Northwest Coast Formline and Breaking the Constraints

Even in “classical” formline, which follows certain rules about the common shapes and how they are arranged over a surface, artists had some room for innovation. Artists creating clan crest designs needed their work to be familiar enough to the tribal groups, yet they were able to add a few surprises.

There are always certain constraints to deal with, such as the surface and shape of the area being designed. In the famous Raven Screen from Klukwan, I imagine the artist easily visualized the head, wings, body and tail areas, and once that was established he could then fill in the design areas within the formline rules.

Raven screen 01

When I was designing the backdrop for Sealaska Heritage Institute’s biennial Celebration, I had similar constraints: I would figure out a front view design that accommodated for a doorway, and stretched across the entire dance platform.

The first thing a designer has to work out is how much of the surface the head, body, and other appendages will take up. I usually start with a really rough sketch just to block out these areas, and then start working out smaller details once those basic areas are figured out.

Here’s the “blueprint” I used for the Celebration backdrop:

Sealaska Heritage Institute Celebration Backdrop

Celebration Backdrop

You can see that the first defining lines would be the top and bottom arcs of the head, and then everything else after that is simple sub-division and then filling in.

Quick visual glances at an area to be designed for ask you to use your ‘mind’s eye.”
There’s a kind of artist’s intuition when you almost automatically see how to distribute a design over an area.

In my daily sketches, sometimes I will bypass that sense of distribution. Without much plan, I’ll simply draw a few quick swipes and then see what clicks in my brain.

One thing I like a lot, is lines that transect, because then I’ve broken out of the paradigm of “classical” formline, i.e. how the shapes should necessarily transition into each other.¬†Transecting shapes¬†force me to think in more than the usual two-dimensional thinking.

My January 24 sketch is definitely going to become a future painting.

 

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