How to draw a wolf head in Pacific Northwest Coast formline art style

An 8-step lesson in northwest coast native formline design

how to draw native wolf art

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

Native American wolf symbol in First Nations Indigenous Pacific northwest coast culture

The wolf, with its eerie howls, barks, and yelps as it talks, is respected as a symbol of strength, agility, intelligence, and its devotion to family in Pacific northwest coast native culture. The impressive language of wolves matches Pacific Northwest Coast (PNWC) Native American and First Nations Indigenous beliefs in the power of speech and song to transform and make magic. Did the wolf teach men the secrets of whale hunting?

Native wolf art

You can recognize First Nations wolf art in northwest coast art styles by its long snout with nostrils, long sharp teeth with prominent fangs, tall narrow ears, ovoid eyes, clawed feet, and long curled and/or bushy tail. Sometimes, the tongue sticks out and often curls upward or downward symbolizing communication. In some cultures, the wolf is considered kin, an ancestor. Familial relationships to the wolf are sacred and hereditary, sometimes organized within a clan system.

In the lesson below, you’ll find a native wolf art design in what we categorize in our 'Learning by' series as the north coast native art style. We include Tlingit, Haida, Tsimshian, Haisla, Nisga’a, Gitksan, Heiltsuk (and possibly Nuxalk) regions in the north coast art style. But it’s important to remember that PNWC native art styles may be grouped in different ways, such as by regional, sub-regional and/or family or individual styles.

Are there regional formline art styles?

We chose in our books to group Pacific Northwest Coast art into north coast, mid coast, south coast, and west coast art styles based on our comprehensive research and analysis of this formline art style. You can compare four regional art styles in Learning by Designing Pacific Northwest Coast Native Indian Art, Volume 1, first published in 1999. However, these categories represent an analytical perspective, when historically there has been considerable borrowing and overlap in art styles among regions and groups. With over 800 clear, detailed illustrations, you can explore art styles from different regions right down to head components (like beaks, eyes, and ears) and body parts (like fins, tails, arms, and hands).

What is formline?

Formlines are swelling, curving lines which join over a given area to outline the main form intended to be represented. The north coast style formline system is based on the principle that a creature's shape or form and its main parts can be represented by a continuous outline - the primary formline. The interior design units are delineated by secondary formlines.

In most designs, the primary formline is constantly curving and varying in width and length. At junctures or divisions within the design, this line can taper and flair to form a flowing smooth joint. It may also enlarge and incorporate weight-relieving negative transitional units such as crescents, trigons, and circles. These within the formline negative spaces also help in delineating the positive formline or the design units surrounded by it. (Gilbert and Clark, 1999, Volume 1, pp. 27)

The formline art system of the Pacific Northwest Coast was first researched and analyzed by Northwest Coast art historian and artist Bill Holm in his classic 1965 publication Northwest Coast Indian Art: An Analysis of Form. 

The use of swelling and constricting formline delineating design units, is one of the most important characteristics of the Art and should be considered a principle of it. (Holm, 1965, pp. 84)

The northwest coast formline design system is unique in that it is based on a traditional set of rules and principles that govern the organization of the form as well as the composition and colour. In his 1982 Legacy Dialogue lecture at the Museum of Anthropology at UBC, acclaimed master artist Bill Reid said:

It [formline] is the essential element that sets the art from the Northwest coast apart from any art in the world. If you don't conform to it [the rule system], you are doing something else. (Bill Reid, 1982)  

How to draw a formline wolf head 

You can find this lesson in Volume 1 (pp. 193-200) along with similar lessons, including:

  • How to draw an eagle head (pp. 167-170),
  • How to draw a salmon head (pp. 171-176),
  • How to draw a human head (pp. 177-184), and
  • How to draw a killer whale (pp. 185).

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

Step 1: Realistic wolf head reference 

The following native wolf art design starts with a realistic drawing of a wolf head, then uses the outline of the same drawing as the basis for drawing and colouring a single colour wolf head using north coast art style design formline principles and rules. This technique will work for many other creatures and art styles, as well. 

Draw a realistic wolf head or wolf head outline the size of your proposed finished design.

Step 2: Realistic wolf head outline

How to draw a native formline art wolf step 2
A. Darken the outline of your original drawing with ink or dark pencil.
B. Put a new piece of paper over your drawing and secure with tape or paper clip.
C. Trace over your outline on your new paper.
D. Remove and file the original drawing.

Step 3: Dotted outline

how to draw a native formline art wolf step 3


You may choose to do this step without doing Step 2. Either erase some parts of your outline or make a dotted outline instead of the solid outline in Step 2. 

Step 4: Fineline outline using dotted realistic guideline

A. Draw the main formline ovoid of the head.
B. Extend the ear length to a somewhat narrow and tapered round-ended U shape which is sloped to the rear of the head.
C. Extend the muzzle/snout length forward from the realistic outline and add the nose with its spiral nostril design. 
(1) Draw a joining line from the forehead area of the formline head ovoid.
(2) Draw a joining line from the top jaw area of the head ovoid to the lower muzzle/snout area and then curve and taper the line back and around to form a spiral nose with a circular nostril.
D. Draw the lower jaw line from the head formline ovoid rear bottom (jaw hinge area) forward to the jaw tip. Slope this line slightly to accommodate teeth.

Step 5: Ear, eye orbit, inside muzzle and inside mouth

How to draw a native design wolf head step 5

A. Draw the inside finalize of the primary head ovoid. This forms the eye orbit. In north coast art style art, the resulting formline width at the top of the ovoid is wider than at the bottom of the ovoid.
B. Draw the inside fineline of the muzzle formline by curving the line up at both ends to result in a tapered juncture. Make a similar taper at the rear of the top jaw/muzzle line and the coiled end of the spiralled nose line.
C. Draw the inside fineline of the ear U shape.
D. Draw the inside fineline of the mouth area parallel to the existing lower jaw line. Start to curve the inside fineline up to going the primary head ovoid about 1/3 of the way in from the left side of the primary ovoid.

Step 6: Ear split U shape, snout S shape, and the eye

how to draw a native formline design wolf step 6

A. Draw the split in the U shape. Since this is a one-colour (black) design, join the tapered bottom lines to the ovoid formline. 
B. Draw the eyeball ovoid first. Centre the ovoid from the left to the right and raise it above the horizontal centre line of the eye orbit. The bottom of the eye ovoid is parallel to the bottom line of the head ovoid. Draw the eyelid line around the eyeball ovoid. This eyelid line is typical of the north coast art style. See the chapter, Examples of Head Components - Eyes. (Volume 1, pp. 90)
C. Draw the S shape filler in the snout. The top and bottom of the S shape are parallel to the primary formline. Join the tapered, pointed ends to the formline at the top/rear nose area and to the bottom right of the head ovoid. 
D. Erase the dotted line section of the head ovoid.

Step 7: Teeth

How to draw a native formline design wolf step 7

A. Draw two light guidelines that join at the back of the mouth and run parallel to the top and bottom lips. This will represent the biting surface of the teeth. Stop the line where you want the incisor teeth to start.
B. Draw light vertical lines through the horizontal guidelines at equal intervals from the back of the mouth to the incisor teeth. This will separate the individual teeth. 
C. You should have a series of five rectangles on the top and five on the bottom. Round off the corners of these rectangles to shape the teeth into U shapes. 
D. Draw the two incisor teeth about the same width at each base. They are U shapes with pointed, curved, solid colour extensions. 
E. Slightly thicken the biting surface line of the teeth, remembering to fair these lines into the side lines of the teeth.

Design Overlay

how to draw a native formline art design wolf head overlay

Showing similarities and differences between realistic and north coast art style drawings of a wolf head. 

Step 8: Completed design

how to draw a native art wolf design formline step 8

A. Paint or colour in the formline with black.
B. If this design were a multi-coloured design, the split in the ear U shape and the S shape in the snout could be red, the eye orbit outside of the eyelid lines could be blue/green.

how to draw a wolf pacific northwest coast formline native style in colour

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