The Wonderful Elasticity of Northwest Coast Formline

Many years ago (1980), I had the pleasure of taking a one month apprenticeship with master carver, Steve Brown. Steve talked about formline art as being “elastic,” comparing it to the idea of drawing on a piece of rubber and then being able to stretch that design over any surface. In Northwest Coast Indian Art: An Analysis of Form, Bill Holm talks about formline as a 2-dimensional art “wrapped” around 3-dimensional objects.

Someone commented recently about how I am able to use formline in such a variety of ways. One would think that the formline rules are so rigid, and the elements that are the building blocks of formline — Ovoid, ‘U’, ‘S’ and so on — so limited that the design possibilities would be exhausted. Quite the opposite! Our formline style is elastic in more than one sense.

I’ve used formline to design Christmas trees, a forget-me-not flower, and many concepts that would have been foreign to the Tlingit culture a few hundred years ago. Here’s a painting I did of conductor and composer Owen Underhill conducting the Vancouver Bach Choir:

Owen Underhill, Conductor of Vancouver Bach Choir

Conductor and Choir

I remember my dad talking about how the Tlingit language was so descriptive, that a long time ago the Tlingit didn’t need to interject English words. I feel the same way about our formline design style: one can express any object or concept in formline. I do need to master the basics first, however. Then the fun begins.

In stretching the rules of design (line and shape), I can distort formline elements, overlap them, slice them up, you name it. In addition, I don’t have to adhere to the basic colors: black, red, turquoise. Colors were limited a long time ago, according to the minerals of the region. But nowadays commercial paints give me a whole array to experiment with.

I don’t experiment with color in my sketchbook. My daily sketches are about practicing formline and loosening up. Just getting my ideas out of my head and onto paper. And staying in practice.

Here are the next three designs from my Tlingit Formline Daily Sketchbook:

Experimental Tlingit Formline Robert Davis Hoffmann

I See You

Experimental Tlingit Formline Robert Davis Hoffmann

Animals in the Wild

Experimental Tlingit Formline Robert Davis Hoffmann


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