Some evidence suggests that the antecedent of the distinctive formline design common to coastal First Nations two- and three-dimensional art can be traced back nearly a thousand years, though its popularity in northern British Columbia and Alaska is relatively recent (Holm 1984: 34, Jonaitis 1995:312). The term "formline" refers to the highly stylized use of lines common in Northwest Coast art characterized by constantly varying widths and a smooth, calligraphic quality. Ovoids, S-forms, and U-forms, distinctive of Northwest Coast art, are perhaps the most obvious examples of the calligraphic quality of formlines.
Bilateral symmetry is an important characteristic of Northwest Coast art, whereby one-half of a figure is a mirror-like reflection of its other half. Though the surface of the object being created or painted upon can sometimes alter the configuration of the design, disrupting symmetry, bilaterally symmetrical designs are far more common (Holm 1965: 84-85). Holm has stated that composition in Northwest Coast art is often a consequence of the degree of realism of the intended design, and can be described in three ways: configurative, expansive, and distributive (1965: 11-13).
Configurative designs are generally undistorted, realistic attempts to depict characters in a manner that leaves empty or negative space unfilled. Expansive composition is characterized by some distortion of the figure(s) to allow it to fit into a given space, but not so much as to make the figure unrecognizable or to entirely eliminate negative space surrounding the figure. Distributive designs disperse parts of the figure to completely fill all available space, distorting the figure so as to make it almost completely unrecognizable.
Another important characteristic of Northwest Coast art is known as split representation, which is a manner of depicting forms (animals, ancestors, etc.) as split in two and joined at the nose and the mouth, thus allowing for three viewpoints of a figure simultaneously (Jonaitis 1995: 307-308). This style of representation is so widespread and characteristic of Northwest Coast art that some have suggested that it can be a useful tool for discerning “authentic” Northwest Coast art from reproductions, and a useful tool for understanding the meaning of Kwakiutl art (Jonaitis 1995: 308; see also Codere 1966 and Ames 1991: 61-62).
The most popular colors used in Northwest Coast art are black, red, green, blue or blue-green, and occasionally white and yellow. Oftentimes, colors are associated with particular parts of a design. For example, formlines are generally black or red, with negative space and interior spaces of ovoids and U-Forms painted yellow, green, or white. The use of color on Northwest Coast masks exhibits some variation over time and space (Carr 1993: 4). Kwakiutl masks, for instance, tend to employ bold areas of color that conform to the edged surfaces of the masks. This is in contrast to Tlingit First Nation masks, which are characterized by soft edges and minimal or no use of paint. Likewise, Haida and Tsimshian masks tend to eschew paint, opting instead for a simple wood finish (for more on Kwakiutl masks, see the section entitled “Kwakiutl Masks”).
While all Northwest Coast First Nations produce exquisite masks and other three-dimensional objects, such as bentwood boxes, ceremonial rattles, and totem poles, the dimensionality of Kwakiutl masks is particularly impressive and characteristic. Indeed, Kwakiutl masks can be recognized, in part, by the high relief of their carving and the presence of movable parts common, for instance, to transformation masks. Colors on Kwakiutl masks often conform to the surface of the mask, accenting features and emphasizing the relief of the carving (Holm 1965: 24).
It has been said that Northwest Coast art is essentially wood art (Holm 1965: 14). Though materials such as stone, bone, or hide and sinew are quite common in Northwest Coast art, no material is as widely used or as readily available as wood. The kind of wood used is determined primarily by the object(s) being carved. Large, easy to carve, and resistant to decay, western red cedar trees are quite versatile and have been used to make a wide array of objects. Another tree, yellow cedar, can be distinguished by its strong smell and is particularly well-suited for carving smaller, highly-detailed objects. Yew, a very hard wood, is commonly used to make clubs, bows, and paddles, and the broad-leaved maple’s hardness makes it suitable for smaller pieces like rattles, hairpins, and spindle whorls (Carr 1993: 3; Kirk 1986: 109-117; Turner 2003: 11-12).