Some descriptions of Northwest Coast Formline talk about the “layers” of formline as the primary (black, uncarved), secondary (red), and tertiary (blue-green) layers. Even though it appears that Tlingit designs painted or carved on a flat surface are 2-dimensional, there is the impression of depth to the designs because of this sophisticated layering.
To illustrate, let’s look at the stages of this flat carving below. First, you see the primary formline; the black uncarved layer of the design that creates the most basic part of the design. Next, the secondary red areas are added and the blue tertiary areas recessed.
You will notice that the primary and secondary formline are both composed of the same basic elements: ovoid and variations of the ‘u’ shape. The secondary areas can be said to be composed of filler designs, creating a second “layer.
The tertiary blue areas are almost always carved, giving the depth to the design.
Lastly, there is another area of consideration, and that is the negative spaces like the triangular areas (the term has been coined as ‘trigon’) and the crescent shapes. These spaces give still more depth to a design.
You will notice that the formline shapes don’t overlap, but they are abutted next to each other: the ‘u’ shapes tuck right up to the ovoids, like puzzle pieces. This is very basic formline. There’s a (in my opinion) more sophisticated style of formline in which the shapes do overlap. Steve Brown demonstrates how this occurs around the 49:11 marker in this Vimeo video of a formline workshop he presented a few years back.
I think one of first examples I saw of these 2-dimensional designs being treated as 3-dimensional was Charles Edenshaw’s drawing of Wasgo (Sea Wolf). Edenshaw (1839-1920) was an amazing Haida artist doing some really innovative work in wood, silver, and argillite. Check out this Pinterest board on Charles Edenshaw.
Sculptures did have quite a bit of interlaced bodies, such as the feet of one animal coming out of the ears of an animal below. Ornamental amulets and argillite pipes had a lot of this going on.
I love the idea of layers, and interlaced forms. I’m mesmerized by Escher drawings. Based on those ideas, I came up with this morning’s sketch below.