the Illusion of Bonsai I hear you ask. Well, look at it this way,
take a tree any tree, growing in a pot and style it. Hopefully,
what comes out of the other end merits the title of Bonsai. The
process of styling has taken a normal piece of vegetative growth
and transformed it into an image of a tree inspired by nature.
It's still a normal tree underneath but if the job has been done
well, the viewer sees something more, something that fires the
imagination. We know what we started with so the finished work
must be an illusion.
teaching of styling methods tends to focus on trees that are a
million miles away from what a typical beginner has to work with
and potential styles are described in terms of Japanese ideals
that are totally incomprehensible to Joe Bloggs from just outside
Bletchley. So lets forget the rules, or at least look at them
in a different way.
a look at some pictures of Bonsai in books, especially the ones
taken against a plain background. Now without looking at the caption,
can you tell how big the tree is. If the answer is no, then the
illusion has been created. I only realised this when I showed
photographs of my trees to a non-Bonsai photographer friend for
his comments on my use of a camera. He suggested that I placed
a ruler or some other object of known proportion in the picture
because he couldn't tell how big the trees were. Size is not important.
Scale and proportion are. Let's break the tree down into its component
parts and examine the contribution of each in turn.
styling a tree, be aware of its surface root structure since this
is an integral part of any Bonsai. The roots are what joins the
trunk to the pot. An obvious statement you may think but I refer
not to the physical ties but rather to the visual connections.
The roots should be in proportion with the tree in terms of diameter
and should radiate all around the trunk to give an impression
of stability. If a tree is leaning or cascading to one side then
the roots on the opposite side should reflect the effort needed
to anchor the weight of the tree.
seems to be an obsession with the size of trunks. The only difference
a thick trunk makes is that it allows you to work in a larger
scale. Maybe I'm wrong, maybe size isn't the driving factor and
large scale trees are just a sign of impatience or an admission
of inability to reduce leaf size. True, older, thicker trunks
have that certain aged quality but that part forms only a part
of the whole and to let it become the driving factor is a recipe
for failure. Whatever the size of your trunk, it's what you do
with it that counts. But what you could really do with is...
of the most important features of Bonsai is taper or at least
the illusion of taper. Japanese rules would have us believe that
the height of a Bonsai should be six times the diameter of the
base of the trunk. This is one rule that serves as a good guideline
when deciding how to style a tree because it suggests a rough
size range in which to work. It doesn't have to be exactly six
times but if you can end up somewhere in that region and still
produce taper then the dimensions of the design become obvious
and visualising the branches required is made that much easier.
existing trunk on a piece of raw material is not always ideal
to use in creating Bonsai. Taking an existing branch up to form
a new apex is one of the easiest ways of replacing a top which
is too thick but sometimes it is obvious from the result just
what has been done. Disguise the change of direction with inventive
carving or a strategically placed piece of foliage.
should not emanate from the same height on opposite sides of the
trunk. This is nearly always a good rule to follow when looking
at major branches in the lower part of the tree since these are
the branches that contribute much to the character of the tree
and as such anything that interferes with the eye when admiring
these features will detract from the overall impression. On the
other hand, once we get into the upper regions where branches
and foliage should ideally be denser, the point where a branch
comes out of the trunk is not always obvious and defects in branch
arrangement can be hidden by intelligent bending of branches.
Likewise back branches can oppose front branches since the important
point about back branches is to give a sense of depth by allowing
the foliage to be seen through the spaces between side branches,
the point at which it leaves the trunk is not as important as
where it appears from behind the trunkline. Whilst on the subject
of back branches......
in mind that what you are trying to create in styling a tree is
a three-dimensional object. Photographers will be familiar with
the term depth of field. Think of the picture that you may have
seen where the main subject is sharply in focus while the background
is blurred. This type of picture has narrow depth of field. This
makes a good composition in most cases because the subject is
usually an interesting face or object. But make the depth of field
too narrow and the image becomes flat and two-dimensional. Create
a tree with branches only to the sides and you get the same result.
Create back branches that offer something more to look at beyond
the obvious points. Leave spaces between side branches to tempt
the eye into looking through in search of something interesting
at the back of the tree. Try and avoid any gaps in the foliage
large enough for the eye to escape out of the back but at the
same time resist the temptation to create an impenetrable wall.
Create space with which the tree can interact and avoid gaps which
allow the backdrop to exert an influence. In this way the eye
is forced to move forwards and backwards in the third-dimension.
should be closer together than the lower branches, but not so
close as to be impenetrable to the eye. Introduce front facing
branches on the upper half of the tree but rather than bringing
them straight out towards the front, take the foliage, not the
branch itself, across the line of the trunk. This will have the
effect of breaking the trunks into segments each one hopefully
thinner than the one below it thus emphasising the taper.
on most trees are usually made up of a number of small branches
rather than just one. Try and emulate this in your trees by using
several small branches to create a dome effect rather than having
one branch pointing skyward.
effects on Bonsai should be used with caution. Some species can
benefit greatly when the techniques are correctly applied. If
your goal is to reproduce a tree as it would grow in nature then
you have to consider whether deadwood is the norm. But is that
what we are trying to achieve? For example the vast majority of
Junipers growing in the wild seem to have some sort of deadwood
somewhere and it seems only natural to include it in Bonsai. Then
again you see a lot of oaks with dead branches. But is this acceptable?
When I think of a Juniper, I visualise a lone tree clinging to
its miserable existence on a windswept mountainside battered by
the worst elements nature has to offer. In other words deadwood
is an acceptable part of the (my) natural image.
the other hand the oak conveys the majesty of the English countryside
on a hot summers day with birds singing in the trees, the smell
of freshly mown grass, the.... I'm sure you get the picture. But
does that image include deadwood. I think not. Carving and deadwood
effects have their place in Bonsai in the same way that apple
pie and custard is very nice but it wouldn't go down well after
corn flakes and you wouldn't want it after every meal!
pot is an integral part of Bonsai. It forms part of the image
that we are striving for by complimenting the style and type of
tree. Formal pots should be kept for formal styles whilst more
inventive designs call for a more imaginative outlook. A tree
styled to give an image of windswept mountain tops would not be
displayed at its best in a shiny blue Japanese pot.
pot itself is nothing more than a container for the roots and
as long as the horticultural requirements are met then it can
be any shape. Size dictates itself but shape is a whole new ball
game. Try making your own cement fondue pots that reflect the
environment that you wish to associate with the tree. This way
the tree gets a custom made pot to compliment the image and not
something that you just happen to have lying about at the time.
Never compromise on the design of the tree because you have a
certain pot in mind.
there you have it, everything you need to know about Bonsai. No
rules, just guidelines and something to think about. If you agree
entirely then think again. I may be right but that doesn't matter.
On the road to Bonsai enlightenment it is more important to have
your own ideas. Continually question what I or anybody else has
to say about Bonsai because at the end of the day it's the fulfillment
of your own dreams which will provide the greatest satisfaction.
WHAT IS BONSAI?
- A brief introduction defining Bonsai
GETTING STARTED - A few simple
pointers to get you going
TOOLS AND TECHNIQUES
- An outline of the basic requirements
THE CHINESE ELM
- Everybody starts here, some home truths
FREQUENTLY ASKED QUESTIONS - A whimsical
look at some common problems
- What to do and when to do it
- DEVELOPING THE EYE - Slightly more advanced but essential
5 MINUTE RAFT PLANTING
- A simple project
OF BONSAI - More food for thought
LINKS TO OTHER SITES