Construction of the Basic Grid for Celtic Knotwork

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Some illuminations simply use the ruled baselines of the text to guide the decorative features. However, with more complex items, it may be beneficial to have more guides. The notebooks of people such as Villard de Honnecourt contain preliminary sketches and patterns that have a squared grid as their basis. The lines of the grid guide the position of items within the illumination.

In the Lindisfarne Gospels, the backs of the illuminations show quite finely divided, squared grids. To begin a grid, you must first mark out even divisions along the perimeter of the area to be filled. There isn't any one set method of doing this. The divisions can be simply measured with a ruler and marked. However, this process can be speeded up by using a pair of dividers. These are like a pair of compasses, but dividers have two metal points. Some illuminations show Christ using a pair of dividers to measure the Earth.

With the dividers set to the required width, the points of the grid are simply marked out by walking the dividers around the perimeter. With an irregular or curved shape, this is probably the best method.

The points that have been pricked with the dividers can then be joined, using a ruler and a very fine pencil, to form a grid. More lines can be added to either sub-divide the grid further, or to add diagonals. Early manuscripts used lead or silver point, sometimes on the reverse of the page, to draw the lines and major features of the illumination.

With knotwork, which is frequently circular, compasses can then be used to draw regularly spaced circles upon the grid. If the grid has been further sub-divided, the lines can be used to draw smaller circles, their radii determined by the divisions of the grid. With diagonals added, there is further guidance for the interweaving path of the knot. This system can also be used to guide birds, figures,vines or similar.

Construction of Knotwork

Initially, each unit of the knot is drawn in without trying to join them to each other. The diagonal paths and the joining arches can also be drawn in. At this stage, the path of the knot often suggests itself and it is simply a case of joining up the bits. Corners are more difficult and large panels can be problematic, particularly where the knotwork flows around the page as a whole. In this case joining the separate units to form one continuous path is simply a case of trial and error:-

Trace outline of the area to be filled and draw  in the underlying grid .

Place a clean sheet of tracing paper over and hold it in place with masking or drafting tape.

Draw any guiding circles, arcs, diagonals or other major features onto this new piece of tracing paper. Do not  worry about the weave at this stage.

Place another sheet of tracing paper on top of this and secure in place.

Join the path sections and test the path to see if all sections join, or if there are any waifs and strays. Again, do not worry about the weave.

If you need to amend the way the sections are joined, you can either discard this layer of tracing paper and start again, or erase without disturbing the grid and guide circles.

With awkward bits, such as corners, further layers of tracing paper can be added once the bulk of the path has been determined. In this way, if the first corner path doesn't work, you can erase it without disturbing the main path of the knotwork. There is no simple answer to awkward joins like corners. It is simply trial and error.

With the whole of the path drawn out, a further layer of tracing paper can be added so that the path can be traced along with a pen or pencil to check for continuity. Any stranded bits will soon be obvious. It is then a case of trying different ways of joining sections to incorporate these stranded items.

When the path has been finally determined, a clear tracing can be taken and the design transferred to the final surface. It is now that you draw in the weave of the path – which is: under, over, under, over, etc. 

This section is from the centre of a cross carpet page from The Gospel of Thomas. There are six of these rosettes in total.  The knotwork joins the arms of cross and the rosettes. The path weaves over one segment and under the next. Check that the path weaves correctly before inking in the lines.

Transferring the Design

This can be done in a number of ways.

If you want historical accuracy, draw the design again onto the reverse of the vellum. Fix the vellum to a wooden frame (probably by wooden pegs and leather thongs). Back light the vellum and trace through onto the front. Use lead point or ink.

If this sounds like making life more complicated than is necessary:-

Tape the tracing to a light box or bright window. Tape or weigh down the vellum/ paper on top of the tracing paper. Trace through using a pencil. NB if you are using a lightbox with vellum, it WILL curl up - attempting to revert to the shape of the animal. With a complex design, trace in short stages to minimise this curling effect. OR

Rub a fairly light coloured, earth pigment onto the back of the tracing paper. Remove excess powder. Place the tracing pigment side down onto the vellum/ paper and fix in place with low tack masking tape. Trace through. Remove excess pigment from the surface of the vellum using a putty rubber. OR

The above can be rather messy. With a small area, draw along the lines of the design on the back of the  tracing paper with an HB / B pencil. Place the tracing onto the vellum and secure in place (masking tape). Using the pencil again, trace the design. OR

Large items with little detail can be transferred by securing the design to the surface of the vellum and pricking through at major points with a very fine metal point. A pin will do. Join the prickings to make the design. This works with big features such as rectangular frames, major sub-dividing lines, etc.

Method of application

Mask off the areas that you are not working on, using clean paper.

Particularly if working on vellum, make a pad out of silk. This protects the surface from the grease of the hand. Rest your hand on this silk pad.

Using a small brush, dip the brush into the ink. Not too much or the resulting line will be thicker than you want.

If you are right handed, use your left hand as a prop. (vice versa if you are left handed). Bridge your left hand and rest your right hand upon it. Experiment on scrap paper to see what works for you.

Your left hand will a) keep your right hand off of the surface, b) steady your right hand and c) act as a pivot for your right hand.

For anything other than the smallest details, move your left hand and keep your right hand fairly steady. This gives a smoother, more controlled line. 

Start moving your left hand a little before you actually put the brush tip in contact with the surface. Bring the tip of the brush into contact with the surface gradually. This will avoid a dark splodge at the start of the line..

Similarly, gradually lift the brush tip toward the end of a line.

With spirals or tight curves, move your left hand and keep your right still. 

All this is easier said than done and you should take time to practise your brush control.

Once Transferred, ink in the lines.

By far the best way of doing this is by using a very small brush. There are several types of brush:

  1. Spotter very short hairs, triangular style head. Good for accurate control painting fine detail
  2. Round:  the most common type of sable brush. Good all rounder.
  3. Rigger: very long hairs. Good for fine lines and outlines.
Generally, sable hair is recommended. It is durable, strong, flexible and retains a good point. Some sable brushes are very expensive. I tend to judge a brush solely on how well it holds its point. I'm not a purist when it comes to brand, type of sable or whether there is a little synthetic hair mixed in. Most good art shops will let you test a brush using clean water. Never buy a brush without testing it.

The largest brush that I use is a size 2. The sizes that I use most often are 1 and 0. Brushes are also available in 2/0, 3/0, 5/0 and 10/0. I use these sizes a lot.

To ink in the lines, I use Chinese stick ink. This is ink, but in a solid bar. You dip the end of the bar in water and grind it onto an ink stone. This gives you a well of black ink. The more you grind the stick, the darker the ink. You can also use black pigment, mixed with dilute glair if you wish.

Straight lines.

Use a ruling pen and ruler.

  • Use a ruler that is raised on one side (i.e., trapezium in cross section).
  • Place the narrowest side of the ruler on to the paper, so that there is an overhang. This keeps the ink from bleeding under the flat of the ruler.
  • Adjust the width of the nib of the ruling pen. 
  • With a brush, add ink to the nib of the ruling pen. Test on a scrap of paper. Adjust again if necessary.
  • Line up the nib of the pen along the ruler.
  • Holding the ruler in place with your spare hand, guide the pen along the ruler to draw a straight line.
  • Carefully lift the ruler away from the line. Lift the ruler toward you so that you do not risk disturbing the wet line. NEXT (Knotwork 1)
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