Adventures in Knotwork, Part 1

[This post originally appeared on the Primitive Method blog.]


Although I'm mostly interested in the treatment of metals in the middle ages, it's impossible to develop and explore techniques without a grasp of the styles and iconography of the medieval period. It's very hard to make sweeping statements about any style of art, but one style seems to be significant throughout the pre-modern history of the British Isles. From the work of Pictish and Celtic masons to the illuminated manuscripts of the Anglo-Saxons, knotwork is a common and important method of decoration.


It's important to remember that knotwork doesn't belong to the Celts - it's a very geometric method that can be seen from Ireland to the Far East, with varying complexity throughout history - it seems limited only by the skills of the practioner, rather than the place in which it was designed. Despite that, Celtic knotwork is the most popular and well-known form in the western world, and it's the most relevant to the era that I'm studying.


What really fascinates me about the style is the geometric and mathematical structure that underlies the interlace (interlacing is the way the bands pass over and under each other). Initially, it's very hard to get your head around the process, but once you've got it, it becomes relatively clear. I say relatively, because even with practice, I sometimes make really stupid mistakes (see picture, right).

square and cross

I should note, at this point, that I didn't figure out how to do it on my own. I'm actually indebted to A. Reed Mihaloew, who runs a site called Celtic Computer Art. I recommend it to anyone interesting in drawing knotwork - it's intended for a computer, but it actually works well for hand-drawing. I've looked at many other methods of creating knots, and none of them seem as simple and practical as this one. There's a tutorial and a set of grids that you can print out, or use with a graphics editor.


Although my first few drawings were, frankly, pathetic, I started being able to put together quite complicated designs. Admittedly, my earlier attempts weren't in the Celtic style per se; the bands were too thick, and so there was more white space than black space - there is also no room for sweeping curves. What was important, though, was to "get" the structure of the interlace; once the fundamentals are understood, it's possible to try more unusual shapes.


Almost anything is possible, and the pictures in this article are all very simple, but were done within my first few hours of trying knotwork. Ideally, each section of knotwork should consist of a single band interlacing around itself, and this can be ensured by a couple of methods. The first, for plain rectangular blocks of interlace, is to make sure that the cell height isn't divisible by the cell width. The second, if the height can be divided by the width, is to place walls within the interlace; the corner piece above right is a good example of that. Another thing to consider are the corners - using the cells as I've used them here, the corners tend to be quite curved, when they should ideally be spade-shaped.


There are many more techniques described in the tutorial, including triangular knots and alternative ways of drawing - I recommend anyone to have a go with this, because it's very rewarding.

Chased Knotwork Bangle in Fine Silver

Fun as it is to draw these knots, my aim is to apply them to metal. I've already produced one piece, which is the chased bangle pictured left. I'll put up a post detailing how this was done later. Having grasped the basics of knotwork, it's also important that I go beyond the tutorial that Mihaloew wrote. I hope to explore some other methods, of which there are quite a few, and I've also started developing a system for producing double-interlace knotwork, which I've had some sucess with. Eventually, I'd like to start including freeform shapes and zoomorphics into my knotwork, but that will be a real step up from the work described here; so far, what I've done is more geometry than art.

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