Northwest Coast Formline: Fear of Open Spaces?!

I wish my memory was better so I could cite sources. I remember reading a long time ago, a surmise for the reason the northwest coast tribal formline was so detailed. It’s true that in formline design, there is hardly any negative space. Nearly all the surface area is design, either primary, secondary or tertiary design. The conjecture was that these tribes must have had a fear of open spaces, and this psychological state seeped into the art. I’m not 100% sure, but it may have been in anthropologist Franz Boas “Primitive Art.”

The Evolution of Formline

While that explanation almost sounds logical, it is contradicted by the fact that our tribes we very able ocean-going peoples who could navigate the waters even at night. There is a much more plausible reason asserted by Steve Brown in “Native Visions: Evolution in Northwest Coast Art from the Eighteenth Through the Twentieth Century.”

Brown compares the early formline over time, to what it has evolved into. In doing so, he looks at the percentage of the surface area that is primary formline (uncarved black) to the percentage of surface area that is secondary, tertiary and negative area. He found that the amount of primary black formline diminished over time, with the introduction of iron and steel tools. Metal tools allowed for more removal of surface, which in turn allowed for more secondary (red) areas.

Regional Style

There are regional variations in the amount of black formline too, based on tribal style. Those familiar with our formline art will notice that the Haida formline tends to be very heavy formline shapes, with the thick part of the tapering/swelling shapes being quite a bit thicker than the much thinner formline shapes of the Tsimshian, and with the Tlingit formline being somewhere between, in terms of thickness of formline.

In today’s globalist world, there are so many more influences on native artists. With better tools, unlimited variety of new materials, and broad cultural influences, evolution comes from many sources.

Personal Style

Often, what determines the amount of detail I put into formline designs depends on the distance the viewer will be looking at the design. Most of my sketches, however, look like I’m compulsive about design. Lately, I just keep making the formline more and more detailed. They’re quite busy sketches! These I want people to be sucked into.

The sketches in this article today, are not the detailed ones I’m taking about. I’m still getting caught up on posting my daily sketches.

Experimental Tlingit Formline Art, Robert Davis Hoffmann

Half Assed

Experimental Tlingit Formline Art, Robert Davis Hoffmann


Experimental Tlingit Formline Art, Robert Davis Hoffmann

Inspired by Amulet

Experimental Tlingit Formline Art, Robert Davis Hoffmann

Bear Tracks



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