Embellishing and Colouring Celtic Design

Today is the third in a series about my experiences in making  Celtic art. I have several designs that i have both the pen and ink original versions of as well as coloured or otherwise embellished versions.

As I mentioned in a previous post, i started out publishing my drawings as black and white prints of my pen and ink drawings, mainly because black and white was way cheaper to do back then. If someone wanted a colour version, I would hand-colour it for them, thus combining a reproduction with original, unique additions. Unfortunately these had to be fairly expensive, as most of the hand work I would put into an original painting had to go into the hand-coloured prints. I would also colour the original ink drawings, which were then shown in various exhibitions.

Later, when colour copiers became capable of outputting faithful reproductions, I started issuing small runs of colour copies which I could sell for much less than my hand-coloured ones. I was very fortunate to meet a woman who worked at my local copy centre, who was not only sympathetic to my efforts to get the most faithful reproductions possible, but positively delighted in the challenge — becoming a friend in the process!

Here are a few of those images, with their stories:

Celtic Green Man
I have made many images of the Green Man, the personification of Life Force as a man with leaves for hair and beard, often with branches, vines, and leaves sprouting from his mouth and ears as well. One of these days I’ll write a post telling a bit more about him, but as this post is about Celtic art, I’d better not get sidetracked!

After I had drawn my Green Man, I wanted to surround him with a border that complimented him but wasn’t just more leaves. I chose a pretty simple, plain knotwork braid for the border; I knew I was going to make it look like vines, so I didn’t want to get into a lot of fancy breaks and backtracks in the pattern. After I constructed and drew the basic shape in pencil, I transferred it to the page, penciled in the woody texture and tiny leaves, then inked it. The original construction drawing was continuous and didn’t have any Green Man hair or beard overlapping it, or I couldn’t have kept track of where I was! The hardest part of these types of borders, for me, is figuring out the corners. They have to go to a logical place as they turn, and the end result has to have continuous strands all the way around. It’s like a puzzle, which is one of the reasons I enjoy doing this!

Celtic Green Man BW

The colouring of this piece was done in watercolour, fairly lightly, as I wanted to preserve all the pen and ink detail I’d worked so hard on. There is a LOT of stippling in the ink drawing, and I didn’t want to lose that texture, nor the wood texture on the vine-y parts. So I kept the colour very simple and let the pen and ink do the work for me in defining the shaded areas.

Celtic Green Man colour

Eostre, Saxon Goddess of the Dawn
The original version of this, the pen and ink drawing, was created to be scaled up to 3×4 feet for an outdoor project for the Island Illustrators, a group in which I was active at the time. We all got a snippet of text about spring that we were supposed to illustrate. I was quite pleased to draw the one about Eostre, as it gave me a chance to do a bit of Saxon-style art, which is extremely similar to Celtic (there was a lot of cross-over during the era of the great monasteries, with their scriptoriums filled with monks doing beautiful illuminated books). The illustrations were supposed to be hung as hand-painted plywood panels on a construction fence during the renovation of the Royal BC Museum, but for some reason the project never came to fruition. So I still have the very large version of this!

Eostre was the personification of dawn and the spring. She had many names all over Europe, such as Astara and Astarte, but the Saxon version of her name is where we get the word “Easter”. Her feast day was the Vernal Equinox. She was shown as carrying the golden egg of the sun in her hand, with wings on her shoulders and feet, and the moon hare (for the Saxons and Celts, like the Japanese, saw a hare in the moon, not a man) chased her eternally across the sky. And that is where we get the Easter bunny and Easter eggs! Don’t ask me where the chocolate came from, though.

When I made this picture, I researched Saxon art the good old-fashioned way, in the library, astonishing the librarians at check-out by appearing suddenly from behind an immense, ambulatory stack of books. I eventually settled on the general shape of a border design from a Saxon manuscript, and shamelessly lifted the two little guys in the bottom corners from it because I thought they were really cute. The knotwork and spirals and key patterns I designed to fit, as the embellishments of the original pattern were quite hard to make out, whether due to age or because those monks had better eyesight and waaaaay more time than I did. I put the phases of the moon in the top arch to give a hint about the hare’s identity. In drawing Eostre herself, I stuck to the descriptions I found (notice the starry cloak — someday I want one just like that!). I tried to come as close as I could to the style of drawing that was used for people at that period, though I think she’s a bit more realistic. Finally, I researched what a Saxon homestead might look like, and put that in for her to fly over.

Eostre BW

I wanted the colours to be spring-like, but also rich like the manuscript pages I had seen in books, and chose my watercolour palette accordingly. One of the hardest things was actually to get the sun’s rays to look all shimmery. Eventually I used coloured pencils to blend and lighten them, and for the blending of colours and highlights to make the cross-over points in the border patterns seem almost three-dimensional. I also used the pencils to highlight and bring depth and richness to the figures and landscape.

Eostre coloursm

The Wolf and the Stones
I’ve always had a fascination with standing stones, and about the time I drew this, I finally got over to England to see some real ones! I would have had our small group touring around to every single standing stone or group in the country except that my friends kept wanting to go to museums and pubs and cathedrals and tea houses and things. Imagine that! But I did get to some of the very famous ones, and took lots and lots of pictures. The highlight, of course, was Stonehenge, which some of our friends there said was not as good as we’d expect — it was smaller than we thought, it was full of tourists, and there was the fence — but the second we topped the hill and saw it in the sunset, I was just as thrilled as I thought I’d be. Unfortunately, it had just closed for the evening, which was too bad, as the light was lovely (I kind of draped myself on the outer chain-link fence to take some pictures). But we came back the next day, and even with the hordes of tourists, I thought it was magnificent.

But I digress! So, how did this wolf get to be at Stonehenge, or wherever this is? And a North American timber wolf, at that? Well, never mind, it’s fantasy. So magic applies, and it’s there because I say so and I like to draw wolves and knotwork and standing stones, so I put them all together! This knotwork pattern is one of those that turns back on itself, and although it may look like one continuous strand, it’s actually four strands, as you will be able to see in the colour version. Like the Celtic Green Man, I drew out the border on a separate page first, then transferred it to the main design. One thing I particularly like about this one is the clouds that look like spiral fingerprints!

Wolf & Stones BW

In the colour version, I set out to make it rich looking but not overwhelm the delicate details in the sky. The initial colouring, like Eostre’s, was done with watercolour, then a lot of coloured pencil. In this case I also added light areas on top of the solid black ink, making it more of a three-dimensional scene and less of a graphic design.

Wolf & Stones Colour

Celtic Dragon
In this last image, the embellishment is carried out in elaborate pen and ink work instead of in colour. Like the seahorses I posted a couple of days ago, I got the idea for this one from some very rudimentary stonework, found in the same book. I fleshed out the dragon, and scaled him up (no apologies for that pun). But he was a very skinny design, and I wanted something to fit my standard art-print format of 11×14 inches. So I invented some side panels, reminiscent of a stained glass triptych. I drew one of them, then flipped it over and traced it to make sure it matched exactly. As I was working kind of free-form with the knotwork, I couldn’t rely on any grid lines to duplicate it. The gryphons are a common animal in Celtic manuscripts, and the tail twining with the knotwork is a fairly tame manifestation of zoomorphic style, in which animals’ bodies would twist into all sorts of anatomically impossible shapes in order to intertwine like knotwork.

Celtic Dragon outlineBWsm

My original intent was to colour the above version, but I also wanted a black and white version for my print series. So I set to work embellishing the spaces, balancing them to create richness without colour, but still leaving plenty of white space so that it didn’t seem overworked. Altogether, this drawing took over seventy hours!

Celtic Dragonsm

One of these days I will get around to creating a coloured version — and since I now know how to colour on the computer, I may just give it a try doing it digitally!

I hope you’ve enjoyed all my rambling about Celtic art and my pictures, if you’ve made it this far. Tomorrow is Saturday, and that means it’s Technique Day — stay tuned for another illustrated version of one of my classy classic class handouts!

6 responses to “Embellishing and Colouring Celtic Design

  1. Pingback: Happy (late) Vernal Equinox! | Karen Gillmore Art·

  2. I do love Celtic designs, new and old. And rocks. Yes, I sense we are very much on the same page in many respects… I’ll enjoy browsing your various images!


    • Thanks, Pia — yes, we do seem to have a lot in common! I’ve been enjoying yours as well, in the bits of time I’ve had to look — I’ll be so glad when this project is done, I’m going to have a blog-reading fest!


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