The typical bonsai enthusiast is initially captivated by seeing either a real-life bonsai or a photograph in a book or magazine (or even on TV!). These tiny trees seem almost to jump out at you. But what is it about them? Why do they instantly amaze? The secret, quite simply, lies in how the bonsai is artistically designed.

To begin at the beginning, by definition a bonsai is a tree in a tray. That’s exactly what the word means: “bon” for tray, “sai” meaning to plant. Going beyond the basic definition, a bonsai is a representation, on a small scale, of a fully grown, mature tree in nature. It is meant to mimic the features of its natural counterpart, while not precisely copying them in scale. The practical meaning of this is, if the leaves on an eighty foot-tall oak in nature are five inches long each, shrinking that tree to two feet in height would require the leaves to be just over one-tenth of an inch in length. It would be hard to make out an individual leaf on such a tree, which would hamper rather than enhance its appearance.

So with this said, what are the basics of bonsai design? Here we can look to universal principles of design for our answer. Consider a landscape painting, for example. In order for the artist to portray a representation of an actual landscape scene on a flat canvas, he or she must take into account a number of factors. But the first necessity is the very same one the bonsai artist must take into account: fooling the brain into seeing something besides what’s in front of it. What does this mean? Again consider the landscape painting. It’s really nothing more than a piece of cloth with a shallow smattering of medium-infused pigments arranged in such a way as to represent earth, trees, grass, and so forth. Yet when viewed the brain can clearly grasp a scene that might very well appear somewhere in nature. There’s color and perspective, depth, form, shading; this evokes emotions. So too with a bonsai. A bonsai is essentially a landscape “painting.” When properly designed it has color and perspective, depth, form, and shading. And it most certainly evokes emotions. Perhaps the best thing is, it’s alive!

But bonsai is three-dimensional to begin with. This might seem as if it would lessen the problem of creating depth and perspective in our “living landscape painting,” but the truth is it makes this more difficult to achieve. Why? For the simple reason that the typical bonsai only measures from a few up to about 30 inches from front to back. Thus the brain must be tricked somehow into believing this depth is much, much greater (and not just thirty or forty feet, because the world continues on past your tree!). In addition to this, since a typical bonsai only measures from a few up to about 48 inches in height the brain must be tricked into believing this height is much, much greater. Finally, we must somehow manage to represent that part of the landscape which supports the tree – we have to grab a “slice of the earth” as it were. In sum, what you have when you pot up a small tree is basically a small tree in a pot. Much more goes into making it look right.

Let’s summarize what we know so far. Making a bonsai look right means making a small living tree appear to be much taller and larger than it is, and though viewed from an extremely close distance appear to be much farther away than it is. This is exactly the same effect the landscape painter works to achieve: on a flat canvas viewed from perhaps six feet away, a vista stretching for hundreds of feet or even hundreds of miles. Given this, let’s work through the design process that makes a bonsai a bonsai.

Trees visually consist of a root base, trunk, branches, and leaves. Unseen is the network of roots that provides the support, but we know it’s there. When you observe a beautiful tree standing alone in, say, a meadow, you grasp its entirety regarding its height and spread, its shape, its structure – in short, you get a sense of quiet majesty. The tree speaks to you while saying nothing. It stands firm and sure, gripping the earth. In the course of a year, it puts on fresh foliage, grows itself larger and stouter or at least renews itself if very old, bears fruit, shows brilliant colors as its chlorophyll breaks down, then drops its leaves in preparation for the necessary dormancy. Stability, or the appearance of longevity, is thus a key factor in making a tree a tree. Bonsai are no different. You want the tree to appear as if it’s been quietly living its life in its pot, standing against the elements and time. Stability implies a balance between the tree and the earth. Thus we find our way to the first definitive design factor for the tree – a balanced though asymmetric (i.e., non-static – more on this later), stable stance. In order to achieve this, we take advantage of the most stable of the three dimensional shapes – the (scalene) cone pointed upward. When viewed from a point designated as the front, this shape sits on a horizontal base and features unequal sides. In order to make our bonsai appear to be stable, we shape them to fit within the confines of a scalene cone. Now, this does not mean the tree is simply a lopsided Christmas tree with a broad base of foliage terminating in a tiny little point. It means that the combination of positive and negative space occupied by the tree conforms to this shape. Here’s an example:

Water-elm cone example8-22-15










Notice that even though you can’t see the entire cone in this picture, it’s nevertheless there as far as the brain is concerned (it’s represented here as a triangle; the implied front-to-back depth of the planting produces in the brain an impression of a cone shape). It consists of both positive space, namely the tree’s branch structure, along with negative space where nothing appears. It also captures the network of roots by suggestion; remember, the rootage of a tree in nature extends far beyond the confines of the branch structure. So it’s visually stable. Notice the tree is planted in the container in such a way that there’s a broad expanse of empty ground to the right-hand side of the tree. This asymmetry both enhances visual stability and prevents the composition from being static, which means it prompts the eye to move around and through the tree continually rather than focusing in any one spot.

And so, with our first design factor understood, it’s time to move on to our next factor: making your tree look taller than it really is. To be continued …