Tlingit Formline: Balanced vs. Unbalanced


One of the features of Northwest Coast formline is symmetry. What comes to mind immediately are the cedar bentwood boxes with the front on faces. Designs are usually distributed over an entire surface with rarely any empty space. In symmetrical designs, one can create one half of the total design and then just do a mirror image for the other side.

When I’ve designed symmetrical designs, I’ll often create a finished design for only one half of the design, and then trace and flip the design to transfer it for the other half. Of course, long ago the carvers of these bentwood chests didn’t use paper to transfer their designs. They did have ovoid templates as part of their “toolkits” which kept the ovoids uniform, and they also had a good eye for how accurately and evenly the designs were distributed.

Here’s an example of symmetrical design on a bentwood chest:

Tlingit cedar box (22928996829)

There are instances in which symmetry isn’t the preference. Button blanket designs usually aren’t symmetrical (although they may be). Paddle designs usually have designs that accommodate the paddle shape rather than attempting symmetry.

Symmetry and Degree of Realism

Very abstract designs like the ones on Chilkat robes, bentwood chests, sometimes house fronts, or interior house screens, are often symmetrical. Designs that look more realistic, such as side profiles of the various animals. Take a look at this design by the very innovative Haida artist, Charles Edenshaw:

Charles Edenshaw design

Charles Edenshaw design

Many beginners start out with realistic profiles of the different animals, and then fill in with formline shapes. Using the Edenshaw design above for example, you can see how ovoids fill the flippers, ‘u’ shapes for ears and the dorsal fin. The internal organs and bones can be seen in the body.

Side profiles of animals, fish or birds are really easy. Once you get a really general head shape, the best place to start is with the eye socket area, and then just add the mouth, nose, and ear. The cheek area simply results from getting the eye socket and mouth in place.

In my daily Tlingit formline sketches I just don’t worry about symmetry, mainly becauseĀ I want to be more spontaneous, and symmetry requires more accuracy. In my more finished works, the design is determined by the surface of the object. For some reason, I like irregularity. Here’s the January 19 sketch:

Off Balance Man, Daily Formline Sketch

Off Balance

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