Different Line Patterns

Designed by Ben Cracknell Studios

Printed and bound in Great Britain by The Bath Press


Introduction 7

Numbers 13

Repeat sections 17

Creating the corners and edges 21

Drawing the patterns 28

Thickening the lines 38

Another variation 41

Creating key borders 45

Making other variations 51

Triangulating the ends 52

Flagging the ends 56

Spiralling the ends 58

Mirroring the edges 60

Repeating the minimum key 67

Four-line spirals 70

Key pattern rings 74

Circular key patterns 78

Irregular key patterns 86

Curved key patterns 88

The sections 91

Index 191

Different Circle Pattern


Key patterns go way back into prehistory - there is one carved into mammoth ivory from around 15,000 bc - but the name did not exist until J. Romilly Allen coined it at the beginning of this century. He saw parallels between these patterns and the shape of the traditional key. Before and since, they have been known by other names - 'spiral step patterns', 'maze patterns', 'Celtic fret patterns', and so on - but 'key patterns', or 'keys' for short, is the most common and the name has a certain ring to it.

Key patterns, however, arrived late in the development of Celtic art. They appear to have entered the vocabulary of the Celtic artist/craftsman around the sixth century ad. They were probably developed by the scribes from decorations in the imported manuscripts that they were copying from, and then later used in metalwork, enamels, carved monuments and High Crosses. Key patterns lived only briefly compared to most Celtic motifs, disappearing again within three centuries under the tide of portraiture and primitive realism, as the cultural power of Charles the Great and the Roman church spread across Europe.

Nowadays there are very few books on Celtic art, and more specifically key patterns, which do not tell you that 'Celtic' is not the right word, and that it should be 'Pictish'. There are other terms used for the style that reached its peak in the stunningly decorated manuscripts of the seventh and eighth centuries - 'Hiberno-Saxon' (meaning 'from Scotland and northern England'), 'insular' (meaning 'from the British Isles') or 'Northumbrian' (basically referring to those manuscripts from the island of Lindisfarne and the Wearmouth-Jarrow monasteries, but often used more broadly). In this book I shall use the word 'Celtic', as it is the most widely used and because the Picts did not live in Ireland or Wales, where there is a well-documented wealth of artefacts decorated with key patterns.

Finding out about the Picts, however, is rather harder. To paraphrase one archaeologist, 'We can't say conclusively that we have found any Pictish remains as we have never found anything that is exclusively Pictish'. This is because the Picts were really just another Celtic tribe. There were hundreds, if not thousands, of them all across Europe before the expansion of the Roman empire, and their culture was very similar throughout. The only real difference that we can see now is that the developments in the culture seem to have spread slowly from the east to the west, taking a century or two to travel from eastern Europe to the Western Isles. As the Romans moved further north and west, the Celtic tribes were pushed before them, until the unconquered lands - Cornwall, Wales, Scotland, Ireland and, to a lesser extent, Brittany, were the only strongholds of Celtic culture left. In fact, the Romans did such a good job in wiping out all the cultures that they met that Ireland was the centre for education in western Europe for centuries to come.

The Celts of Ireland and northern Britain certainly took the elements of their traditional art and combined it with some of the elements of Byzantine art to create a new and beautiful hybrid. It is mainly due to the popularity of these manuscripts that we see this style as Celtic,

rather than the style that for a thousand years and more led up to them. The classic Celtic style was based on long, flowing curves and a huge repertoire of spirals and animal designs. The rigid design elements were brought in with Christianity from the East, with the manuscript Bibles that the Celtic Christians of the sixth century onwards copied. From what we have left to study, it would appear that it did not take long for a synthesis of the two styles to develop. It may well be that this was because the same craftsmen and craftswomen who had already learnt the style of their ancestors for other uses - carving, body-painting, metalwork and jewellery - were recruited as scribes. The similarities between the illuminated manuscripts and contemporary jewellery must be more than a coincidence. If you want to find out more about the history of Celtic art and manuscripts visit my web site at http://www. net-shopper, co. uk/creative/.

Whatever you are planning to decorate with key patterns, this book should help you understand the basics and all the major variations. There are not as many possibilities as there are for Celtic knotwork, but they certainly number in the hundreds, many of which have never been drawn. As in my previous book, How to Draw Celtic Knotwork, I have tried to show a completely different approach to the manuals previously published. This is deliberate, as the aim is to show that by looking at key patterns (or anything else) from a different perspective, whole new vistas appear.

Celtic Key Pattern

Key patterns are just another variation on that most loved of Celtic designs - the spiral. Of course, they are made of straight lines and triangles, and look nothing like traditional Celtic spirals, but that is what they are.

The S-curve ^ (so-called for obvious reasons) was one of the more common Celtic spiral elements. If you take a lot of S-curves, you can link and repeat them ad nauseam.


The way to draw a spiral is to start by drawing a series of concentric circles, increasing in size by regular amounts. Mark off a point on the innermost circle, move around by 90° and mark off a point on the next circle. Keep repeating this until you get to the outermost circle, then join up the points with a simple curve.

Simple Key Patterns

The basic key pattern is drawn the same way, but with straight lines. Start at a central point, and draw a straight line 1 unit long. Then rotate by 90° and draw a straight line 2 units long, rotate by 90°, draw a straight line 3 units long, and so on.

To make it into a key pattern (or to make the spiral an S-curve), simply copy the spiral, rotate it by 180° and stick the 2 ends together.

Unfortunately, this is not quite right, because what has just been made is a typical classical fret pattern, and the difference is this: with the fret, if you repeat them as we did with the S-curve, you get a basic diagonal single line border:

Which, while it may look nice, is not quite Celtic. It does repeat to form an interlinked block, but the edges do not lend themselves to embellishment the way that key patterns do.

Almost exclusively, key patterns were used to decorate borders or blocks; so they needed to repeat horizontally or vertically. It was a simple move, therefore, to rotate the whole design through 45° to fix this. So developed the distinctive Celtic variation of one of the most widespread forms of decoration;

Key patterns differ from classical fret not only by this change of angle. This small change leads to a wealth of embellishment, creating a much greater library of designs than any other culture managed before or since with fret patterns. As in the science of fractals, a small change can make a huge difference.

There is a tradition in art history from the nineteenth century, which some still hold to be true, that all real art in Europe developed from Roman and Greek art, and that before the Romans came to Britain there was no indigenous art form. Therefore Celtic key patterns must have developed from classical fret patterns, brought to the area by traders, although of course this ignores the archaeological evidence of widespread trading in prehistoric times. This may be the case. The same argument could be used to claim that key patterns came from the Chinese, as there is archaeological evidence of indirect trade with China. It could also be argued that the Celts developed their art forms from a slightly different branch of the same basic geometry. After all the British Museum has an Egyptian carving showing a key pattern panel from around 3000 bc and there are mammoth tusks from the Ukraine carved with key patterns from 15,000 bc.

Surely it is not the ancestry of such patterns that is important, but the fact that the necessary change was made, enabling a completely different-looking series of patterns to be drawn. As far as I know it was the Picts, Celts from the north of Scotland, who developed these particular patterns, explored their possibilities and left us a rich collection, showing us the possibilities of the key pattern. And to take it one small step further, it is not where, when and by whom they were discovered; the important thing is what you can do with them. And the better you understand them, the more that you can do with them, so on with the numbers.


As we have seen, key patterns are just simple S-curve spirals made with straight lines. The numbers to describe them are just as simple.

We'll start with one of the most basic key patterns to make things even simpler. The first line is 1 unit long. The second must be 2 units long so that there is a gap of 1 unit on either side of the interlocking key.

The third line must be 2 units longer than the first for the same reason.

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    What sort of key symbols are used and repeated in egyptian pattern?
    8 years ago
  • dirk bar
    Did the picts live in ireland?
    7 years ago

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