Digital Heraldry: Is It Art?

David Robert Wooten, FSHA
Honorary Fellow of the Society of Heraldic Arts
Executive Director of The American College of Heraldry
with an introduction by Stephen Friar, FSHA
Craft Fellow of the Society of Heraldic Arts
I must confess that whenever I hear the term ‘digital heraldry’ I immediately think of bucket shops, heraldic key fobs, and coasters. The Society of Heraldic Arts insists that all applicants for Craft Membership should be able to demonstrate a particularly high standard of heraldic art using traditional media.
But this is the 21st century. Increasingly, younger people, in particular, are turning to the producers of digital imagery and there is no reason why this should not apply to those seeking armorial devices for private or public display.
However, the gap between technical proficiency and visual awareness is an increasing problem. There is a significant difference between designing artwork to be produced on a tiny scale and the ability of computers to print any image at such a scale. Often, clients appear to believe that the same artwork can be used for letterheads all the way up to hoardings outside theatres. While the technology now exists to do this, the image still needs to be designed for a purpose. A one-size-fits-all mentality is taking over and is an unfortunate effect of the digital age.
Clearly, there is a serious debate to be had here, one that affects significantly the Society’s reputation. Should we, for example, admit digital artists as a distinct category of Craft Member – and, if so, who is sufficiently skilled in both heraldic art and digital techniques to assess the suitability or otherwise of applicants? After all, an understanding of this unique art form, its history, conventions, rationale, and development, is essential to anyone who creates heraldic imagery of any sort whether it be ‘traditional’ or ‘digital’.
To that end, we have invited David Robert Wooten Hon.FSHA, Executive Director of The American College of Heraldry, to express a view which is both an invaluable contribution to the debate and (I hope) an incentive for Members to respond in these pages. Please note that the Correspondence page exists to submit such commentary - emails to me at
- Stephen Friar FSHA

An observation regarding Digital Heraldry. Several individuals have inquired as to why The American College of Heraldry (ACH) does not "emboss" or "texturize" the achievements displayed on our registration certificates, so that said achievements appeared more like painted Arms. First, it should be noted that, whether obtaining a Grant of Arms from such institutions as The College of Arms (UK), the Court of The Lord Lyon, etc, or Registering newly-devised assumed Arms with entities such as the ACH, or other "non-official" heraldic bodies (that is, not backed by a government or sovereign), what is being granted or registered is the BLAZON, and not the artwork itself. Thus, artwork reflecting the blazon being registered should, in our opinion, be as straightforward as the blazon itself. The beauty of a blazon is that no matter when or by whom the arms are rendered by a true heraldist, they will always be "correct," provided the artist can "read" the blazon as written.

In recent years, the popularity of “digital heraldry” has expanded right along with the internet (we will not even delve into the dreck spewed out by “bucket shops”). Many digital artists have begun offering lavishly embossed or texturized versions of achievements without understanding the actual NATURE of the elements of an achievement (and, conversely, many heraldists have taken to rendering their artwork in, at least partially, a digital format, rather than starting out with pen and paper). What often results are shields with all sorts of embossed or raised elements, or heavily texturized elements or surfaces upon said shields, using the wide variety of filters available for such commonly-used programs as Photoshop.

In reality, a shield borne by a knight would have NO raised or textured surfaces, especially in tournament. Why? Common sense, and practicality of survival. A competitor's lance could easily hit upon such a surface irregularity, thus giving said opponent an easier opportunity to unseat the challenger. No doubt, post-tournament, a knight’s shield would be somewhat erratically embossed, debossed, bruised, and broken, but going onto the field for the first time, one would think the knight was dressed – and equipped – to impress.

In my own “early” days of digitally-embellishing achievements for individuals, I was as equally guilty as those whom I “accuse” of discovering some new Photoshop filter to “improve” the look of a coat of arms. Only now, on reflection of that early work, do I find that I was equally applying excessive embossing, texturing, etc., just because it was new and unique, and not because it lent the final image a more realistic appearance (which, in my opinion, is what such digital embellishments should attempt to accomplish).

The shield itself would be one smooth surface, perhaps augmented with reflective surfaces – not embossed or textured. The torse and mantling would be of thin cloth, and thus have no real thickness to emboss. The only “3-dimensional” elements of an armorial achievement would be the helm, the crest, and (where applicable) supporters, compartments, coronets/crowns, etc.

A shield was, most often, wood-based, with some sort of metal wrapped onto the surface. The surface would then be painted with the colors of the armorial bearings (or not painted, in an instance where a silver or gold/brass metal was intended to be part of the arms). Thus, the traditional shield would not be layered with individually-applied elements, lines of division, etc, as appears on modern-day "over-embossed" achievements. Reflective surfaces can easily be represented digitally, but not by adding embossed edges to every color change that appears on the shield. Just because a filter is available to the heraldic artist employing such methods, does not mean it SHOULD be used.

Traditional (painters) heraldists, such as extensively represented in most sections of the Society of Heraldic Arts’ (SHA) own website, will show a true understanding of the play of light upon the shield, the mantling, the helm, etc. In almost every case, the shield will display only ONE “reflective line” (pardon my ignorance for not knowing if there is a long-held technical term for such a line) around the sinister base, giving the shield a 3-dimensional feel. Likewise, the surface of the shield is painted as one smooth “field,” perhaps with the dexter chief appearing brighter than the sinister base (assuming a light source from the direction of the dexter chief).

In many examples of digital-only heraldic artists, their “base” black-and-white artwork may be solid – in fact, it may be brilliant. But then, it is scanned/digitized/vectorized, and the digital artist then launches into a flurry of coloring, treating each section of the shield (for example) as a separate piece of an overall mosaic, rather than one solid plane. Thus, one ends up with an almost “quilted, mattress-top” appearance to a shield, with shadows and textures abounding. Valleys now run through the shield where black lines once ran, while soft (or jagged) rolling (or sharply embossed) hills now appear.

This is not “proper” heraldry, nor is it, in fact, sound use of the digital capacities available to such an artist. Photoshop, and other digital art programs are meant to enhance, not overwhelm the subject (I would refer fellow SHA members to an excellent article on the subject – “Heraldic Design and the Digital Age” by our own Kevin Arkinstall, HSDAD, FSHA, Heraldic Craftsman, No. 86, September 2014). An heraldic achievement is, most commonly, a well-balanced piece of art (feel free to pull your copy of Anthony Wood down off the shelf for a lesson in true geometry). While some modern heraldists throw some of that geometry out the window, in favor of their own styles, they at least maintain the “essence” of solid heraldry (do I have a definition for the “‘essence’ of solid heraldry?” – hardly).

As heraldry continued to be practiced after the decline of tournaments (and their obvious practical restrictions on shields and crests), there have been several periods of what might be considered excess in heraldic design and rendering (such as the conspicuously ridiculous crest of Sir Francis Drake). However, these departures inevitably tend to run their course, and there is ultimately a return to greater clarity of design and simple elegance in rendering. The myriad textures, filters, and other special effects available through the medium of digital manipulation are, we feel, simply another such phase.

Most individuals who still physically paint their achievements – the true heraldic artists (and there are far too few of them remaining internationally, most gathered within the halls of the SHA) – do not take their own work to such extremes, opting rather to paint interpretations of a blazon as accurately as possible. There are certainly stylistic differences, but their work is not “encumbered” with blatantly digital filtering. My personal website – – shows the myriad of possibilities when different artists are given the same blazon. Most examples I love; some I do not. But I post all of these examples (of the same blazon) to show potential registrants of our own organization (the ACH) that, again, they are registering the BLAZON, and not the artwork.

Some may be enamored of the “quilted” look available by excess Photoshopping. Others want the pure – but beautiful - “rigidity” of work by John Ferguson, or the late American heraldist Richard McNamee Crossett. But I believe that a true heraldic artist should be able to recreate a blazon in the “flattest” form possible, only then giving the overall achievement the subtle shading that would be imparted by nature, on the tournament field. I, for one, would not want a rampant lion upon my shield bulging “steroidally,” nor his eyes appearing to be ready to launch from their sockets. Nor should the smooth surface of a simple Bleu-Celeste sky be granulated as if the artist mixed sand in with his tempuras.

We at the College are delighted to see more and more younger artists entering the field of heraldry, and offer this as constructive criticism when properly rendering an armorial achievement. There will always be unique styles, which we encourage, but let us not stray too far from the path set for us centuries ago.

The above represents the opinions of the author alone and does not necessarily reflect the views of The College, or its Board of Governors. The illustrations included are intended only as examples, and not meant to be the standard. All achievements are copyrighted to the original armigers, and all other artwork is copyright of the author. This article originally appeared in the January 2018 edition of The Armiger’s News, the quarterly publication of The American College of heraldry, in a somewhat more abbreviated form. The College aids in the design and registration of wholly-new assumed Arms for US citizens, as well as registering Granted Arms for non-US citizens.


A fairly straightforward example of “mosaic” embossing – treating each section as if it was pieced together, rather than painted all on the same plane.  Close to correct, but why are the estoiles puffy? Every instance of a black line is a valley – every other area is raised/embossed – and quite obviously the blacksmith was in a hurry when hammering out the overall shield, giving no thought to making it smooth.
Just bad all the way around. My own armorial bearings, beautifully drawn in black and white by John Ferguson, and then smashed with nonsensical coloring, embossing, etc. (my apologies to John). Why is everything on the shield so puffy?
I like to use this as an example of a “classic” digital coloring – from John Ferguson’s exquisite black and white rendering to my own digital coloring, with a minimum amount of (uniform) shading. Perfect example of flat digital coloring.
Reasonable example of adding metallic highlights while leaving the shield (and its elements) smooth.
Not a bad example of proper shading, but it looks like the shield is quite thick, and would be cumbersome to bear. Perfect shadow, and the “logic” behind the lighting is sound – however, I believe this would not only blind the participant’s opponent (a good thing) but perhaps the audience as well (a bad thing). Created for my father’s World War II assignment in the US Navy – very shiny, but at least it’s smooth.
A “cobbled together” graphic of John Ferguson’s version of my shield, with Dennis Endean Ivall’s version of my crest there-upon. Both were black and white drawings to begin with. I rather like this one.

You are here: Home News & Views SOCIETY MATTERS Digital Heraldry: Is It Art?