design principles: is it a tree or an abstract tree?

Sneak Peek

A bonsai is literally a tree in a tray. But as I’m sure we can all agree, it’s far more than that. But what exactly is it? A tree or an abstract tree? The best way to answer this question may be by considering the shohin bonsai.

Design Principles: Is it a Tree or an Abstract Tree?

So here’s another one of my pasture privets that I dug in June. Very cool lower trunk damage (character!), nice taper and movement, all in a small package – the trunk was chopped at about 6″. There’s plenty of growth and plenty of roots to style and pot this tree, so that’s the goal for today with this one.

But let’s talk about design principles and what bonsai is all about. Bonsai is the art and craft of designing, potting and maintaining miniature trees. That’s pretty straightforward as it goes. But what exactly is it we’re creating? Is it a tree or something else?

I ask the question because the objective fact is that no bonsai is an exact representation of a tree in nature on a small scale. Why? Take an 80 foot-tall tree with a two-foot trunk diameter near the ground. For a bonsai with a 2″ trunk base, you’re talking an 80″ tall bonsai. Well, we know that isn’t the way bonsai works. So we’re compressing the proportions into a manageable scale and tricking the brain into believing something that isn’t objectively so.

The next thing to consider is how many branches a bonsai has. This varies, of course, but suffice it to say that almost always a bonsai has far fewer branches than a tree in nature. But this is necessary due to the limited scale in which we have to operate.

Nowhere is this more exaggerated than in the shohin bonsai. Which brings us to today’s subjects. Count the branches on this very small tree. What are there, maybe eight? And we’re going to make a whole tree out of that?


Yes, that’s exactly it. I even started by removing two branches, one that was an extra down near that right-hand branch, and one that was jutting out toward us. Neither was of any use in the ultimate design. But look, I’ve actually created two branches for this bonsai to be that make the impression I want to make.

Right branch, left branch, back branch. Now I’ve introduced visual depth into this tree structure I’m making. You always need this in your bonsai, in order to trick the brain into seeing a three-dimensional tree in a very small space. We create perspective by foreshortening from front to back and using taper from base to apex to make the tree look a lot taller than it is.

Now the basic design is finished. There are five branches (there’s one in the back below the two upper branches that’s a bit hard to see), plus the leader. That’s all. Yet it’s not at all hard to see a tree in this very small package. It’s an abstract tree, for sure, but it can produce exactly the effect I want.

With the bonsai pot, of course. The function of the bonsai pot is to complete the abstract impression of size and viewing distance in our tree. Viewing distance is achieved by the shallow pot that is reminiscent of a slice of ground (this effect just does not happen in a deep nursery container – put one beside a potted bonsai and you’ll see the difference immediately). Note: the cascade pot is designed to represent a slice of mountainside, producing the same effect of viewing distance.

This tree will fill out over the next couple of months, and by that time we’ll be heading into fall. Privets retain a good bit of their foliage through winter down here in the South, but are deciduous in the North.

Okay, maybe you were thinking that the tree above was, in the end, a pretty easy subject. I had enough branches in the right spots to make a whole tree structure. I can’t argue that. But take a look at this one. How in the world do you make a whole tree out of just a few branches?

Here’s how I did it. I’m going to make use of that low branch, which actually emerges pretty far down on the trunk; when it’s filled out I’ll have a good bit of foliage all the way from the lower third of the tree into the crown – both front and back. That next branch up the tree gives me visual balance on the right-hand side, and I can finish off the crown in just a few branches. Abstract tree!

Do you grow shohin bonsai? I’d love to hear what you think of these two specimens.