Common beginner mistakes in Pacific Northwest Coast Art: Ovoids and U shapes (mid-coast style)

Posted by Karin Clark on

Beginner “Mistakes” in Pacific Northwest Coast Art

Common beginner mistakes in Northwest Coast Art: Ovoids and U shapes

In many abstract artforms, a “mistake” is only a mistake if you interpret it that way. And to a certain extent, you can say the same about Pacific Northwest Coast art. For example, maybe a “mistake” in a particular Pacific Northwest Coast art piece is actually a well-thought-out variation that makes that piece unique and special. Maybe the “mistakes” show the artist’s journey, choices, and story, and that’s what makes it valuable to you.

On the other hand, we know there are foundational building blocks and basics in Northwest Coast art formline elements and shapes. And these building blocks follow principles that come from a highly developed Indigenous art system. Over the years, I’ve seen time and again, there’s one principle beginners often overlook when they start their Pacific Northwest Coast art journey.

In this blog, you'll see examples of common beginner mistakes in ovoids and u shapes from the mid-coast style of Pacific Northwest Coast art. Keep in mind that the mid-coast style is different from the north coast, south coast, and west coast of Vancouver Island styles, so it’s important to be able to distinguish between “mistakes” and simply variations between styles. I explain more about what I mean below.

Symmetry: A common beginner oversight in Pacific Northwest Coast Art

Beginners often struggle with one essential principle of Pacific Northwest Coast art: symmetry. Symmetry is one of the basic principles of formline building blocks. Entire designs can be asymmetrical but not the building blocks within it. Often, beginners have trouble “seeing” the asymmetry in their shapes when they first start practicing Pacific Northwest Coast art styles.

Practice makes perfect when it comes to symmetry in Pacific Northwest Coast Art

If you continue practicing your shapes and basic building blocks using a model or guide, a really cool thing happens. I’ve seen it happen with many beginner artists of the Pacific Northwest Coast art style.

It’s called “successive approximation.” Basically, as you practice the basic building blocks, you get closer and closer to the model you’re following and you begin to “see” and compare the finer points of your drawing to the model. Then you start to “get” the principles, do the model correctly, and that’s when you start to modify the form to be a reflection of your own creative style.

Isn’t that exciting?! Practice truly does make perfect.

Beginner mistake or variation?

But here’s the tricky part for an untrained eye when it comes to understanding what’s perhaps a “mistake” and what’s not… Pacific Northwest Coast art has many variations. Variations in Pacific Northwest Coast art styles exist between regions, families, individual artists, and even timeframes.

In the examples below, I’m using as a framework the typical mid-coast style of Ovoids and U shapes. But ovoid shape and structure in the mid-coast art style range from traditional formal north-coast art style ovoids to flamboyant rectangles to near triangles. In mid-coast style, the ovoid formline is often opposite to north coast art style by being thicker at the bottom than at the top. If you’re interested in learning more about those variations, you’ll find hundreds of examples of Pacific Northwest Coast art designs from different regions in Learning by Designing Volume 1 (see pages 37-53).

In the meantime, check out these 15 common beginner mistakes in Pacific Northwest Coast art ovoids and split U forms (mid-coast style).

Common beginner mistakes in Pacific Northwest Coast art: ovoids (mid-coast syle)

Common beginner mistakes in Northwest Coast Art: Ovoids


1. Unsymmetrical bilateral shape (ovoid is not the same shape on both sides).
2. Too triangular.
3. Flat top and unsymmetrical bilateral shape.
4. Unsymmetrical bilaterally, curves are too square.
5. Right side should mirror left side (so ovoid is wider at bottom and slightly narrower at top).
6. Too much like an oval, too narrow.
7. Too rectangular and equal width on top and bottom (should be wider at bottom than top for ovoids from the mid coast).
8. Too square, unsymmetrical.

    Here's a correct, typical mid-coast style ovoid shape.

    Common beginner mistakes in Pacific Northwest Coast art: Split U forms (mid-coast style)

    Common beginner mistakes in Northwest Coast Art: Split U Forms

    1. Bottom curves are too square.
    2. Bottom curves are too round (unless it’s in a feather!).
    3. Crooked split and uneven spacing.
    4. Formline too thin on both sides.
    5. Formline too thin on right side.
    6. Formline sides wider than bottom.
    7. Curves of split are too round and the split is touching the bottom formline.

        Learn by doing Pacific Northwest Coast Art

        Sometimes it helps to have visual examples of what not to do. And it’s helpful to see examples of how to do things right and compare… If you want to practice your building blocks, check out our classroom manual Learning by Doing Northwest Coast Native Indian Art. The book includes the “mistake” illustrations you saw above, but you can also practice drawing using the guides and models inside the workbook, so you can perfect your ovoids and U shapes (mid-coast style). Plus, there’s the bonus of some simple carving projects, too!