Northwest Coast Painted Designs

Resources for K-3

Welcome! This educational resource focuses on Northwest Coast two-dimensional painted design. It is inspired by Lyle Wilson’s exhibition “Paint: The Painted Works of Lyle Wilson,” which was was conceptualized by Maple Ridge Art Gallery curator, Barbara Duncan and was shown at the Bill Reid Gallery in Vancouver, BC. These materials will provide you with an introduction to the artist, his community, and his art. They will also provide information about the links between oral history and imagery in Northwest Coast society, the basic elements of Northwest Coast design, and traditional painting techniques. In addition, these materials will offer clear connections to the British Columbia curriculum’s prescribed learning outcomes.

Students Will be Able To:

  • Understand that artists may get inspiration from stories to create works of art.
  • Observe and create their own images that use techniques of simplification, abstraction, and symmetry.
  • Describe the colours, lines, and shapes used in Northwest Coast design.

A Note on Layout:

Each lesson contains a lesson introduction in the form of an educator's monologue. The educator's script is in quotations; directions for the teacher are in brackets. Each lesson also contains an activity, lesson closure, and a list of materials you’ll need. 

Download PDF version of this resource.

Download images used in this resource.

All art works depicted here and in the downloadable documents are © Lyle Wilson. Thses images are to be used solely for the purpose of education, research or private study; and any use of the image for a purpose other than education, research or private study requires the authorization of the copyright owner.

Introduction to Lessons: About the Artist, Lyle Wilson

Materials You’ll Need:

  • Digital copy of First Nations Map of British Columbia by Lyle Wilson.
Lyle Wilson addressing the audience during the opening of his exhibit at the Bill Reid Gallery for Northwest Coast Art. Photo: Anne Seymour

The Artist, Lyle Wilson:

“Lyle Wilson is a Haisla artist born and raised near Kitimaat, B.C. (Show the  First Nations Map of British Columbia and point to Haisla territory, which is in the centre of the coast, across from Haida Gwaii). "This is where the artist and his ancestors are from. The current Haisla Nation is made up of two historic bands: the Kitimaat and the Kitlope.”

“Lyle is a graduate of Emily Carr University of Art and Design. He is a skilled carver, he makes jewelry, writes, and paints. His work shows his interest and commitment to recycling and reusing materials, education, and preserving the Haisla language. We will be studying his painted works.”

First Nations Map of British Columbia © Lyle Wilson, 1998. Photo: Jenn Walton. Click to Enlarge

Background to First Nations Map of British Columbia

“When Lyle Wilson was working at the Museum of Anthropology visitors would often approach him and confuse the well known Haida people with the Haisla people. While he tried to correct them, it was difficult to do without a map to show their separate territories – so he created the one you see before you! So here on Haida Gwaii, which was formerly known as the Queen Charlotte Islands, is where the Haida live. And here, on the mainland, is where Lyle and his people, the Haisla, are from. The lines on the map outline the regions where different languages were spoke – the territories of First Nations peoples of BC often overlapped. So, because these borders are “sensitive and contentious” as Lyle describes them, he has actually drawn them in morse code for SOS. Who knows what SOS means?”

Lesson 1: Story and Imagery in Northwest Coast Art

Materials You’ll Need:

  • Kitimaat Clans [Painting] digital copy, Lyle Wilson
  • Raven and the Fisherman [Painting], digital copy, Lyle Wilson
  • Blank Paper, or Paper divided into a sections like a comic strip
  • Pencils
  • Coloring materials (felts or pencil crayons)

Lesson Introduction (Context for Teachers, Monologue, and Questions):

“Why do people create art? There are many reasons. Can you think of any?” (If students do not mention them, you may say: to show a feeling, to copy what we see in the world, to celebrate something that happened, or simply to create beauty.) “Even though Northwest Coast art is beautiful, it is not simply a decoration. The art often tells us stories—stories about a family’s history, what they own, and how a family is connected to the spiritual world.”

“It is important to remember that not all cultures from the Northwest Coast are the same, in fact, there are many different cultures on the coast. These cultures spoke different languages, and had their own distinct art, dances and ceremonies. Some of these cultures, particularly the northern groups, divided themselves into clans. A great deal of Northwest Coast art expresses and records clan ancestry, status, privileges and family histories. Many of these stories and histories are told using a family's or a clan's crest.”

“Before contact with Europeans, Northwest Coast First Nations families lived together in one big house, or set of houses. Family groups were often made up of a chief's family as well as his aunts and uncles, cousins, grandparents, adopted members, and slaves. The people living in the house, with the exception of the slaves, were said to be related to a common ancestor. Does anyone know what an ancestor is? They are our family from a long time ago. We usually use the word ancestor not just for our parents, or our grandparents, but for our great-grandparents, and our great great great grandparents! Ancestors for Northwest Coast First Peoples are said to be from a very long time ago when people were said to be able to take both animal and human form. This is why you might see an animal or supernatural character painted on the front of a powerful family's house. It is there to tell the story of the family that lives inside. (Point out house front design in pictures). “These designs tell stories about a family’s common history and are called crests. Often they told about the common ancestor, how the ancestor came to earth at the beginning of time, and it reminds people of the place where the ancestor came to earth. A family’s connection to the story of their first ancestors gives them wealth and ownership of certain songs, artwork, land, and fishing areas related to the story".

"A family group might own several crests. These crests could include birds (eagle, raven), land animals (bears, wolves), sea animals (killer whales, halibut, salmon), natural features (sun, moon, mountains), or even supernatural creatures (thunderbird, double headed sea-serpent). A crest could be carved or painted onto many objects like spoons, boxes, hats, and much more.” (Click the images below to enlarge or show the students the pictures of painted objects).

Spoons carved and painted in the Northwest Coast style. No further data
Bill Reid's Black Eagle Canoe, now part of the SFU Collection at the Bill Reid Gallery. Photo: G.F. MacDonald, 2006.
Adult and child dancers with painted drum and screen at Coastal Dance Festival, MOA @ UBC, 2011. Photo: © David Seymour.
Scale model of a painted house-front based on eight surviving planks from an old-style, Tsimshian bighouse. Tsimshian Cosmos © Lyle Wilson, 1996. Photo: Bill McLennan.
Carved and painted bentwood box. No further data.
Painted leather and bentwood box at 'Ksan Historical Village, Hazelton, BC. Photo: G.F. MacDonald Collection
Kitimaat Clans © Lyle Wilson, 1992. Photo: Jenn Walton


 “Now let’s look at Lyle Wilson’s Kitimaat Clans. This picture shows a modern example of the different clan crests of the Haisla people all in one painting. The Haisla social system is based on clans; membership in a clan is passed down through the mother’s side of the family. There are eight Haisla clans: eagle, salmon, raven, frog, wolf, killer whale, crow, and beaver. Can you see each animal?"

"You can see from the picture that Northwest Coast First Nations art is done in a stylized way. Stylized means it is not meant to look exactly like the thing it represents; it is not supposed to look realistic. Much like real life, each animal has certain features that lets us know what it is. Now, if we look at Kitimaat Clans again, what do you see that might tell you what animal you are looking at?” (Give students time to answer. Share the following information if the students do not mention it: eagles are usually shown with a shorter, hooked beak. Ravens have longer, flatter beaks. Whales usually have dorsal fins and blowholes, whereas salmon have shorter fins and no blowholes. Bears are usually shown with wide nostrils and big teeth, whereas wolves are shown with a longer snout. Beavers are shown with big front teeth. Frogs have wide mouths).

“Now let’s look at Lyle Wilson’s Raven and the Fisherman. It is based on a story about how Raven tried to steal the halibut hook from the supernatural fisherman Kwaganoo. Today we are going to make our own art based on this story.”

Raven and the Fisherman © Lyle Wilson, 2003. Photo: Bill McLennan.


(Explain to students that you are going to tell them a famous story from Lyle Wilson’s community. Before you start, take a moment to clarify the following details, and write this on the board for students to refer to in case they forget). “Here is the Haisla story of Raven and the Fisherman. During the story you will be introduced to some interesting characters:  Wigit (wee-get) is the Haisla name for the supernatural Raven, Kwaganoo (kwa-gah-noo) is a supernatural fisherman, and mumugazu (moo-moo-gwa-joo) is the name for halibut. This is the story of how the raven tried to steal the halibut hook."

(Explain to the students that you want them to listen carefully to the story and illustrate different parts as they go. This can be done on one sheet in a random manner, or as a sequence of images, as in a comic strip).

(As you tell the story of how Raven tried to steal the halibut hook. (See story below) Have students draw what is happening in the story. Make sure you take time to pause, review the main points and ask students what they imagine is happening. Encourage them to thnk about what the characters look like and what the setting might look like. Encourage students to simply sketch out the main characters loosely and then come back at the end to add details and colour).

The Raven and the Fisherman Story

One day, Wigit heard about a fellow called Kwaganoo. Now Kwaganoo owned a special hook that he never let anybody see, let alone use. This hook was used to catch a very tasty fish called the mumugazu. (pause) Being constantly hungry and so lazy, Wigit always tried to find food with the least amount of effort – so he decided to trick Kwaganoo out of his special hook. (pause) At first he succeeded in getting it, but when he tried to use the hook to catch his own mumugazu, Kwaganoo retaliated by swimming underwater and yanking Wigit into the sea. (pause) Kwaganoo then proceeded to try to drown poor Wigit. (pause)

Using his supernatural powers, Wigit ended up surviving Kwaganoo’s revenge – but only barely! (pause) The Haisla people learned to fish for mumugazu because Wigit remembered how the hook was made and gave it to them to use. But Wigit himself never used it again because he was so afraid of Kwaganoo.” (pause)

Look at “Raven and the Fisherman” one more time and have students identify the main characters in the story. Ask them if they can name any of the other animals in the picture. 

(Invite students to pick their favourite part of the story and add some detail and colour it. Circulate to provide encouragement and praise).

Lesson Closure:

Invite students to share which part of the story they chose to illustrate and why. Consider displaying the work.

Lesson 2: Exploring Shapes in Northwest Coast Art


  • Origins/Coalition [Painting], digital copy, by Lyle Wilson
  • Evolution of the Ovoid Shape [Painting], digital copy, by Lyle Wilson
  • (If available) Orca toy, skatefish picture, or skull model.
  • Paper, pencils.
  • Colouring material.
  • Ovoids template sheet.
  • Lyle Wilson’s Haisla Mee-Yuh Tracing Sheet
Origins/Coalition by Lyle Wilson, 2011. Photo © Lyle Wilson.

Lesson Introduction (Teacher Monologue and Questions):

“Northwest Coast First Nations’ art is usually outlined by a curvy black line that is thick in some places and thin in other places. This is called a formline. There are other special shapes that are used. An ovoid is a rounded, curvy rectangle. U-forms look like a wide, filled in letter “u.” S-forms look like a thick letter “S”, “T-shapes” can be seen splitting the u-forms. Sometimes, the elements of this art are called the “Northwest Coast alphabet.” Look at Origins/Coalition by Lyle Wilson. Can you point to an ovoid? Can you see a u-form, s-form, and t-shape?”

“The ovoid is a very special shape in Northwest Coast First Nations art. But where did the famous ovoid shape come from? There are a few ideas. Lyle Wilson shows some of them in his Origins/Coalition painting. Some people think it originally came from the outlined circles seen on the back of a skate fish. Others think it may be modeled after the white patch above the eye of an orca whale. Still, others say it had to do with the shape of the eye-sockets of a human skull." (Point to the skate ovoid. Point to the orca’s ovoid. Point to the skull ovoids). "You can also easily make an ovoid with your hands if you curve them and place your fingertips together.” (ShowThe Evolution of the Ovoid drawing by Lyle Wilson. Pass out models or pictures of a skate fish, orca whale, and skull for the children to examine, if available).

“Now we are going to try doing some ovoid drawings together.”


"Look at Lyle Wilson’s “Origins/Coalition.” Can you point out an ovoid, u-form, s-shape, and t-shape? Practice drawing at least one of each shape in your drawing book free hand. Now, fold a paper in half and draw half of an ovoid on one side. Fold it over and scratch your drawing onto the other side." (For more drawing and tracing activities see: Simple Hummingbird Design and Haisla Mee-Yuh Tracing Sheet available in the downloads at the top of this page).

The Evolution of the Ovoid Shape © Lyle Wilson, 2010. Photo: Jenn Walton.
Salmon tracing design by Lyle Wilson, 2003. This design can by used by students to trace the ovoid, T-shape, and U-shapes in Northwest Coast art.
Instructions for making an Ovoid. Drawn by Desiree Danielson, 2013. Traced and scanned by Bryan Myles.
Simple Hummingbird design by Lyle Wilson showing the use of formline and other basic elements of Northwest Coast art.

How the Art Was Made:

Materials You’ll Need:

  • Photo of traditional paint and paintbrush
  • Photos of wood boxes, house fronts, cedar hats, spoons, animal skins (see above).
  • Small bowls for mixing containers
  • Newspaper for covering desks
  • Oil
  • Charcoal
  • Rocks for grinding charcoal
  • Saliva

Brushes for painting (fine Chinese paint brushes are excellent, if you can find them)

Lesson Introduction: Teacher Monologue and Questions

“Northwest Coast designs were painted onto many items. Who can remember some of the things that Northwest Coast People paint?” (After they have answered) “Let’s look at the pictures we saw before to remind us.”  (Show pictures of bentwood boxes, housefronts, canoes, animal skins, spoons).

“What colours do you see in the paintings? The main colors used were black and red. Black was the main color, used for the outline, or formline. Red was used for the inner shapes. Green-blue was also common. White, and yellow are seen in use as well. Paint was made by mixing ground up colorful materials with salmon egg oil and saliva. Black was made by mixing in charcoal dust. Red was made using red ochre, a clay like material. Green, or green-blue was made using green-earth (glauconite or celadonite).”

“Look at this picture of a traditional brush and paint set.” (Show picture) “Where do you think a Northwest Coast artist got his paint brush from? The store? What do you think artists would have to do to make paint brushes and paint?” (Listen to answers.) “Yes, paint brushes were carved from wood. Brush tips were made of hair, usually porcupine hair, and they were tied to the handle of the brush using cedar twine (string made from the roots of the cedar tree). The brushes were also cut at an angle. Why do you think brushes were cut at an angle?”

“We are going to try making paint, today. Since we can’t really go out and hunt a porcupine, cut down a tree to carve a wooden handle, or even burn wood for charcoal, we’re just going to have to do an activity that gives us an idea of what it might have been like to make and use our own paint. Imagine you have chopped down a tree that you used for many things, but also you used a tiny bit to carve your brush handle. Imagine you harvested cedar root, and made twine from it, and wrapped it around porcupine hairs from a porcupine your family member caught. Imagine you have taken bits of charcoal from the fire, and crushed salmon eggs to get the oil. Now you have your paintbrush, oil, and charcoal. You are going to mix it all together with your own saliva to make paint!”

Ground pigments typical of the Northwest Coast painter's palette. CLOCKWISE FROM TOP LEFT Red ochre, charcoal, green earth, vermilion, Reckitt's Blue, and umber or yellow ochre. Paint brush and pigments made by Lyle Wilson. Photo: Bill Mclennan.


  • Take time to explain that this is an activity that must be executed respectfully, and that spitting be done carefully and with consideration for others- that it be done only into their own bowls for their own use. Model the activity for students before letting them begin, then review the steps and write them on the board.
  • Hand out the materials to all the students and draw their attention to the steps written on the board.
  • Have the students grind charcoal into powder with rocks.
  • Invite the students to put the ground charcoal in a bowl.  (This is best done with a small piece of newspaper used as a shovel of sorts). 
  • Then ask students to carefully add some spit.
  • Circulate and dispense a small amount of oil to each bowl.
  • Invite students to mix it around until it forms a smooth paste.
  • Then, ask them to use the charcoal mixture to paint one of their ovoid sketches from last lesson.
  • When the students have had a chance to try one or two ask them to clean up. Remind them to use soap to clean out their bowls, brushes and also their hands. “Be sure to wash your hands and clean your workspace well afterward!”

Lesson Closure:

Invite students to write a journal entry about the lessons they have had and share what they have learned, what they have done and how they felt about it.

British Columbia Fine Arts PLOs Addressed in this Resource:

  • “Using a variety of image sources (e.g. … stories). (BC Ministry of Education, p. 9).”
  • “Exploring, describing, and creating images using –the image development strategies of simplification and abstraction –visual elements of colour, line, shape, and texture –the principle of symmetrical balance (BC Ministry of Education, p. 9).”

Extra Curriculum Links:

  • Art and Social Responsibility:

Lyle Wilson is committed to reusing materials other’s would throw out. A Model Canoe carved and painted by Lyle was started by another artist, and was going to be discarded because of a crack in the wood, but Lyle salvaged it using the traditional technique of butterfly patches. Bahgwanah: The Origins, also uses this technique (Downloadable at the top of this page). Talk about ways we can reuse and recycle our art materials.

  • Math

Begin by saying, “if you wanted to make a canoe, or anything really, what would you need to do it? (Let students answer, eventually someone will probably say a measuring tape, ruler, etc. If they don’t, lead them to the answer with a question like “What about the size? How would you make sure the finished product was the right size and all the different parts fit together?”) Right, a measuring tool! So inches, feet, meters and centimeters are all European measurements, so how do you think a canoe maker would have done it before the Europeans came? They did it using what they had, and the easiest available thing we have is? (see if anyone says it, if not, finish your sentence with) Our bodies! So craftsmen would use their hands, arms and fingers to measure. Traditionally, the rule-of-thumb was that the sides of a cedar canoe should be two finger-widths thick and the bottom should be three.” Measure classroom item’s length using your hand. Measure its width using your fingers.

  • Science:

Look at “Raven and the Fisherman.” How many kinds of animals can you see in the painting? Make a list. All these animals live on the Pacific Coast. What do they need to survive? How does the coast provide that? What can we do to keep our Coast clean and healthy for all these animals?

Works Cited:

This resource was created for the Bill Reid Centre by Desiree Danielson with the help of Centre Manager Bryan Myles, exhibition coordinator Kwiaawah Jones, and UBC Faculty Advisor Alison Diesvelt. Information for this resource was taken from the following works:

British Columbia, Ministry of Education (2010). Visual Arts, Kindergarten to Grade 7. Victoria, B.C., Ministry of Education, Province of British Columbia.

Goldi Productions Ltd (2007). Northwest Coastal People: Social Structure/Leadership. Canada’s First People. Retrieved from

Haisla Nation (2013). Haisla Nation: United by Our Hisory, Tradition, and People, Who are the Haisla? Retrieved from

Holm, B. (1978). Northwest Coast Indian Art: An Analysis of Form. Vancouver: J.J. Douglas.

Kew, Michael (2012). Aboriginal People: Northwest Coast. In The Canadian Encyclopedia online. Retrieved from

Krutak, Lars (2006). Crest Tattoos of the Tlingit and Haida of the Northwest Coast. Vanishing Tattoo. Retrieved from

McLennan, B., & Duffek, K. (2007). The Transforming Image: Painted Arts of Northwest Coast First Nations. Vancouver: Douglas & McIntyre.

Stewart, H. (2009). Looking at Indian Art of the Northwest Coast. Toronto: Douglas & McIntyre.

Thorne, Rachel (2013). Tour of  “Paint: The Painted Works of Lyle Wilson,” Created for the Bill Reid Gallery of Northwest Coast Art.

University of Calgary (2000). Canada’s First Nations: Native Civilizations, Northwest Coast. Retrieved from

Wilson, L., Duffek, K., Wyatt, G., Duncan, B., & Maple Ridge Art Gallery. (2012). Paint: The Painted Works of Lyle Wilson. Maple Ridge, B.C: Maple Ridge Pitt Meadows Arts Council.