It occurred to me that the blog I wrote yesterday on the American elm, Ulmus Americana, I lifted, potted and styled wasn’t as helpful as it could have been. For less experienced artists who sometimes struggle with making design decisions, I wanted to explain in more detail my thought process as I studied and then worked on this piece of material.

American elm1-24-16-2Let’s start with the tree after lifting and washing the roots. When you look at a piece of material like this, you sort of know there’s a bonsai in there somewhere but you may not be quite sure where it is (meaning “what do I cut off and what do I keep, and why?”). We always work our way from certainty to uncertainty. What this means is, in pretty much every tree you select to work on you know for sure some things about it even if you don’t know everything about it. In the case of this one, I know several things without even settling on the ultimate design. Here they are: the branches are all too long and will need to be cut back to the right silhouette; the lowest branches have to go, there’s no place for them in my ultimate design; the root base needs to be cut flat, taking advantage of the best set of radial roots present; the original leader on this trunk, now dead, needs to be cut off and its base carved out to make the crown look realistic.

What I don’t know, though I have something of an idea, is what my finished branch set is going to look like (and how well the finished product will be). But that’s okay. We always begin with what we’re certain of, and work our way toward uncertainty. What usually happens is that things start clearing up once the work begins.

American elm1-24-16-3This next photo is a flash-forward of sorts. You can see I’ve removed the branches that don’t have any part in the final design, as indicated in the photo above. I’ve trimmed back all of the branches to a silhouette that makes sense when compared with the trunk’s thickness, height and taper. And of course I cut that root base flat and potted the tree.

Now, studying the new bonsai in the making I find I suddenly know more. The confusion cleared up, you might say. There are branches on this tree that attract the eye and make it linger. Not good. Something has to be done. In this style of tree, I need the branches to form what might best be termed a “fan-shape” from bottom to top. This means the lowest branches lie the most horizontal, and as you work your way up the tree they get more and more upright until you reach the crown. And that means it’s time to wire this specimen and put those branches where they belong.

American elm1-24-16-4

Here’s the result. Now the tree is designed, and the design is balanced and harmonious. When viewing the tree there’s nothing that attracts and arrests the eye.