Celtic Knotwork, Not a Tutorial

September 14, 2012

As I've gotten better and better at drawing Celtic knotwork, several people have asked me to make a tutorial. 

The truth of the matter is that I still don't know enough to feel qualified to teach someone how to draw knotwork. Much of what I know is just a gut instinct that comes from drawing frequently and paying close attention to the designs I see other artists creating. (Our library doesn't have any helpful books and I've had a hard time finding good comprehensive tutorials online). I've been able to teach some of these techniques to friends, but only with the ability to see where and why I can't explain things well enough for it to make sense the first twenty tries!

Hence the reason why this video is not a tutorial. I just doodled a bunch of Celtic knotwork in basic squares using different grids and set-ups (filling in irregular shapes is a HEADACHE even if it looks pretty!). If you've attempted drawing knots before and understand the very basic ideas, then this will be super helpful. If not... well, you probably won't learn much but you get to watch me draw. Lucky you, right?

Sir Gawain and the Green Knight manuscript.
From Wikipedia.
What do Celtic knots have to do with Tolkien? This month's posts are, after all, supposed to be Tolkien-themed. So I'm going to grasp at some straws here to tie this just-because video back to Tolkien. :)

Tolkien was a scholar of linguistics, particularly languages from the early days of England. He translated many texts (one of my favorites is Sir Gawain and the Green Knight) and would of course have seen some illuminated manuscripts.

Interlacing (the technical name for knotwork) is a very common design in illuminated manuscripts. Many people have heard of the Book of Kells, a book of the Gospels heavily decorated with knotwork. This is one of the most important books in the history of modern knotwork, since most of the designs we commonly see are actually copies of the knots drawn by monks in ninth-century Iona.
The Book of Kells contains a massive amount of intricate decoration, and no two designs are exactly alike. And it was all drawn completely by hand.

(images via wikipedia)
Norse wood carving with interlacing.
Not sure if it's authentic, but this is the idea
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Somewhere in the past twelve hundred years, the techniques for drawing knotwork-- the techniques used by Vikings on their ships, monks in their books, and sculptors on the famous Irish crosses-- were lost. For a long time people were only able to copy ancient designs. Many people in the past couple hundred years developed ways of designing new knots, but most designs you see these days outside of certain artsits' work is very similar to the knots in illuminated manuscripts. (I'd cite a reference for that only I don't feel like finding the file for my old research paper).

Tolkien also loved Norse mythology; in fact, he created Lord of the Rings as a way to fill a void in English literature. England had no mythology or legends of its own, unless you count a few tales like Beowulf and later stories of King Arthur (many of which were written in France!). Norse mythology and literature is very present in Tolkien's world, particularly in the civilizations of Rohan and Gondor.

(For instance, only last week I learned that King Theoden's famous lines "Where is the horse and the rider? Where is the horn that was blowing? Where helm and the hauberk, and the bright hair flowing?" is a sort of rip-off of the Old English poem The Wanderer.)

In a letter, Tolkien explained his idea...
"Do not laugh! But once upon a time (my crest has long since fallen) I had a mind to make a body of more or less connected legend, ranging from the large and cosmogonic to the level of romantic fairy-story--the larger founded on the lesser in contact with the earth, the lesser drawing splendour from the vast backcloths--which I could dedicate simply: to England; to my country. It should assess the tone and quality that I desired, somewhat cool and clear, be redolent of our 'air' (the clime and soil of the North West, meaning Britain and the hither parts of Europe; not Italy or the Aegean, still less the East), and, while possessing (if I could achieve it) the fair elusive beauty which some call Celtic (though it is rarely found in genuine ancient Celtic things), it should be 'high', purged of the gross, and fit for the more adult mind of a land long steeped in poetry. I would draw some of the great tales in fullness, and leave many only placed in the scheme, and sketched. The cycles should be linked to a majestic whole, and yet leave scope for other minds and hands, wielding paint and music and drama. Absurd." - J.R.R. Tolkien
I don't think he was so absurd. Of course no single man could do that-- legends take generations and hundreds of nameless taleweavers-- but Tolkien's efforts have had an indelible mark on fantasy stories.

So that's how I'm relating Celtic knotwork to Tolkien.

Plus the talented designers who worked on the LotR filmes obviously used knotwork in the beautiful sets and little details everywhere.

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Peter Jackson and Ian McKellan at the Edoras set
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  1. I just love you. I love your talent and your enthusiasm and how fun and geeky you are. And every time I look at your blog it makes me lament the fact that I have no graph paper, because all I want to do is draw knots, and I can't make a straight graph on normal paper to save my life.


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