Some Basic Concepts and Terminology in Tlingit Formline

Terminology in Formline

Thank goodness Bill Holm came up with nomenclature for a study of northwest coast formline art. Many of the terms Holm coined in his landmark Northwest Coast Indian Art: An Analysis of Form. Many of the terms Holm coined in this book have become common language we use when explaining or teaching our formline art.

A Bit About Formline

Holm describes formline as “…the characteristic swelling and diminishing line like figures delineating design units. These “units” are the ovoid, U shapes, eyes, and other minor shapes. The overall composition is usually symbolic of a clan crest. The formline shapes, when assembled into a finished piece, are usually continuous lines that flow in and out of each other. Holm describes these gracefully flowing lines/shapes as curvilinear. Basically, that means that all the corners will be rounded, leaving a very small incidence of lines ending abruptly.

Three Design Techniques Used to Decorate a Surface

Basically, formline is 2-dimensional design stretched over a surface. Exactly how an artist decides to decorate a surface depends on the shape of the surface, and the artist’s own decision whether to depict something┬ámore realistic or more abstract.┬áRealistic depictions usually are what Holm describes as configurative, i.e. they show the animal silhouette which will be then filled in with formline design. When an animal is distorted, split or rearranged for fit a space, but the body parts still keep a degree of anatomic relationship, Holm terms this expansive. Designs in which an animal has been “dismembered” and pieced together mainly to fill the surface rather than making anatomical sense, Holm terms distributive.

If you’re learning or practicing formline design, it’s best to start with the most basic shapes. Then start combining the single shapes. Some of my very early work tended to be more configurative, because I knew how to create the silhouette of an animal, and then I’d simply fill in the body parts. Whatever you choose, practice really helps you understand the art better than just studying it.

Here’s three days of sketches:

Experimental Formline design Robert Davis Hoffmann, Tlingit

Woven Formline

Experimental Formline design Robert Davis Hoffmann, Tlingit

Salmon Stream

Experimental Formline design Robert Davis Hoffmann, Tlingit

They Come Out at Night

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