Tlingit Formline: Developing Primary and Secondary Elements

Formline in General

Formline is described as curvilinear lines that swell and taper and transition into each other in a way that creates a continuous flowing design. It is called ‘Formline’ because it is not just about line, per se; it is about the swelling and tapering forms.

Tlingit formline is composed of a few basic components: Ovoids and ‘U’ shapes and the myriad variations within those components. There are other shapes that result from combining ovoids and ‘u’ shapes, but these are resultant shapes like the ‘s’ and ‘trigon’ spaces. There are other minor, but important shapes such as eyes/eyelids, eyebrows, hands/feet/claws.

Formline is used for figure outlines as well as for the inner (secondary areas) elements. Formline is used for figure outlines as well as for the inner (secondary areas) elements. The Raven Screen from the Klukwan Frog House demonstrates this well:
Raven screen detail 01

You can see how formline defines the main head, mouth, nose, and ears; it also fills in cheeks, inner ears, tongue, nostrils — any inner areas.

Primary Formline

The main formline that defines the design is called Primary formline. Primary formline is almost always painted black. The black formline is hardly ever recessed. Being the raised part of a carving, and being black causes this part of the design to have more prominence, hence defining the figure outline.

Secondary Formline

Secondary formline is just what the name suggests, it is secondary to the design; it is the formline that the eye is drawn to after the main formline. Secondary areas are almost always painted red. You can think of them as filler designs that follow the same rules as the primary formlines. They fill the inner parts of the design, which incidentally are often the inner parts of an animal. Again, the Raven screen above demonstrates the use of secondary formline in the inner areas.

Putting it into practice

This is how I spent my lunch break yesterday. I started with establishing the defining lines of my design and then adding secondary formline:

Jan 20 Tlingit Art Daily Sketch

Formline basic lines

Jan 20 Tlingit Art Daily Sketch by Robert Davis Hoffmann

Formline with secondary fillers


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