there is real semantic difference, but only apparent ignorance of the legislator or his wish for "high- sounding" colour names, possibly unique and specially linked to the locality, while the colour shade codified in Pantone (or some other system) seems to be something quite different...
Željko Heimer , 18 September 2002

I find the same thing, especially dealing with Brazilian municipal flags, but in the case at hand I'm dealing with official descriptions of Army unit flags, which are colored according to the branch or type of organization to which the flag is granted. Brazilian Army educational establishments are assigned "azul-turquesa" as their branch color, communications units "azul-celeste," and so on.

Unfortunately the Brazilian Army history office seems to show azul- celeste as anywhere from pale blue to dark blue--that really helps, doesn't it? This is why I wasn't prepared to take them at face value when they showed "azul-turquesa" as turquoise, especially since the particular flag I was interested in, that of the Agulhas Negras Military Academy, is described as azul-turquesa and illustrated on the same page as white!)
Joe McMillan, 18 September 2002

Red and Purple

I've been persuaded a long time ago (when I first noticed that there were more to flags and coats-of-arms than that met the eye...) -- that purple and red are the same thing: red for flags and purple for coats-of-arms. Later on I found a lot of red (and red and purple coats-of-arms) and even some rare purple flags, but that piece of info is still there in my brain. Is there any truth in it?

P.S. -- Purple and red are probably the colors that differentiated later in Latin and Germanic languages: the Portuguese "roxo", meaning dark violet or very dark purple (plum color?), is an evident cognate of "rojo", "roig", "rouge", "rosso", "rot", "red" etc.
António Martins-Tuválkin , 03 December 1997

Definitely red and purple are a late differentiation. Most languages follow the same order of differentiation (why, no-one seems certain). "Dark" (black), "light" (white), red, and green are usually the four earliest, then yellow and blue, followed by orange, brown, grey, pink, and purple. Finally blue is split into two distinct types, although in almost every language in the world they are regarded as shades rather than completely different colours (Russian is an exception - they have cinii and goluboi as two completely different colours). There are a few exceptions - there is not complete differentiation in language between green and blue in some Celtic tongues. Many languages develop new words by altering one word slightly to create a new one, like in the case of Portugal's roxo - English, for instance, gets it's name for bright reddish purple (maroon) from a word which originally meant chestnut brown (the French marron). I wonder whether that got it's name from the same source as the heraldic 'murrey' (the red-brown of dried blood).
James Dignan, 04 December 1997

If I recall correctly the two colours are not the same. I seem to remember that Franco's flag was red and purple.
Ole Andersen, 03 December 1997

Colors on Flags

At the time when identification of ships and world trade were becoming of major importance, The UK and Netherlands were far and away the two major seafaring nations - one in military terms, the other in trade terms. Both these nations had red white and blue flags, and it's no surprise that many countries followed their lead. France, by becoming the epitome of revolutionary "new countries" in the 18th century also added to the prototypes of red-white-blue combinations. Many countries use these three countries' flags either directly or indirectly as influences.

Similarly, other colour groups use other revolutionary or similar flags for their inspiration - many of Africa's flags use the red, yellow, green, black combination, initially from Ethiopia and Marcus Garvey's flag, but more directly from the flag of Ghana, the first country to gain independence from European colonisation in the late 1950s.

Many Arab countries use some combination of the green and white of Islam and the red, white, black and green of early 20th century revolution flags for the basis of their flags, Latin American countries use similar historical yellow, blue, red and blue, white, blue prototypes as the basis for many of their flags.

There one other factor, of course - combinations of red, white and blue are very easily visible from a long distance, and as such make fine combinations for flags.
James Dignan, 13 October 2008