Northwest Coast Art: Basic Formline Elements and Shapes

Posted by Karin Clark on

Northwest Coast Art, Basic Formline Elements and Shapes

When you look at Pacific Northwest Coast formline art, can you identify the basic building blocks the artist used?

If you can’t, you’re in the right place. (And if you can, here’s your refresher!) After reading this, you should be able to look at Native American art of the Pacific Northwest coast and notice how the artist used and modified fundamental formline art principles, elements, and shapes to create their West Coast art piece.


Click here for a FREE downloadable pdf lesson "How to Draw a Wolf Head" 

Why should you learn the basic building blocks of Pacific Northwest Coast art?

Because the more you know about this powerful, ancient Indigenous art form, the more you can better understand, appreciate, and respect Pacific Northwest Coast Native art styles and artists. Start learning now, and you can develop a genuine understanding of the skills and choices an artist makes as well as the stories and meanings behind the designs.

It boils down to this. The more you experience art in Pacific Northwest Coast Native art styles, the more you’ll notice its nuances, variations, meanings, and stories and develop a deeper connection to, and admiration for, the artform.

And if you’re a beginner formline artist yourself, you can use what you learn here to make better formline art.

Formline: the Fundamental Element of Northwest Coast Art

Northwest Coast Native Art primary formline, modified to create a head outline.

Pacific Northwest Coast art is a highly developed system that has been practiced by the Indigenous peoples of the Pacific Northwest Coast for thousands of years. The North West Coast art system is unique in that it’s based on a traditional set of rules and principles that govern how a design is organized as well as its composition and colour.

Formline is the most important element of two-dimensional Pacific Northwest Native American art. Formlines are lines that swell, contract, bend, curve and join to outline the form an artist wishes to represent. A formline can taper and flair at certain junctures in a design to form a flowing smooth joint. When the formline enlarges, an artist may choose to add weight-relieving negative transitional units like crescents, trigons, and circles.

One principle of Native art of the Pacific Northwest is that the primary formline in a design is continuous. In other words, a creature’s shape or form and its main parts are represented by one continuous enclosing formline. 

Averill and Morris (1965) wrote that “while the ‘rules’ of formline art may appear rigid and limiting … the opposite is true.” The authors point to Haida master artist Robert Davidson, who compared the formline system to the alphabet. “After learning its essential individual elements, the artist can use them expressively … in an endless number of combinations … the only limitation is the creative imagination of the artist, not the system."[1]

Click here for a FREE downloadable pdf lesson "How to Draw a Wolf Head" 

Basic formline shapes in Northwest Coast art styles

The most common building blocks in Pacific North West Coast native art are the ovoid and the U shape. But there are also other shapes you may see in this art style, like the S shape, and there’s even negative (or “relieving”) shapes, like the crescent, the trigon, the quadron, and the quinton. Let’s start with most common shapes in formline art, the ovoid and U shape, then we’ll move on to the other shapes.


Northwest Coast Art Ovoid, drawn ovoid and painted ovoid

Ovoids are a basic formline shape in Pacific Northwest Coast Native art. In other words, ovoids are basic building blocks with many variations. Ovoids can represent heads, bodies, joints, eyes, or any number of other creatures or things in a formline art design.

Sometimes, people describe ovoids as “bean-shaped” or “loaf-shaped.” A basic ovoid consists of an outer (‘primary’) formline ovoid and inner, floating ovoid.

The background space in the interior of the ovoid’s primary formline is called negative space. In the example above, the negative space is white, like the background. But if the ovoid were painted on wood, the negative space would be brown like the wood it’s painted on.

Ovoid variations

Ovoids in Pacific Northwest Native American art can vary from a near circle to a shallow, elongated rectangle with rounded corners, depending on the geographical area and individual formline style of the artist. Some ovoid shapes are more common in one geographic area than another, but you can also find varying ovoid styles and shapes in the same formline design, reflecting the individual artist’s choices.

In some Pacific Northwest art, ovoids can have convex bottoms while others have concave bottoms. Sometimes, inner ovoids are framed with an encircling fineline ovoid (finelines are thin drawn, painted, or carved lines of minimum width). Inner ovoids can also be relieved by negative shapes, like circles, crescents, and trigons. Inner ovoids can also contain heads or faces.

It’s amazing to see and experience the many ways artists vary ovoids in a given design. Sometimes you’ll notice variations based on the location or cultural group the art comes from, and sometimes you’ll see variations based on an individual artists’ style.

If you want to have hundreds of ovoid variations at your fingertips, check out Learning by Designing Pacific Northwest Coast Native Indian Art, Volume 1.

U shape 

Pacific Northwest coast Native American art, U Shape, U Shape with fineline split, U Shape with inner solid red split U

Along with the ovoid, the U shape is another one of the most common basic building blocks in Pacific Northwest Coast Native art.  

U shapes are formline units shaped like the letter “U”. In U shapes, two tapered and parallel sides join to a thicker rounded end. You’ll notice that the tapered legs of the U shape are often where the U shape joins other formline elements.

Artists can modify the U shape and the ovoid and combine them with other design units (like the ones listed here). You’ll find the ovoid and U shape can be combined to form the foundation of any given formline art design.

U shape variations

U shapes in Pacific Northwest Coast Native art can vary greatly – they can be lengthened, shortened, inverted, or rotated in a design to represent cheeks or fish scales, for example. Or they can be joined to represent lips, feathers, tail flukes, fingers, claws, paws, and tails, to name just a few.

A common variation of the U shape is the split U shape. As you can see in the image above, the fineline (a thin line of minimum width) and the inner split U shapes join at the end of the tapered legs.

The internal design units of U shapes can also vary. They can contain textures like cross hatching, lines, dashing, or other negative shapes. U shapes can even have a pointed extension, representing the point on a bird’s wing feather.

There are so many ways you can correctly vary a U shape. You’ll find hundreds of examples in Learning by Designing Pacific Northwest Coast Native Indian Art, Volume 1.

S shape

Northwest coast native art, S shapes

Shaped like the letter “S”, S shapes in formline art add design variety and they often become fillers or relieving shapes in what would otherwise be a heavy black formline design.

Sometimes S shapes represent arms, legs, and fins. But you’ll also often see S shapes in formline designs that use the “X-ray vision technique.” The x-ray vision technique is a design technique in Pacific Northwest Coast Native art that shows the creature’s internal anatomy, like its skeleton, joints, muscles, or internal organs.

S shape variations

Like ovoids and U shapes, S shapes can vary. You’ll sometimes see S shapes flipped, rotated, shortened, or elongated. S shapes can be solid, have negative inner space, or they can be relieved using other design elements like circles.

It’s fascinating to see the many ways S shapes can be used in formline designs. For lots of examples of S shapes and how they vary, be sure to pick up a copy of Learning by Designing Pacific Northwest Coast Native Indian Art, Volume 1.

Crescent, Trigon, Quadron, and Quinton

Northwest coast art relief shapes, crescent, trigon, quadron, quinton

So far, you’ve learned about the ovoid, the U shape, and the S shape, but you’ll also see several other shapes in formline art styles. Here are a few examples.

The crescent shape is a curved shape with two pointed ends, like a young moon. The trigon is a closed negative shape with three curved sides and three points, sometimes like a curved ‘T’ or ‘Y’ shape.

You may even see different forms of quadrons or quintons, closed shapes connected by four or five curved sides and the same number of points.

The trigon, quadron, and quinton can vary greatly and help delineate or outline shapes in formline art designs.

And did you notice the bonus shape in the image? It’s kind of hidden ;) … The circle is often used in formline designs as well!

Your turn! Can you find formline shapes in Pacific Northwest Coast art?

Now that you know some of the basic formline shapes in Pacific Northwest Coast Native art, you can better appreciate and understand the complexity and nuances of the art.

So next time you’re experiencing this ancient artform, try to identify some of the basic building blocks in an artist’s design. Ask yourself, how many U shapes do I see? How many ovoids do I see? Are there any S shapes in this design?

Can you find the formline shapes in this Northwest Coast Art style wolf head? 


[1] L. Averill and D. Morris, Northwest Coast Native and Native-style Art (Seattle: University of Washington Press, 1965) xxxv.