How to Design a Celtic Knot: Instructions and Inspiration
Learn how to combine shapes and patterns to design your very own Celtic knot in Adobe Illustrator.
For centuries, artists have been inspired by the Celtic knot and its many iterations. These graphical representations of knots are not tied, but an infinite, continuous round of stylized rope in spirals, step patterns, and key patterns. In Celtic mythology, knots symbolize the sacred geometry of the universe and the interconnectedness of all life. They vary from the simple to the complex, take any number of forms, and you’ve likely seen them adorning ancient manuscripts, tattooed bikers, and your local Irish pub. We’ve interviewed some of today’s top Celtic knot designers to learn the history and meaning of this design, and how to create a simple knot in Adobe Illustrator.
Creating a Celtic knot
Alexander Suricoma Babich, manager of design studio MacoshDesign, became enchanted with Celtic design after watching “The Secret of Kells,” an animated film in which the main character creates intricate Celtic designs and patterns. This inspired him to begin studying Celtic design and create his own drawings.
“For me, designing Celtic knots is similar to solving a crossword,” says Alexander. “The more complicated it is the better! It is incredibly interesting to interlace the strips — put one on top and then on the bottom, twist the knot with itself, and finally connect two ends to get one infinite line. It’s like magic.”
We asked Alexander to share his process for creating a basic Celtic knot:
Today, I’ll show how I draw Celtic patterns. This method allows you to create a hand-drawn pattern that will be perfectly seamless, resulting in unique artwork with all the charm of a handcrafted product and all the advantages of computer graphics — including the ability to scale, experiment with colours, easily modify shapes, and of course prepare to print.
In this downloadable library, you’ll find a final file to accompany each step so you can compare your results with mine.
1. Create the backdrop grid for your drawing (millimeter paper) in Adobe Illustrator
First, create a standard vertical A4 RGB document.
Choose the ‘Rectangular Grid Tool’, which is located under the ‘Line Segment Tool’ instrument.
Open the ‘Rectangular Grid Tool Options’ menu by clicking on the artboard.
Set the parameters of the Grid as seen in the above picture. Then change the stroke color to RGB (0.255.255) and its weight to 0.1mm. If your default units aren’t in millimeters, you can change them in Illustrator/Preferences/Units menu. Change the General and Stroke units to millimetres.
With the ‘Direct Selection Tool’ select the central vertical and horizontal lines while holding Shift, then change the line weight to 0.25mm in the Stroke menu. Your grid should look like the picture below.
Now, change the grid’s outer line weight to 0.35mm.
Select your grid with the ‘Selection Tool’ and go to Object>Transform>Move (Shift+Ctrl+M Windows or Shift+Command+M on Mac). Set the parameters as shown below:
Be sure to highlight ‘Copy.’ Press Ctrl+D three times to get five copies of the grid. Then select all, press Shift+Ctrl+M again and change the parameters to Horizontal: 0, Vertical: 10, Distance: 10. Press Copy and then Ctrl+D three times to get a 5×5 squares grid.
Draw the rectangle to create the outline for the whole grid and set the stroke to 0.5 mm. Group all the squares by selecting Object>Group or Ctrl+G.
This grid is my basis for creating any Celtic pattern or ornament. You can save it and use it for future projects.
2. Adjust the backdrop for the Celtic knot ornament
For this particular ornament, we want to make some adjustments to our background. Select all and copy it using the move menu (Ctrl+Shift+M). Set parameters at Horizontal: 50mm, Vertical: 0mm. Select copy. Then press Ctrl+D twice more to get 4 copies. It should fit the A4 format and is convenient to print.
Select the ‘Ellipse Tool’ and draw the circle by clicking on the grid at the intersection of the second vertical bold line and the first horizontal bold line. Set both height and width to 40 mm.
Select the circle and copy it with Ctrl+Shift+M (Horizontal: 20mm, Vertical:0mm). Press Ctrl+D six times to get eight circles.
Copy this backdrop a few times to have samples you can experiment on (I made four but used only two), then print it. Having the circles as a guide will enable you to better create a symmetrical knot. Now it’s time to draw!
3. Hand-draw your Celtic knot ornament design
At this point in the process, I like to start by sketching. Your drawing does not have to be perfect. You can draw messy to figure things out, and it will be ok. I promise you, no one will ever recognize it in the final design!
I don’t recommend using a regular pencil to draw because it’s too similar to the ink shade you’ll use to draw your final lines. Instead, I like using a blue pencil. This way Adobe Illustrator can easily distinguish the blue pencil I used in my sketching from the black ink of the final lines, so there is no need to erase before having the software trace my design. Erasing damages paper and risks smudging the ink. An additional plus is that you’re then saving all your ideas that weren’t included in the final, and you can use it in later works.
Start designing the knots. First, I do a rough drawing, then I later redraw it more accurately in the final design.
This design consists of three elements: start, center, and end. Later we can cut this element in two places, then duplicate the central element to make the finished stripe any length we need.
One of the most important things in Celtic knot design is to alternate the position of the stripe: top-bottom, top-bottom, … on each crossing to get the weaving effect. To make it easier to figure out and see, I like using 2 colors of pen. Pay special attention to the places where the start, center, and end elements unite on the same horizontal lines. The grid backdrop will help you to navigate this process.
Next, add width and curves to the stripe. This will lend a 3-D effect to the knot.
Now, trace the contour with a technical pen — first thinner (0.1-0.3mm), then thicker (0.8mm) to make it perfect. If you’re feeling confident, you can skip the thin pen and outline the drawing with a thick pen right away.
4. Vector trace and adjust to form a seamless Celtic knot border ornament
Drag your drawing into an empty Adobe Illustrator document. Open the ‘Image Trace’ panel and select the Black and White tracing style.
You can see my presets above, but I recommend playing with them a little to get the best result, as each drawing is individual. Make sure that the box next to ‘Strokes’ is unchecked and the box next to ‘Ignore White’ is checked.
Now let’s convert the tracing to paths. Click ‘Expand’ in the Control panel or choose Object > Image Trace > Expand. Now we can work with our drawing like with any vector object.
Use the ‘Line Segment Tool’ to draw two vertical lines where the start, middle, and end elements connect. Hold down Shift to draw the lines vertically.
Select all of the elements. Open the ‘Pathfinder’ panel (Shift+Ctrl+F9) and open the ‘Pathfinder Options.’ There, check next to ‘Divide and Outline Will Remove Unpainted Artwork’ and press ‘ok’. Then select ‘Divide’ in the ‘Pathfinder’ panel.
Ungroup the elements by selecting Object>Ungroup or Shift+Ctrl+G. Move the end element left by pressing Shift. Select the central element. Copy (Ctrl+C) its Width from the ‘Properties’ panel (Shift+F8).
Then choose Object>Transform>Move or press Shift+Ctrl+M. Copy the width into the Horizontal (Ctrl+V) and write in ‘0’ in the Vertical; press Copy.
You can see that the pattern isn’t absolutely seamless. To make it fit perfect, we need to adjust the endpoints. For better visibility, I changed the fill of the second element to red. Using the ‘Pen Tool,’ hold down Ctrl to move points and adjust the drawing. Edit only the black part – DON’T TOUCH THE RED! Delete the red element while finished.
Now put the end element back and repeat the process. DON’T TOUCH THE MIDDLE ELEMENT, otherwise, it will no longer connect seamlessly. Now, we can extend the element endlessly by copying the middle part.
Our Celtic knot ornament is ready, but currently it looks a bit boring. Let’s add some details.
5. Add details
Change the fill to RGB (0.255.255) and add a background field outline and vertical lines at the connection points. Then scale it a bit larger to increase the difference between thick and thin lines, making the pattern more vivid.
Copy and print it.
Use this knot as the basis for multiple designs. On one, I decorated rope, on another I decorated the background. I added small strokes, imitating shading where the elements cross.
Try to avoid drawing vertical lines where start, center, and end elements are connecting with each other. And remember to not worry about drawing perfectly – imperfections add life to the artwork. I like to use 0.1-0.3 mm technical pens. By applying different decorations to the same pattern, you can get various results.
Finally, scan the result and adjust it the same way we adjusted previously, making sure to connect all of the elements seamlessly.
Your Celtic knot pattern is ready!