Formline is a vibrant and dynamic artform common in Northwest Coast Indigenous drawings, paintings, carvings and weaving. Its distinctive eye-catching compositions are created using simple forms and shapes repeated to make complex and harmonious designs. The artform is closely tied to Indigenous culture and spirituality.
Formline originated with the Tlingit, Haida and Tsimshian peoples of the Northwest Coast of Canada and the United States. Over the years, the artform migrated inland and now many Yukon First Nations artists use formline designs in their painting and carving, connecting to the traditions of their coastal ancestors and neighbours.
Evidence of early formline designs date back 2,000 years. The beginnings of formline can be seen carved into objects found in the area where Prince Rupert, B.C. is now.
In long ago times formline was used to decorate ceremonial objects, such as hats, rattles and totem poles, and on many different functional items, including bowls, pipes, spoons, boxes, chests, screens, canoes, and the walls of houses.
Formline figures were also commonly seen in applique on clothing, such as tunics, and in Chilkat weaving aprons and blankets.
Traditionally, artists creating formline art would fast until the designs came to them through visions or dreams. They felt they were communicating with the spiritual world when making art, which is why they chose to depict powerful animals representative of clan symbols, such as the killer whale, frog, wolf, raven or crow, eagle and bear.
Like many other types of Indigenous art and cultural expressions, formline was discouraged and even forbidden by non-Indigenous settlers. Missionaries thought the abstract animal designs were false gods. And so, few people practiced the artform for many decades.
Today, new generations of artists are learning the principles of formline and studying the stories and protocols connected to it to create regalia and artworks. Some artists are using different colours, new mediums—like printmaking, ceramics and snow sculptures—and modern-day subject matter to make their own contemporary designs.
The ovoid and the U-shape are the two basic building blocks of formline’s design system.
Ovoids are elongated lopsided circles with flattened bottoms. They’re made by drawing a basic clan house shape and then rounding the corners. Generally, ovoids are the central figures in the design, representing animal heads and bodies. Then, U-shapes curve off from the sides of the ovoids, indicating the animals’ fins, tails or wings. The lines alter in thickness as they curve into elegant eye-pleasing shapes.
Formline also uses secondary design elements: circles, crescents, thin lines, and triangles with curved-in sides, called trigons. Trigons are generally formed by the negative space in the design, often seen in places like the whites of a figure’s eyes.
Traditionally, the inner edge of a formline figure is continuous, while the outer edge is where the shape intersects with other shapes to form junctures. Those junctures are often smoothed into gentle curves.
Although artists use the same basic shapes, each artwork is unique. Experts can tell who created the piece by the thickness and style of formline used. Masters of formline can show their own personal style by adding flourishes in the design without breaking the traditional principles of the artform.
Balance and harmony are valued in the compositions, and so artists use templates to make their shapes consistent and their overall designs symmetrical.
Many historical formline designs—commonly used on boxes, bowls, and chests—are completely symmetrical. The artist would compose a design for half the box and then reproduce its mirror image on the other half of the box. On smaller boxes, the image might be reflected on an adjacent side, so the design is symmetrical if viewing the box from its corner edge.
In formline relief artworks, the design is painted onto the wood first and then the negative space is carved out, leaving the painted parts intact. The interplay between positive and negative space is integral.
In traditional formline, the main design elements are black, and the secondary elements are red. Historical pieces also show artists sometimes used blue or green, or more rarely yellow.
Before commercially produced paints were available, artists made their own using the materials they had. They used natural pigments, such as red ochre for red, and burnt wood for charcoal to get black.
To give the paint consistency, they mixed the pigment with a base medium they created by chewing dried salmon eggs and cedar bark or boiling animal bones to make gelatin. Sometimes, they simply mixed the raw pigment with water.
Paint brushes were handmade from bristles or hair tied to a wooden stick, which acted as a handle.
Today, artists use commercially made paints and brushes.
The word formline was first used by art historian Bill Holm in his 1965 book Northwest Coast Indian Art: An Analysis of Form. It caught on and is still commonly used by teachers and artists today.
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