The Two-dimensional Art
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
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.
Killer whale design painted on a grave house at Sitka,
Killer Whale and Grouse, by Ron
The Dance of the Raven by the Gitksan Dancer,
Vernon Stephens. ('Ksan)
Dogfish by Phil Janze has its general structure delineated by the form line.
The same dogfish design, in form
Detail of a form line, showing how
each portion of the line changes in thickness and direction and how it tapers at
12 Detail from two designs showing the T and Y shape and the circle and
The Basic Components
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,
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.
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
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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
types of inner ovoid: 14 the solid
(and nearly solid); 15 the
double-eye motif; 16 the
salmon-trout head motif.
A skate, showing the ovoid-like spots in its sides.
Like ovoids, U forms can vary greatly in shape
Some examples of the many different forms the split U can take.
Placed inside a U form, the tail
feather of a red-shafted flicker forms a perfect split U
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.
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.
selecting the features that will portray his subject, the artist may not always include the body:
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
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
A sample of eyes with eyelids, taken
from artists' prints, shows how
diverse these features can be.
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.
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
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,
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.
Nose variations found in animal designs.
Examples of animal ears.
Rounded, angular and humped
Tongues in profile.
Tongues facing front are usually protruding.
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.
Heads: face on and in profile.
Human hands are clearly defined by a thumb and four fingers.
Great variation exists in the portrayal of feet and claws,
and of the legs to which they are attached.
Feathers, Tails and Wings
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
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.
Bird feathers from the different art styles show a broad range of diversity.
34 Bird wings often include an ovoid.
35 Bird tails with stylistic variations.
36 Symmetrical and asymmetrical tail
Hilary Stewart / Paperback / Published 1979
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