1/ The Two-dimensional Art

Lightning snakes, whale-eating the thunderbirds, two-headed sea  serpents and animals that transform themselves into people are among the many colorful creatures that have adorned the household as well as ceremonial possessions of the Northwest Coast Indians. The dynamic imagery of these peoples, expressed in a style as rhythmic and flowing as it so complex, has created one of the world's most remarkable art traditions.  It is an art with vitality and profound meaning for those of its culture.

                In the past, the social and spiritual order of the Indians was visually confidential through their art.  It was seen in totem poles and house posts which bore the crests of their owners;  in elaborate masks and intricately carved goat horn spoons;  in tobacco mortars wrought from stone,  and delicate pendants made from bone or antler;  in magnificent ermine-trimmed headdresses,  and spindle whorls enriched with symbolic carving on both sides.  Excelling in three-dimensional sculpture, Indian artists also worked in flat design, using brush and pigment to enhance many possessions.  Most of these paintings portrayed the crests of their owners, often declaring the owner's lineage, wealth and status.  Some had mythical or spiritual meanings.  Probably very few had ornamental value alone, although a great love of decoration is shown by its abundant use.

                Painting embellished canoes,  paddles,  finely woven hats and baskets,  dishes,  spoons,  boxes, drums,  rattles,  chiefs' seats,  ceremonial garments,  dance screens and shamans' charms.  Some of the finest examples of graphic art are to be seen on the painted bentwood boxes and chests used for storing chiefs' regalia and for important burials.  The smooth,  rectangular shape of the box sides,  vertical or horizontal, once provided the "canvas" for the artist's brush.

                The colors most frequently used were red and black, although a blue-green and sometimes a yellow were also used in some areas.  The red was made from red ochre,  a hard clay-like mineral,  and probably from hematite also,  while black was derived from charcoal,  graphite or lignite.  These materials were ground to a powder and mixed with a binding agent.  For the latter,  fried salmon eggs were chewed in shredded cedar bark,  which retained the membranous parts of the egg while allowing the oil to mix with saliva.  The resulting liquid was spat in a stone palette or paint dish and mixed with the powdered pigment to the right consistency.  Later,  the availability of commercial paints gave rise to experimentation with other colors.

                Brushes of several sizes were made of animal hair-often porcupine-lashed to the squared end of a round wooden handle and cut off at an angle.  As with the carver's knife,  the brush was drawn towards the body, not away.  The artist used the edge of the brush for outlines, and the width of it for filling in.  Templates, cut from hide or cedar bark, were used as a guide to drawing certain shapes, and to ensure uniformity in a symmetrical design.

                The making  and painting of household and ceremonial items was largely abandoned as the new culture spread and took hold in the nineteenth century.  Missionaries and school teachers worked hard to ensure that old ways were forgotten,  and the banning of the potlatch by federal law struck the final and most damaging blow.  But with the renaissance of native Indian arts in the late 1960s,  and its rapid expansion through the 1970s, artists discovered another medium in which  to express their talents,  and through it produced a household  item unknown in the old days.  The medium was silkscreen printing-and the household item was the picture to hang on the wall.  Family crests and depictions of mythical creatures of legend were now being multiply reproduced on paper.  Public  appreciation of native art was increasing and a few artists began to make a living from the sales of their prints and other works.  And  as a new awareness of the old culture's inner strength surged along the coast like a flood tide,  the revival of potlatches, dancing and ceremonials again demanded designs and regalia from the artists,  and this activity  inspired many young people to pursue creative arts.  Two-dimensional designs of family crests were required for a growing number of button blankets;  painted dance screens were  revived;  dance aprons,  drums and rattles were in demand.  The  silkscreen print became a gift item at the potlatch, and even invitations to attend the ceremonial event were specially designed and printed.  Two-dimensional art was back-and thriving.

                Northwest Coast art owes its structure to a general system of design principles.  Depending on how these are used,  the crest or motif being portrayed can vary from realistic and easily recognizable to involved and somewhat difficult to figure out-or the identity of the figure can vary from realistic and easily recognizable to involved and somewhat difficult to figure out-or the identity of the figure can become  totally abstracted through the rearrangement of its anatomical parts.  Examining the individual elements largely used in the art form,  and recognizing the ways in which those elements are put together,  enables us to grasp the structure of the art.  We may not be able to fully comprehend the inner meaning of the images,  but in learning to identify them we can appreciate the imaginative qualities of the artists and respect the great cultures that produced them.

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5 Killer whale design painted on a grave house at Sitka,  Alaska.

c.1888-89. (Tlingit)

6 Killer Whale and Grouse,  by Ron Sebastian.  ('Ksan)

7 The Dance of the Raven by the Gitksan Dancer,  Vernon Stephens.  ('Ksan)  

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8 Dogfish by Phil Janze has its general structure delineated by the form line.  ('Ksan)

9 The same dogfish design,  in form line only.  

10 Detail of a form line,  showing how each portion of the line changes in thickness and direction and how it tapers at junctions.

11, 12 Detail from two designs showing the T and Y shape and the circle and crescent.


2/ The Basic Components  

Form Line

The two basic colors of Northwest Coast graphics art are black and red.  Black,  the primary color,  is mainly used for the form line,  a strong contoured line which structures the design  and clarifies the anatomy of the subject by defining the head,  wings,  joints,  tail,  etc.  Red,  the secondary color,  is generally reserved for elements of secondary importance.  When occasionally an artist reverses this order,  the red form line still creates the framework of the design.

                Northern artists employ a blue-green as the tertiary color on many painted and carved designs,  and this can occasionally be found in prints also.  Sometimes even a fourth color is added to silkscreen prints for brilliancy,  usually by Kwagiuatl artists,  for whom a variety of color is traditional.

                In the northern art style particularly,  the form lines curve,  connect and flow continuously,  and where a heavy line meets a curved one,  a simple device is used to avoid a thick,  clumsy look.  The artist adds a negative shape in the form of a crescent,  a T or a Y at the junction;  this maintains the outline of the curve and gives relief to the solid thickness.  Where two heavy lines meet,  or in any other area where the mass of color  is unbroken,  the negative circle  as a crescent which has "fallen in on itself."

                The form line changes constantly,  in both thickness and direction.  In spite of this undulating movement,  the tautness of the linear structure and the sudden turn of the lines prevent the design from having a runaway, swirling appearance.


Probably the single most characteristic shape used in this art is the rounded rectangle termed the ovoid.  A well-made classic northern ovoid seems to be held intension.  The top edge appears sprung upwards,  as though from inner pressure;  the lower edge makes a slight upward bulge that seems to be caused by the taut downward and inward pull of the two lower corners.  There is a feeling that if the ovoid "let go," it would spring back into a rectangle or an oval.  In West Coast art, the ovoid is not as frequently used as it is in the north or by the Kwagiutl,  nor does it have the look of being in tension,  the ends being more softly rounded.

                The ovoid may be solid,  but more frequently it is an open shape made by a line requiring specific proportions.  The upper part of the line is thicker than the lower,  the sides bringing about this transition as they curve down into the angular corners,  becoming more slender as they do.

                To fit a given space,  the ovoid can be used in any proportion from elongate and slender to fat and rounded,  but the less it is stretched or compressed the more aesthetically pleasing it looks.

                In two-dimensional design,  large ovoids may be used to delineate the head of a creature or human;  they can represent eye sockets or major joints,  or help form the shape of a wing,  tail,  fluke or fin.  Small ovoids may contain faces or indicate joints,  eye,  ears,  noses or the blow hole of a whale.  Like other elements they may also serve to fill empty spaces and corners. 

                The Haida words for "ovoid" is the same word for the large dark spot on each side of a young skate.

Inner  Ovoids

The open,  linear ovoid frequently contains an inner ovoid.  This ovoid may be small and solid,  or nearly solid,  elements representing an eyeball.  It may be a double eye motif,  or a specialized,  complex motif  termed a salmon-trout head.  The latter two are northern elements,  and generally carry a fine black line around them.

U Form

U forms are another very characteristic feature of Northwest Coast art,  and these too can vary tremendously in proportion while maintaining their essential U shape.  Large U forms often help to contour the body of a bird or animal,  and can be seen as part of the form line in ears,  in the tail,  forming flukes,  and so on.  Smaller U forms serve to fill in open spaces and,  in Kwagiutl art,  often represent the small feathers on a bird's body.

Split U Forms

A secondary element often seen in ears,  feathers,  tails and many other open spaces is the split U form,  which is frequently used in conjunction with the U form.  If the latter is quite broad,  a pair of split U's may fill the space.  These also have many variations in proportion.  The Haida word for the split U shape means "flicker feather," and the reason is clear when a flicker's tail feather is placed inside a U form.  The attractive orange and red feathers from red-shafted flicker were often set vertically around the edge of a chief's headdress.

S Form

Another small element used for filling a space is the S form,  which is derived from two halves of a U form joined in opposite directions.  These have many uses in a design:  as a connecting element,  as part of a leg or arm,  or to create an outline.  A series of S forms within the body cavity of a creature represents the rib cage.

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13 Ovoids vary in shape,  from elongated to compressed,  depending on the design and space in which they are used.  At right, the specific proportions required of a classical northern ovoid.

Three types of inner ovoid:  14 the solid (and nearly solid);  15 the double-eye motif;  16 the salmon-trout head motif.  

17 A skate, showing the ovoid-like spots in its sides.

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18 Like ovoids, U forms can vary greatly in shape

19 S forms


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20 Some examples of the many different forms the split U can take.

21 Placed inside a U form,  the tail feather of a red-shafted flicker forms a perfect split U

22 Four-way split U forms.


                Forms lines,  ovoids,  U forms,  S forms,  and the variations of these components are the shapes in which the artist expresses his design concept.  When they are assembled in close proximity,  the spaces between them create other shapes,  and these negative shapes become an essential part of the overall design.  The precision of two-dimensional art can be appreciated by realizing that to alter or incorrectly render the line of a positive component is to impair the shape of the negative.  A good artist pays attention to such refinements of linear composition.

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23 Haida Dogfish by Bill Reid shows a strong form line,  U forms,  split U forms and a variety of negative relief shapes.  The ovoids have been compressed into circles.


3/ Anatomical Features


In selecting the features that will portray his subject,  the artist may not always include the body:  head,  wing,  tail and foot will convey a raven or eagle in profile,  for instance.  Usually,  though,  the body is quite evident;  it may be an elaborate structure,  or a simple U form or other shape.


The eye comprises the eyeball,  generally a circular or ovoid shape,  and the eyelid,  represented by a fine line around the eyeball tapering to point at each side.  An exception is the West Coast eye,  which may have a tapered shape rather than a line.  Both eyeball and eyelid are usually placed within an ovoid representing the socket.

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24 A sample of eyes with eyelids,  taken from artists' prints,  shows how diverse these features can be.



Not difficult to recognize because of its obvious placement,  the nose of an animal can take a variety of forms:  large and flaring,  small and curled,  or very broad.  When a figure is seen in profile,  only one nostril is shown,  and this may often be a small ovoid.


Since a bear in an upright position can resemble a human,  the presence of ears helps clarify it as an animal,  for humans are generally not portrayed with ears.  Ears are usually a U form on either side of the top of and animal's head,  but occasionally they appear as small ovoids with faces inside.  A shape referred to as an ear often surmounts the head of the major birds.


Animals as well as humans may be depicted having eyebrows.  There are generally three different but fairly realistic styles-rounded,  angular and humped-the latter being characteristic of northern art.  Animals carved on northern poles are often depicted with thick,  arched eyebrows.


The tongue may be protruding and quite obvious,  or it may be an abstracted shape within the mouth or beak.  The tongue of a bear,  often shown protruding,  is very evident,  but that of a bird can be merely a fine line.

                An artist may include a prominent circular disc in the design of a raven's tongue when representing the bird as the bringer of the sun,  moon or fire.

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25 Nose variations found in animal designs.

26 Examples of animal ears.

27 Rounded,  angular and humped eyebrows.

28 Tongues in profile.

29 Tongues facing front are usually protruding.


Arms,  Legs,  Hands,  Feet,  Claws

Whereas hands,  flippers and clawed or toed feet can be a substantial part of the creature being portrayed,  the arms and legs to which they are attached are sometimes minimal and difficult to locate.  Frequently red,  these join the extremities to the body with a "hinged" type  of line that often is bent double,  indicating a flexed position.

                Human hands,  often extremely graceful and elegant,  show four vertical fingers and a curved-back thumb stemming from an ovoid.  This is the classical hand of northern art,  and is used as an insignia by 'Ksan,  the replica  Gitksan village near Hazelton,  British Columbia,  to identify original hand-crafted art works made by the artists there.

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30 Heads:  face on and in profile.

31 Human hands are clearly defined by a thumb and four fingers.

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32 Great variation exists in the portrayal of feet and claws,  and of the legs to which they are attached.


Bird Feathers,  Tails and Wings

Large feather are generally elongated U forms,  usually with split U forms inside;  sometimes a pointed tip is added.  For breast feathers,  a series of small U forms is used.

                Most wing designs have a large ovoid joint with a U form attached and often with large feathers added onto the U form.  When a bird is shown in profile,  a wing may take the place of  the body,  unless the wings are shown as outstretched.

                A bird's tail nearly always has a series of feathers extending from an ovoid,  which represents the tail joint and may include a small face.

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33 Bird feathers from the different art styles show a broad range of diversity.

34 Bird wings often include an ovoid.

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35 Bird tails with stylistic variations.

36 Symmetrical and asymmetrical tail flukes.

Hilary Stewart / Paperback / Published 1979
Our Price: $11.96 ~ You Save: $2.99 (20%)

highly recommended for its graphic library ***



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