Islamic art patterns

My first contact with Islamic art was in Dubai; a holiday destination I avoided, even though I didn’t know much about it. I expected vulgar excess, tasteless wealth, kitsch instead of luxury.

Prejudices, are an assured path to safety. What one knows to be “art” or “good taste” will remain unchallenged and approved if one sticks to the commonly accepted as such. Beethoven will always be Beethoven, and French cuisine will always be French cuisine.

 What I did find was indeed a city boasting of its wealth, with its huge buildings, golden columns and sparkly chandeliers, but also a city of meditative, precise, colourful art.

In Islamic religion the representation of human beings is forbidden, so artists experimented with forms. They took geometry and brought patterns to new levels while creating an extremely subtle lacework called arabesque.

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The detail and patience needed is simply astonishing. At first glance, it is not evident how these shapes are constructed, how this symmetry and repetition is achieved.

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Detail from Qeysarie Gate, Iran

Underneath the vivid colours and beautiful ornaments lie circles and lines, drawn to absolute detail. Most Islamic ornament used principles of geometry and artists were trained to use a compass and ruler. A line drawn slightly left, could really destroy the whole symmetry of an artwork.

Drawing overlapping circles with compass and pen

Here is a guide to help you learn how to draw a few basic patterns used in Islamic Art. Slowly, you will realise that in even the most elaborate designs the same shapes reappear in different combinations, and you might also get to create your very own pattern.

  1. First, draw a straight, horizontal line, at the centre of the paper.
  2. Make a circle, using a compass, near the centre of the line.
  3. Use the intersection of the line and the circle to draw two additional circles on each side.
  4. You can now notice a few more intersection points, two at the top and two at the bottom. Use these as the centre of four additional circles.

Basic pattern in Islamic Art

A few shapes are already easy to trace.

Finding geometrical shapes in Islamic Art

To create these pink pentagons I added a few more circles, connected points to draw triangles and opposite ends to draw parallel lines. Repeating these pentagons in different combinations can lead to additional patterns.


These patterns do not need to be used simply for decorative reasons. Contemporary artists use these patterns as an element in their artwork. I find Kay Kahraman’s work brilliant in combining different traditions and techniques to create her very own style.

Do you have a favourite Islamic artwork or artist using Islamic elements? Let me know!

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