Formline Ambiguity, Symbolism, Overlay, Positive-Negative

I like designs that are very abstract. I’m less interested in designs that look like realistic outlines of animals that are then filled in with formline. But that doesn’t make one more valid nor authentic over the other. That’s just my own personal taste.

All art represents/symbolizes something, whether it’s something from nature or something from the imagination. It is represented realistically or abstractly. In Northwest Coast formline, you’ll find both. That includes the spectrum.

A good example of abstract formline is the kind of design you’d see on the bentwood box fronts and ends. A good example of very abstract design is the kind of design you’d usually see in the Chilkat blankets. Some design is so abstract that it’s difficult to interpret the symbolism.

There’s also symbolic meaning, not just symbolic representation. An example of symbolic meaning is the copper tinnaá which represents wealth. Or the crab and shrimp which represent theft. I hadn’t drawn a crab design until I illustrated Jan Steinbright’s “Raven House Mouse.” For that matter, I hadn’t drawn a shrimp design until this sketch from January 31 daily sketch:

Crab and Shrimp designs Tlingit Robert Davis Hoffmann

Crab and Shrimp

These aren’t that common of designs. They weren’t used as Tlingit clan crests. Instead, they appeared on ridicule poles to publicly shame a party who hadn’t paid a debt.

I didn’t want to spend my entire morning coloring in shrimp, but I did repeat the pattern of shrimp.

On the crab, the claws are above the crab’s body, with sharp toothed faces.

A deer is another animal that wasn’t used as a clan crest among the Tlingit. It was used as a symbol of peace.

In addition to symbolism and abstraction, another quality I really like is ambiguity. Sometimes a part of a design can represent two things simultaneously. I’ve seen many killer whale dorsal fins that are both a fin and a bird’s beak at the same time. Very cool.

I think I just like complexity in design. I like designs that are overlaid one on top of the other. Or designs that have the positive and negative reversed. Here are my next few sketches that illustrate both:

Tlingit Formline Designs Overlaid Robert Davis Hoffmann Tlingit


Tlingit Formline Positive and Negative Robert Davis Hoffmann Tlingit


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