Celtic Art

A Brief History

Not going to bore you with the usual tedious discourse, or as I like to call it encyclopedic babble, just want to clarify a few things.

On the Home page I said that Celtic art has been decorating people's possessions for over 2500 years. This figure comes from the common scholarly assessment that the late iron age settlement of La Tène (circa 500 B.C.) is the starting point.

Other scholars argue that the Hallstatt settlement as far back as 1200 B.C. is the starting point for the Celts and Celtic art. The problem with all scholarly assessments is they are trying to define to origins of the Celtic society or Celtic nation and not the art form.

The funny thing is they are trying to define the origin of something that never existed. There has never been a centralized Celtic society or Celtic nation.

Regardless of the origins of the art form that we now call Celtic art, the credit for the art form needs to go to the Celts simply because they mastered the art form.

The Celts elevated the art form to a level of skill that no one before or since could achieve.

So regardless of the time period or the country of origin any art work in the Celtic style needs to be called Celtic art or referred to as being in the Celtic style.

How Long Has Celtic Art Been Around?

Now that we have rightfully given credit where credit is due. Let's see just how long the art form has been decorating people's possessions.

The oldest objects (personal possessions) that I am aware of with decorations in the Celtic style are mammoth ivory carved with key patterns dated to as far back as 20,000 B.C. Described on page 71 of George Bain's book Celtic Art: The Methods of Construction.

This means that the art form now called Celtic art has been around for at least 22,000 years.

That is the oldest personal possession decorated with Celtic style art discovered so far. Personal possession is defined as an object that one can carry with them as they move about. But people also decorate things they cannot carry with them like their place of residency.

Like caves for example. There was a recent discovery of a cave where the cave art and items found within the cave was dated to 49,000 B.C. As shown in a YouTube video about recent archeological discoveries.

The interesting thing about the cave art is that sections of the art are separated with Celtic chevron style designs (described below).

That means that Celtic style art has been around for more then 51,000 years. Out of this 51,000 year history there are only approximately 600 years that the art form included non-geometric designs.

The designs known as zoomorphics where plants, animals and people were incorporated into the designs. Then the art was out of fashion for approximately 500 years before its revival over a hundred years ago.

This means that the geometric based designs captivated artists and audiences alike for at least 51,000 years. The problem is that so little of the original art remains and absolutely no information on how it was made has survived.

Drawing Methods

There are two schools of thought when it comes to describing and teaching the methods of constructing or drawing Celtic Art within the academic community.

The first and most common school of thought is based on drawing - freehand drawing the designs with little to no understanding or use of geometry. Many within this school of thought also totally deny the possibility that geometry can have a role in the art form.

The other school of thought is the opposite extreme - including a strict set of engineering protocols in other words over analyzed and overkill. Notice the key phrase "engineering protocols".

This is also a classic example of right-brain (creative, artist) vs left-brain (analytical, engineer). The problem is, neither of them are correct.

The secret to drawing Celtic art is somewhere in the middle. What I like to call an artistic use of geometry.

Here is an example of a common design drawn using the freehand methods of drawing.

Scanned hand drawn Celtic knotwork design

The design looks good until you start looking at it with an eye for the geometry and symmetry (or the lack thereof).

Let's start at the center - the four strands that meet in the center bend with points on the outer surface but the inner "points" are rounded and off-center of the outer points. They point to the side of the strand and not to the center of the outer point. Only the strand on the lower left shows decent form.

Now look at the outer arcs above and below the center opening. The arc below the opening is centered on the opening and defines the center space. While the upper arc is off center and kind of wanders around. This gives the center of the design the appearance of leaning to the right instead of being vertical.

Take a piece of rope, tubing or a garden hose and bend it into an arc and carefully observe the curves. You'll notice that the curvature of the inner and outer edges of the item flow together. They curve around the same center point.

Carefully look at each of the arcs in the drawing above.

  • Do the inner and outer arcs flow together?
  • Do they appear to have the same center point and curvature?

The answer to both of these questions is no.

Some of the strands approach the center points on arcs while others with lines. The strand segments that are between arced portions should be straight but aren't, they are kind of serpentine. Finally carefully observe the thickness or width of the strand. It narrows when traveling between arced sections and widen at the arcs.

Celtic knot work or Celtic interlacing (as scholars prefer to call it) is believed to be a representation of braiding or plaiting. When you braid a rope or strip of leather the width of the strand remains consistent from beginning to end.

It should be the same way when drawn.

This level of accuracy can only be achieved through the use of geometry. That's what led me to develop my own drawing method. A drawing method that uses geometry and geometric techniques to layout and draw Celtic knotworks and the Celtic art you'll find on this site.

Here is what the above knot work design looks like when drawn using proper geometry.

Geometrically drawn Celtic knotwork design
  • Notice that the pointed turns are equally pointed inside and out
  • Notice how the strand width is consistent throughout the design
  • Notice how the straight segments are straight and not serpentine
  • Notice how everything flows evenly around the curves
  • Look at the center design within the background

In the freehand drawn design the center cross design is totally obscured. This is another aspect of Celtic art that cannot be accurately reproduced with freehand drawing.

The background, or negative space, is as much a part of the overall design composition as the interlacing of the strands.

How Do I Know the Celts Used Geometry?

I don't know that the ancient Celts used geometry. But I do know that the monks of the seventh through eleventh centuries used geometry to layout the illuminated manuscripts.

These manuscripts are considered masterpieces of the Celtic art form. And there is one undisputed rule where art is concerned - in order to create a masterpiece one must first master the earlier forms of the art style.

So if the creators of the master works of Celtic art (the monks) used geometry to layout the illuminated manuscripts then it is safe to assume that at some point the ancient Celts started using geometry to create the art form.

The problem is that shortly after these masterpieces of Celtic art were created the art form popularity died off and any information about their creation was lost.

So how do I know the monks used geometry to layout these manuscripts?

The answer is because I saw the geometry and the layout on the pages. Not mentally imagined how they could have laid out the the pages but saw the physical marks left during the layout of the page and designs upon them.

The secret to seeing it was hidden in plain site. The secret was contained within the manuscripts themselves and everyone ignored it for centuries. This secret and how I learned it will be the subject for a blog post, or a series of blog posts to be written at a later date.

What are Geometric Based Designs?

Basically any interlaced, spiral or key pattern design that does not incorporate people, plants, animals or other commonly recognized items into the design itself or as the overall shape of the design.

Above all else the design must use and / or incorporate basic geometry. The part of geometry that is the basis of the geometry (mathematics) you were taught in school. It is the part of geometry that the mathematics are about and the part not usually taught in school.

The way geometry is taught in school with the over stringent and over analyzed approach is a classic demonstration of left-brain thinking. It also sends most people into an anxiety attack from the flashback of the horrors of geometry math class.

But geometry in respect to Celtic art is simply lines and arcs, and their relationship to one another (right-brain aspects). Not calculating the length, angle, area etc. (left-brain aspects).

You can draw a very complex Celtic art design using basic geometry techniques and not perform a single calculation.

Chevron Style Designs

Four strand Iron Age chevron style design

Above is an example of Iron Age chevron style designs found in the La Tène settlement (circa 500 B.C.), the Hallstatt settlement (circa 1200 B.C.) and many others.

The examples of the chevron style design from these settlements have as few as one strand to multiple strands running parallel (like this) but not interlaced.

The shape of the above design is an example of the iron age chevron style Celtic art. But the chevron designs during the iron age were not colored, at least not the examples found. The examples found were either embossed or engraved in metal.

The coloring is my work, my artistic license on the art form.

Four strand interlaced chevron style Celtic design

The very early examples of chevron style designs were not interlaced. The interlacing occurred later and for a very short period of time.

When an interlaced design does not have internal breaking and rejoining of the strands (like above) it is considered a braid or plait and not a knot work or interlaced design.

It is the breaking and rejoining that define an interlaced knot work design.

Six strand chevron style Celtic knotwork design

When you look at an example of an interlaced chevron style knot work design (like above) you can begin to see why the chevron style was so short lived. With the breaking and rejoining of the strands the knot work don't really flow but changes abruptly.

Six strand chevron style Celtic knotwork design as arc style

This is the same design as the chevron style knot work design above but as you can see the arc style knot work design has a nice fluid flow to it. The chevron style on the other hand looks chunky and harsh by comparison.

One of the big problems with the chevron style Celtic knot works is that you cannot break and rejoin just two strands. You must always break and rejoin four or more strands. This always creates large openings in the background.

The folded ribbon style Celtic knotwork solved this problem.

Folded Ribbon Style Designs

Six strand folded ribbon style Celtic knotwork

The next step in the evolution of Celtic knot work was the folded ribbon style. It is an easy adaptation of the chevron style and allows for more versatility then the earlier chevron style.

To overcome the large openings in the background caused by the breaking and rejoining of the chevron style designs the folded ribbon style simply draws a line across the intersection of two strands to create the breaking and rejoining of the strands.

Then to further simulate the folded ribbon the tops (points) of the outer chevrons are blunted to simulate the folded ribbon for the overall effect of the design style.

The folded ribbon style was also short lived. Even though there was more versatility in the designs the folded ribbon style designs were very difficult to see even when colored. Which is probably why they were short lived like the chevron style designs they replaced.

Six strand folded ribbon style Celtic knotwork design uncolored

To make matters worse, when the folded ribbon style design was left uncolored (like above) the design was very difficult to see. The uncolored folded ribbon style design looks more like a plaiting or braiding instead of a knot work design.

Even though the folded ribbon style was more versatile then the chevron style as far as design possibilities it was limited in application. It could not be left in its undecorated form and not every item decorated with Celtic art lent itself to having color added to it.

Six strand folded ribbon style Celtic knotwork sample with too many colors

Another problem with folded ribbon style Celtic knot works was the Celt's love of color. It is too easy for a folded ribbon style Celtic knot work to have too many colors (like above). Too many colors can turn a pleasing knotwork design into something difficult to look at.

All three of the above folded ribbon style knot works are the same design. I used the same design to easily illustrate the various difficulties with the folded ribbon style Celtic knot work.

Once the Celts figured out how to incorporate arcs into the design there was no going back. The chevron style and folded ribbon style became a thing of the past.

Arc Style Designs

Six strand arc style Celtic knotwork sample 01

The above arc style Celtic knot work is the same design as the folded ribbon style knot work design above.

When you compare the three styles of interlacing or knot works.

  • Chevron
  • Folded Ribbon
  • Arc

You can clearly see why the arc style became the most popular Celtic interlaced knot work style.

The designs are so readily visible and pleasing to look at. Even when left without color like below.

Six strand arc style Celtic knotwork sample 01 uncolored

This is the same design as the folded ribbon style design, compare this to the uncolored folded ribbon style design above.

Which is easier to look at, easier on your eyes?

The answer is the arc style design?

Celtic Infinity

There is a lot of speculation around the symbolism of Celtic art. One of these is the symbol for eternity or infinity. This basically defines two types of Celtic knot work designs. The designs that represent eternity / infinity and those that don't.

The designs that don't symbolize eternity / infinity result in multiple loops. Sections where the strand loops around the design and back upon itself without including all of the strands within the design. All of the designs above fall into this category.

And then there is the arc style knot work design below.

Six strand arc style Celtic knotwork infinity sample 01

This is an example of a single unending loop, or the infinity loop. Any design where the strand begins and ends at the same point and encompasses the entire design was considered to symbolize infinity or eternity by the Celts.

Some knot work designs, like this one can easily be made to symbolize eternity. This arc style design only needed to be extended a little from the previous example of the design in order to symbolize eternity.

Other designs require a lot of careful planning and layout to create a symbol of eternity.

What You'll Find on CelticKnotworkDesigns.com

Here on CelticKnotworkDesigns.com you will find that most of the interlaced knotwork designs are made up of multiple loops (not symbolizing eternity / infinity). Not because I cannot achieve the infinity loop knot work designs but because of my love of color and symmetry, or my inner Celt.

The multi-loop knot work designs enable me to use multiple colors harmoniously without causing a break in the symmetry of the design.

The infinity loop interlaced knot work designs can have multiple colors, to do so a strand will have to be one color when it goes under an adjoining strand and a different color when it emerges from the other side. Like this:

Two strand mixed style Celtic knotwork divider with arc style and chevron style design 02M0030

On simple designs this sudden color change method can have a pleasing effect, like in the interlaced design above. On very complex interlaced knot work designs this sudden color change method can be quite jarring.

When you are following the strands around a complex interlaced knot work design and you encounter this sudden change in color it causes your brain to kind of skip and your eyes start to wander around in an attempt to reconnect with the color you were following.

These abrupt changes in color can disrupt the symmetry and flow of the design and is something I try to avoid doing especially on complex knot work designs. Not that I won't do it if it was necessary, just that I prefer not to do it.

At present I am focusing on interlaced knot work designs. Mostly in the arc style but will mix in some chevron style and folded ribbon style, just to keep things interesting.

Later I'll introduce the two other Celtic art styles of key patterns and spirals.

How to Draw Celtic Knotworks Using Geometry

This is too large of a subject for this page to cover. But I do plan on sharing this information with you at a later date as either a series of blog posts or perhaps in a downloadable format.

Ten strand arc style Celtic knotwork divider