How to Draw Tipi Symbols

Tipi symbols fall into three categories; border motifs, pictographs and graphics that tell a story. For the Native American tipi dweller, the artwork symbols on a tipi bring a "spirit power" connection to the home. The underlying reason for the choice of any particular tipi decoration is greatly influenced by the dreams and visions experienced by the inhabitant. Sometimes a great warrior would have his tipi decorations tell the story of his victories in battle.Tipi decoration symbols serve to solidify a spiritual empowerment for the inhabitants.

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Tipi symbols are a connection to the spirit world.
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Some tipi decorations tell a story.

Research and find Native American motifs and pictographs that have a special meaning for you. Some Native American symbols, like the thunderbird and the medicine wheel, are more universal. Most of the Native American symbols and motifs are unique to particular tribes and regions.

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Native Americans believe that everything has a spirit.

Lightly draw the pictograph or motif you have chosen. For some folks, drawing is straightforward and comes naturally. If you are not one of those people, use tracing paper. Tape the tracing paper down on top of the pictograph you are copying. If you are drawing freehand, you can use a compass to draw a perfect circle, or trace around the edge of something cylindrical like a glass or a can. Use the support methods if you need to. Most of the graphics used in tipi symbols are quite primitive and naïve. This makes the task easier. There is no shame in using tracing paper; professional artists use it frequently to gain a deeper understanding of the proportions and shapes they are looking at.

Step 3

Use an eraser and adjust your sketch, drawing lightly with a #2 or harder pencil. Look at the reference picture frequently. Do not get yourself into a frenzy erasing, drawing and erasing. Retain an overview in mind of what you are seeing. Keep looking at your reference picture with an eye that sees the shapes and proportions.

Step 4

Enlarge the drawing. Once you have become more familiar with the specifics of the symbol you are drawing, the lines and shapes involved will become less confusing. Now try sketching it quickly freehand. Throw caution to the wind (it is only a little practice sketch). If you still do not understand the visual elements of the pictograph, make another tracing. A practice commonly employed by artists who are enlarging a drawing is to make use of a ruler or a grid. This works well, but it is time consuming. You should not have to use this method with the simple visual elements of Native American pictographs and motifs.

Step 5

Keep trying until you get it right. It is a process. Be patient with yourself. Try to divorce your ego from the process. Then you will see it; it will dawn on you, and you will gain the visual understanding. Try doing 20 fast little sketches and throwing them all away. Many professional artists secretly employ methods like this one.


John Russell

Based on the North Shore of Long Island, N.Y., John Russell was first published in 1995, writing gallery reviews and art commentary for “SunStorm Fine Art” magazine. He has served as a master gilder, hands-on decorative consultant and cable/broadcast computer animator. Russell also received accolades from "The New York Times" for his work as a natural-foods chef.