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Masks of Northwest Coast Native Art  

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Red cedar is the most common material used in the carving of Masks. Alder is also used because of its very uniform texture and hardness. Yellow cedar is sometimes preferred for the lighter colour and smoothness but it can be quite difficult to carve with. A section of wood, with no flaw in its center must be selected and removed of its sapwood and bark. Using a wedge and hammer the artist cuts the log to the desired size. A human face Mask, for example, is usually about 10" ( cm) to 12" ( cm) high and about 5' ( cm) deep. A rough outline of the features is dug out using a D-adze, chisel and curved knife. Then the back of the Mask is hollowed out leaving a hollow shell larger than the finished Mask. The carver then places the Mask upright in his lap, carving the detailed features with a curved knife. The carver works the details out until the Mask is a fraction of an inch thick.


In the two-dimensional surface decoration of Masks many tribal variations exist. Among all groups the significant features of the face-eyebrows, eyes, nostrils, and lips- are painted on Masks in a relatively informal manner. Tribal differences are slight and become noticeable only at a great distance from the art center. In the North among the Tlingit, Haida and Tsimshian, surface decoration on Masks is often applied with a minimum of relationship to the sculptured forms. Flat, realistic or conventionalized designs are applied with seeming disregard for the structure of the face. In the South, particularly among the Kwakiutl, the painted forms emphasize, accent and conform to the sculptural forms. Midway between these extremes are the Bella Coola, whose Masks are often painted with large areas of flat colour that deliberately cross the carved forms. If a generalization could be made, it might be that Mask painting in the North is independent of the structural form; among the Bella Coola it opposes the structural form; and among the Kwakiutl it coincides with the structural form.


The use of colour was limited, before the opening of trade with the Europeans. Natural pigments were used to create colour. Even when the new colours arrived the mask artists were so conservative that their introduction did not significantly effect the selection of colour. The principal colours used on Masks were black, red, blue, green, and blue-green. Black was created by using lignite, charcoal, and graphite. Red was made using pulverized ochers or, sometimes, hematite. Copper minerals were used to create the blues and greens. White often appeared as well, in eyes, teeth, and small separating or relieving elements in the Masks. Yellow was used, but very rarely. It is speculated that it was derived from wolf moss. Black was considered the primary colour and the elements painted black can be considered the primary elements. Red is the colour of secondary importance but was sometimes used as the primary colour. Blue-green was a tertiary colour. Black was use for formlines. Red was used for secondary formlines and accents, as well as continuants of primary designs. Blue-green fill in tertiary areas of ground and space. The eye-sockets of a may contain blue.

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