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Colours of the National Flag (Spain)

Last modified: 2004-04-29 by
Keywords: spain | specification: colour | colour | cie lab | cie 1931 |
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Meaning of the Colours

The colours in the Spanish flag probably originated in the colours of the original Spanish kingdoms' coats-of-arms. Castile has a yellow castle on a red field, Leon has a purple sometimes dark red lion carrying a yellow crown on a white field, Catalonia/Aragon has four red vertical pallets on a yellow field, Navarre a yellow chain on a red field (I have deliberately ommitted a correct heraldic blason). There is no specific symbolism in any of those colours, except for the legendary origin of the Aragonese-Catalan arms. One can read all sorts of things like "red stands for the blood shed by Spaniards and yellow for the bright Spanish sun" or even "red and yellow stand for bulls' and bullfighters' blood on the sand of the bullfighting ring", but they are fictitious (and frequently nonsense).

Santiago Dotor, 18 November 1998

What do the colours in the Spanish flag represent? The answer is basically "nothing". The colours were chosen in a 1785 contest among eleven other designs. From those twelve it becomes apparent that red, yellow, white and blue were preferred to other colours. It is not clear, however, that the reason to choose them was to keep the traditional, heraldical hues present in the Spanish arms. It is probable that cost of the material, ease of production and long distance reconnaisance capability played a role as important, if not much more, than tradition.

Santiago Dotor, 26 February 2001

Colour Specifications

Santiago Dotor wrote: "The red colour is quoted in the Constitution as merely "red"". There is a specification of the colours to be used for the Spanish flag in the Spanish legislation. This is not Pantone but the CIELAB system. This is what can be read in the Boletín Oficial del Estado:

Color     Denominacion color        Tono H* en    Croma C*   Claridad L*
Rojo      Rojo bandera              35.0           70.0       37.0
Amarillo  Amarillo gualda bandera   85.0           95.0       80.0
The International System CIE 1.931 is also mentioned:
Iluminente C
Denominacion color       Y      x       y
Rojo bandera             9.5    0.614   0.320
Amarillo gualda bandera  56.7   0.488   0.469

Pascal Vagnat, 25 September 1998

I do not know these systems, CIE-LAB and CIE-1931 (meaning I've never even heard of them), but they sure seem to be colour producing systems (as opposed to "sample palette" colour identification systems), since each colour is not identified by a arbitrary number or other list entry, but rather determined by a set of values. Moreover CIE-LAB, using "shade" (tono), "color depth" (croma) and "brightness" (claridad), surely reminds of the HSB system, which stands for "hue", "saturation" and "bright". HSB is avaliable available as an option in PhotoShop and I tried the Spanish flag values reported by Pascal Vagnat, but the comeout was nonsense: light green and brown. I guess that CIE-LAB and HSB, while being "matemathically" similar (they use the same approach to colour determination), must have different "scales", the first component being completely arbitrary. It's like defining colours in RGB and RBG: 0-255-0 is red in the first and blue in the second...

António Martins, 30 June 1999

CIE stands for Commission Internationale de l'Eclairage, or International Commission on Illumination. This organization has defined several colorimetric standards, two of which are the CIE Lab and the CIE 1931, or Yxy. Both represent colours as the coordinates of a point in a three-dimensional space, in terms of three primary colors, just as the RGB or the HSB computer standards do. All of these systems use different coordinate axis, however. In the Lab system, L is the luminance, or brightness, of the colour, and a-b are coordinates in a plane. This also can be expresed in polar form, as hue (H) and chroma (C), leading to the HCL specifications given for the Spanish flag. In the (year) 1931 standard, Y is also a kind of luminance, and x-y are again coordinates, in a different plane. There are conversion tables as well as an on-line utility to make the conversion between the CIE standards and RGB.

Juan Claudio Regidor, 18 November 1999

Applying the Colour Metric Converter to the CIE 1931 specifications of the Spanish national flag:

           Y     x      y                R    G    B
Red        9.5   0.614  0.320            168  12   27
Yellow     56.7  0.488  0.469   gives    255  179  0
Illuminant C
The closest browser safe equivalents would be RGB 153-0-51     for the red and RGB 255-204-0    
for the yellow, both darker than the middle shades used in our images, RGB 255-0-0     for the red and RGB 255-255-0    
for the yellow.

Santiago Dotor, 27 November 2000

I really think that this cannot be so. Either the CIE to RGB converter has some kind of bug or there is some fundamental impossibility in the conversion. One thing I am sure of the Spanish flag is bright red and bright yellow, and the refered RGB values are way too dark.

António Martins, 3 December 2000

The said converter might be set to give dark values. I tried adjusting all the other variables to no avail, however. So maybe the official specification is that one and nobody uses it, not even the Spanish government. Also noteworthy is the fact that CIE 1931 is an approximation given by the law to the official CIE LAB specifications (also in FOTW).

Santiago Dotor, 4 December 2000