In Part 1 of this article, we briefly explored the concept of artistic design first as it may be expressed by the landscape artist, and then expanded that same concept to bonsai design. In bonsai, our goal is to make a small tree look like a much larger and older tree, and standing at a distance despite the fact that we view the tree from a relatively short remove. Because a bonsai tree is, first and foremost, a tree, in order to make a believable representation of nature we have to mimic trees in nature. Thus we first addressed the design factor that can be described as a non-static (asymmetric) stability. That is, the tree stands majestic as it firmly grips the earth by way of its root system. This evokes emotion in us; and it should. We know that many trees possess lifespans far in excess of our own. Some provide food for us, many provide food and shelter for wildlife. We use them to build shelters and warm our homes. It’s only natural to have respect for trees. So to render such an important life form in miniature is quite a feat. Making the miniature tree, the bonsai, accurately represent its much larger counterpart is, in fact, high art. To do this, we can rely on certain design principles which if properly executed will give us the result we desire.

This post addresses the second design principle of making a miniature tree look like its counterpart in nature: making it look taller than it really is. In order to do this, we need to take advantage of another basic design technique, namely, perspective. If you’ve ever done any drawing or painting, you’ve learned that mimicking the three-dimensional aspect of nature on paper or canvas is done by rendering objects that are farther away in a smaller size. The easiest way to picture this is the classic railroad tracks that run off into the distance, as in this image:

RRtracksThese tracks run for perhaps a mile into the distance, but this is conveyed in a very short space by the phenomenon of the tracks appearing slimmer and slimmer as they rise toward the top of the image. What’s more, our brains when viewing this image have no problem grasping them within the context of the landscape they reside in. In other words, we have no problem at all seeing vast distance in this image. So given this, is it possible to achieve the appearance of vast height in a short space? The answer is a definite yes. Take a look at this photograph of a bald cypress bonsai:

Cypressperspective8-22-15The overall height of this bonsai from the soil surface is 29 inches. The base of the trunk is about 3 inches in diameter. At the point where the leaders emerge from the main trunk, the diameter of the trunk is 1.5 inches. I’ve drawn lines to roughly mirror the tapering of the trunk as it rises to the sky. You can see that not too far above the apex of this tree, these two lines will merge. Compare that with the image of the railroad tracks above. Have I achieved a nice degree of perspective in this bald cypress bonsai? More importantly, can you visualize it as a 100 foot-tall tree?

This, then, is the second key design principle for creating believable bonsai. A tapering trunk fools the mind because it gives the impression that you’re standing near the base of a very tall tree. Just as the landscape artist conveys distance or height by use of perspective, the bonsai artist does exactly the same thing by creating trees whose trunks are thicker near their bases than at their apexes.

But this is just one use of perspective to achieve this goal. As you might imagine, a rising trunk on a bonsai that tapers should be mirrored by tapering foliage masses. This is not the case with a flat-top style bald cypress, which achieves this goal differently. What is typically done is shown in this riverflat hawthorn in development:

Hawthornperspective8-22-15In this case, the perspective lines show much more clearly how the eye is taken up the tree through tapering foliage masses in order to give that impression of height. Notice also the tapering of the trunk of this tree, even though somewhat subtle, is sufficient to create the impression of height. If you were told this tree stood 80-feet tall, you’d be inclined to believe it.

Finally, there’s one more feature of this hawthorn that is designed to make the tree seem much taller than it is. Notice that in the lower part of the tree, the branches are less plentiful than in the upper part. This is another way to fool the brain. If you walk up to a tall tree in nature, you can clearly see the individual branches in the lower part of the tree but as your eye moves up the tree all you can see is a lot of branches seemingly crowded together. And this is actually how trees grow. The closer to the sunshine, the more plentiful the branches and foliage of most trees. To build your bonsai this way only makes sense.

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

 

 

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