Celtic Art

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I think I was about 9 years old when I was taken to the British Museum and shown the 7th century Lindisfarne Gospels for the first time. Wow! I was totally stunned and amazed - and I still want to spend half an hour looking at just one page of the book each time I visit.

When the monasteries of England, Wales and Ireland were being set up around this time, they borrowed bibles and other books from each other so that copies could be made by hand - so many volumes have features in common, including the drawing style. The most inventive and productive illustrator, or illustrators, created the masterpiece of them all - the Book of Kells. It's just full of intricate and beautiful imaginative birds, beasts and more.

There are many modern books of photographs of its pages - and I've collected a good number over the years. I recommend that you borrow one from your local library, but be warned, you may get hooked too and end up a collector like me.



I started making copies of the originals as precisely as I could, but now modernise their techniques for my own work. You can do the same and make up your own rules for your own similar but unique 21st century style.

I often use a complete double outline for larger drawings - but sometimes the drawing may only be partially treated in this way.

Sometimes, where body parts meet, I carefully go from one outline to the other leaving a space all the way round, but you will see that I use a mixture of joins.

For the most part, like the original illuminators, shading to create a 3D effect is omitted. I sometimes give an occasional drawing a very tiny hint of texture or 3D by using watery paint with an uneven coverage. You can see this in the trunks of the 'bottle trees'. (There really are Australian trees called bottle trees, and they are shaped this way …well, nearly.)

This flying creature is about 10cm (4 inches) from wing tip to wing tip.



After planning out with pencil, the outline is drawn with a technical pen. I use a Rotring pen with their waterproof ink. These are expensive. An excellent alternative is a very cheap 0.1mm disposable technical pen with fade-proof and waterproof ink. I have used 'uni-pin' pens made by Mitsubishi, and they are excellent.

The colours in the Book of Kells still look very bright. Originally they must have been dazzling for some colours, like blue, were actually made from crushed gemstones - so I make my colours bright too. I mainly use Winsor and Newton's gouache paints (water soluble purified poster paints) but occasionally some of their watercolours too. My basic collection is Permanent White (a tiny fraction of which is added to most colours if I want them to be opaque and it's also used to make 'tints' - pale colours.), Lemon Yellow, Flame Red, Alizarin Crimson, Ultramarine Blue (which is used for bright blues, especially with a touch of white, and to make green with Lemon Yellow, and purple with Alizarin Crimson) , Prussian Blue (a navy blue which also makes good greens), Burnt Umber and Ivory Black.

For small, fine work my preference is a Winsor and Newton pure sable brush size 00 from their 3A range, and size 2 for larger areas. For micro-work and adding small dots, 00 and 000 Series 7 brushes, with shorter bristles, are useful. These brushes are not cheap, but will last for years and give excellent service.

In 'Blending Paint' you will see details of how I mix colours, hold a brush and care for brushes.

Usually, the space between the double outline lines I leave untouched - the colour of the paper I'm working on. Hot pressed watercolour paper is a favourite, but sometimes I use parchment paper, as I have done here.

In original designs, this space could be a creamy colour. They also put three dots in a triangle formation (a sign of the Trinity) in various places.


Little tiny equally spaced red dots were used around some drawings. I use paint for this, but it's really easy to make them too large (or worse, only some of them too large) so to start with I recommend a 0.1mm red waterproof 'uni-pin' or other disposable technical for this, which I do use myself too from time to time. Get the finest one you can.

When subjects are pictorial, this addition can look too 'fussy', but it can be effective if just one small drawing is used as part of, or close to, a fancy initial letter at the start of a page.

Gold was not used in the Book of Kells, but I find it very effective. Later, on another page of this site, I will show you how to use gold leaf for your own illuminations.

As you will see in the 'Finished Books' section, some of these examples come from a book I have written called 'The Doze Goes Wandering' .




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