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Celtic Knotwork With Gouache

Molly Hashimoto Creates Ornamental Celtic Knotwork using Gouache

Celtic Knotwork

Early illuminated manuscripts from the British Isles contain beautiful examples of ornamental knotwork and zoomorphic creatures. One of my favorite manuscripts (in the collection of Western manuscripts in the British Library in London) is the Lindisfarne Gospels, created in about AD 690 in the monastic community of Lindisfarne on what is now Holy Island off the coast of Northumbria. The scribe was Bishop Eadfrith; other members of the community contributed their binding and metalworking skills. I decided to use the versal half-uncial initial letter form "B" for books and beasts, in honor of these early books and the delightful beasts found within the illuminated works.

If you have never created a knotwork design before, it will be easiest to work large. The design can be reduced on a copy machine before transferring to the paper on which the design will be painted. The dimensions of this initial letter are 6-1/4" x 9".

'If you have never created a knotwork design before, it will be easier to work large'

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The outline drawing
I started by drawing with a 2H pencil on a piece of Bienfang Marker Vellum. It stands up well to repeated erasure. I created the outline form of the letter. Next I looked at a favorite page from the Lindisfarne Gospels and chose a dog's head as the ornament for the letter stem.

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Beginning the knotwork grid
The next step was to create the knotwork pattern. To design the knotwork I found it easiest to use graph paper and work large. I drew identical grids of 12 equal squares of 1". The easiest way to make the knotwork is to begin by placing diagonal lines across the intersections of the squares. Next diagonal lines in the opposite direction are placed beneath the top diagonals to create the weave.

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Looping the knots
I extended the lines out from the central diagonals, looping them to fit within the confines of the grid. An important rule to follow in forming the knots is that the placement of the diagonal "X" always alternates. If in one intersection the weave is top on bottom, within the square itself the weave will be bottom on top.

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Completing the knot pattern
Until this point I drew everything very lightly with a 2H pencil. When satisfied with the weave, I smoothed out the curves as I completed the loops and drew firmly to get a darker line.

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Warping the grid
To make a grid that fit into my letter it was necessary to warp the grid. This is simply a matter of displacing the intersections of the squares to fit within the warped edges of the perimeter.

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Once you have designed a panel of knotwork, you will be able to design within curved areas easily, and will not need to first use a rigid grid.

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Single knots
The single knots linked the pattern and created a simple ornament. The same rule applied to formation of this single knot: create a diagonal "X", and encircle it.

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Corner knotwork
To ornament the space in the upper part of the letter, I created a pattern that would turn a corner. I began with a rigid grid and the diagonal "X" as in the other knots, as well as the curved arrow shape that moves the knot around the corner.

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Completing the corner
Next, I looped and smoothed out all the curves.

Now I fit all these drawings into my letter. It can be easiest to take your larger grid drawings and reduce them on a copy machine to a size that will fit into the area you wish to ornament. In this case, I simply redrew them free hand onto the letter form. (After drawing the pattern in a large form first with the aid of a grid, it is remarkably easy to draw it free hand). I placed a piece of graphite colored Saral transfer paper between my drawing vellum and the Arches 140 lb. hot press paper in block form. I used the block form rather than stretching the paper because there is a very small amount of sizing on the hot press paper and rinsing it for stretching removes most of it, leaving the surface of the paper less glossy and more difficult to work on with pens. I transferred the drawing by re-drawing the image on the Drawing Vellum by pressing firmly, but not so hard as to leave a scored line in the watercolor paper.

Inking and coloring the final drawing. I used a permanent lightfast pen to draw over all the transferred graphite lines. Though the early scribes used gouache for this purpose, the pen gives much greater control. Next I filled in around knots with the pen.

To color the pattern, I chose a palette that I found in the Lindisfarne manuscript. To mix the gouache paints, add several drops of distilled water to a small amount of paint (about the size of your littlest fingernail), until it is the consistency of heavy cream. Then add one drop of gum arabic. The gum arabic gives the paint a slight sheen, and acts as a protective coat, almost like a varnish. It is a plant gum rather than a resin, so it's water soluble. Yellows were painted first (I always begin with the lightest colors).

After completing the letter, I decided that the counter shape (the "o" shape within the letter outline) seemed incomplete. I found interlocking dogs in the Book of Kells and adapted their head shapes to conform to the dog I had created on the letter stem. I alternated colors as I completed the counter design. I also added the decorative rim of dots in ink around the letterform, as this was common practice in the early Anglo-Saxon manuscripts.

Use a number 10 X-acto blade and very gently scrape out unwanted paint and ink or use white gouache to cover mistakes.


About the Author
Molly has been sketching since childhood and painting watercolors for over twenty years. After receiving a B.A. from the University of Minnesota and pursuing graduate studies at the University of Chicago, she moved to Seattle, where she studied illustration at the School of Visual Concepts.

In 2004, Molly exhibited three watercolors in "The Adventure Begins," a signature event for the Lewis and Clark Bicentennial in St. Charles, Missouri. She received an Award of Recognition. In summer of 2004, she received First Prize for Two Dimensional Art in the Shoreline Arts Festival, Washington.

Molly's artwork has appeared in other shows and galleries, including Northwest Watercolor Society shows, and at children's book illustrator shows in Mercer Island, Washington and at the Whatcom Museum of Art in Bellingham, Washington. Two of her calligraphy works are among the summer 2005 Flourish II show at the Washington State Convention Center.

Molly's illustration work includes the 2003 Sierra Club journals The Natural World and Wildflowers and Butterflies. She has been creating note card designs for Pomegranate Communications for 15 years. Two new holiday designs are available for 2005.

She has illustrated several children's books, including Sasquatch Books' A Present for Rose by Cooper Edens, as well as CD coves for koto master and storyteller Elizabeth Falconer, five of which won Parent's Choice awards. A new book, Little Pink Fish, will be published in 2006.

Molly's teaching is an important part of her growth as an artist. Her workshops through the King County Library System, quarterly classes at North Seattle Community College and workshops for Daniel Smith Artist Materials allow her to work with artists of all ages and levels of experience. She has written articles for Daniel Smith demonstrating the use of watercolor and other media. A recent teaching highlight was her workshop for the North Cascades Institute at their new Education Center on Diablo Lake.

Molly lives--and paints, hikes, reads and gardens-- in Seattle with her husband David, their children Tom and Rose, and their dachshund,Winnie.

Materials List

Daler-Rowney Gouache: