How to Draw Celtic Knotwork

By braniac ; Updated September 15, 2017

Things Needed

  • A sketchbook or drawing paper
  • A pencil
  • A white vinyl eraser or kneaded eraser
  • A black fine point pen to ink your finished triangle knot, super fine Sharpie or Pigma Micron pens are easy, but dip pens are good if you're expert with them
  • Optional: Compass, protractor, drafting tools if you want precision
  • Optional: French curve or circle/oval stencil to get exact curves in wire diagram markup
Fancy knotwork roundel design, expert level, not the project but feel free to copy it!

If you ever loved Celtic knotwork decorations, this quick and easy triangle knot project will demonstrate how to create your own -- or copy an ancient design or something out of copyright. Constructing knotwork isn't hard at all -- it just takes patience and a good eraser before inking and coloring it.

Three dots for the points of the triangle knot wire diagram, and first curve

This demonstrates a construction method for doing any kind of knotwork, but also how to create a basic triangle knot. We are going to create the "Wire Diagram" stage in three steps. Either mark up an equilateral triangle, or just choose three points that will be the corners of a triangle a little smaller than you want the finished knot. Hold it so the point is up and two points are on the base. Connect the two base points with a smooth curve that goes up past the center. Draw lightly so that you can erase these dots and lines, they aren't permanent.

Second curve added. For ease of scanning, black Conte crayon is used instead of pencil. Don't draw this dark.

Turn your drawing and connect two more dots using the same curve. You can use a template to make it a geometrically perfect curve. My example is freehand, so it's not perfect -- it's there just to give you the idea.

Wire Diagram complete. This is freehand and not precise, but you can lay it out more carefully in yours.

Connect the last two dots with the same curve. You now have the Wire Diagram design for a Triangle Knot or triskele. This design is traditional and can be used in many places. More complicated knotwork can be traced and reduced to a Wire Diagram like this just by using tracing paper over the photo or copying the lines while ignoring the crossings. If you make up a design, as long as no crossing has more than two lines, your design will translate into perfect freeform knotwork by the following construction method.

Outline and inline. Draw an outline around the entire Wire Diagram design about one or two pen widths away from the line. Then Inline, by going inside each of the spaces and outlining the space the same distance away from the Wire Diagram line. Your drawing should look like this illustration when you're done. If your Wire Diagram was sloppy, you can correct for it by making the Outline and Inline lines parallel and a smoother, better curve. I always clean up my knotwork a little at this stage.

Outline and Inline with Wire Diagram erased (redrawn since Conte doesn't erase)

Carefully erase the Wire Diagram without removing the Outline and Inline lines. This will make a pretty design in itself. Many Art Nouveau borders and decorations, as well as 1960s artworks inspired by them, use this stage of construction for borders and decorations. So you can stop here in designing your border, or proceed to the last pencil stage.

Over, then Under. If you are careful and follow the line, always going Over then Under then Over then Under, your crossings will all connect and you won't make any mistake in them. This is why you can't have more than two lines cross at a crossing -- that can mix it up. No matter how complicated your pattern is, any Over will always have an Under on either side of it. This is easy to check on a simple knot like the Triangle Knot, but it's important to check and be careful on more complicated borders and designs.

Triangle Knot and Curly Swash by Calligraphic Cross and Skip Method

Ink your finished Triangle Knot after checking the crossings, then when the ink is thoroughly dry, erase it and color with colored pencils, watercolor, markers or colored felt tip pens. Any geometric design can be turned into knotwork by my "Wire Diagram > Outline and Inline > Erase and do Crossings" method. If you want to have fun, do some swooping curved swashes that go back and forth across each other and make knotwork out of them the easy way.

Just erase all the crossings on your penciled swash Wire Diagram, then draw them in Over Then Under, letting the line connect only on the Overs. Ink the penciled swash and you have instant calligraphic knotwork! A little practice and you can add this "skip and swash" knotwork to signatures, letters, fancy capitals or anything you write.

The best reference book you can get for more complex designs is "Celtic Art, The Methods of Construction" by George Bain. It's available from Dover on Amazon and in most bookstores for $9.95 new in paperback. It has thousands of designs, complex grid pattern methods of spacing them, plus photos and sketches of historical knotwork patterns on stones, manuscripts and other sources.

Tip

Using a round jar lid or glass bottom for perfect circle sections is a quick and easy way to get partial curves, just use different sizes of circular objects for templates. Draw your original knotwork design on graph paper, then trace it onto plain paper at the final stage and put it on a lightbox or up against the window on a sunny day. You can then trace your knotwork and get it perfect on the plain paper.

Warning

Be sure to leave plenty of space around your design on the paper, don't crowd it right up to the edge. Using a grid of dots to draw complicated knotwork around is effective for laying out, but don't make the dots so dark they can't be erased. Don't draw too hard on the pencil stages or it won't clean up right after inking.