In my first post on this topic, I briefly described the challenge we face in taking photographs of our trees that actually reflect their real-world appearance. Distance, camera angles, lenses, and so on can all contribute to distorted views of our trees. At the same time, photographing our bonsai can be a valuable tool for improving their style and appearance. Once you’ve mastered how to take photos that are accurate representations of your trees, you can then use them to spot flaws and make styling decisions.
You’ve seen this native female yaupon, Ilex vomitoria, before, as I’ve shown you its progression from bare trunk to bonsai-in-the-making. Now we’re at the end of the 2015 growing season, and I’m very pleased with where I am on this tree. However, I can tell you that when I photographed it the other day and then processed the photo, what I saw was nothing like the way the tree looked to me on the bench. In a word, it’s much easier to see how disorganized and unkempt the tree is in this image than it is in reality. The photo just screams for something to be done to this tree.
The first thing that was not apparent to me in viewing this tree from time to time as it’s grown this year is, the trunk is obscured by a crossing branch that pretty much shuts down the visual flow of the tree. Is your eye drawn to that spot right smack dab in the middle of the trunk, as mine is? I always tell students and lecture-demo attendees that you can easily tell where the flaws are on your trees by noticing where your eye stops moving. A well-designed bonsai causes your eye to continually move as you view it. Not with this yaupon. With this yaupon, you can’t help but zero in on that spot in the middle.
Here are two more branches that don’t belong. One of them is emerging too close to the trunk (it’ll ultimately interfere with another branch in back), while the second is shooting off into the space of another branch that is properly placed. So both of these have to go, too.
(Following a little concave cutter work….)
I’d recommend taking some time to study this photo in comparison to the first one above. By removing a single branch, I’ve restored the flow of this tree by uncovering the trunk line. No longer does your eye get stuck at that tangle of foliage crossing the trunk halfway up the tree. The movement of the trunk and how it ties into the first few branches are a key element of this bonsai. Think of it as Design 101. Now, would I have spotted this problem without the photo to help point it out? Most certainly, in time. But the photo showed it to me immediately. (Note: don’t misunderstand this lesson to mean that you can’t have foliage in front of or crossing your trunk. This obviously must happen, otherwise you end up with a two-dimensional bonsai that’s visually static. But it’s where and how the crossing foliage occurs that either harmonizes with your design or undoes it. This crossing foliage must never disrupt the primary line and movement of the trunk. In the case of this tree, the crossing foliage was in exactly the wrong spot before I removed it. A bit higher along the trunk you can see crossing foliage, and this does not cause a problem. For examples of this principle, take a look at the trees on my Gallery page.)
Here’s the tree after its final cleanup. Though it’s not easy to see in this photo, I’ve gone into the interior of the tree and removed crotch branchlets, crossing branchlets, some pointing straight up and all pointing straight down, and I’ve removed the basal foliage from each. This last work is another key design technique for making your trees look more mature and realistic. The foliage on mature trees is found clustered at the ends of the branches and sub-branches. If you study them in nature, you’ll find the foliage does not appear snuggled up against the trunk, nor is it found all along the branches. If you study photos of bonsai, you’ll find countless examples that tend toward the “potted shrub” form. And you may have been instructed to chase your foliage in toward the trunk, all dense and crowded and, well, “something doesn’t look quite right but I’m supposed to think it’s okay because they told me to do it this way.” No. The legendary John Naka said it long ago, your trees should have spaces for the birds to fly through. It was his way of saying don’t grow potted shrubs and call them bonsai. It’s not how trees grow. Observe old, natural trees. Let your eye follow the branches outward from the trunk, and you’ll see their foliage is way out at the ends. This is how they grow in the real world. If you design your bonsai this way, they’re guaranteed to look more mature and more realistic.
Incidentally, this year I’ve learned to really appreciate yaupon as a species for bonsai. Perhaps its best feature is you can let it grow all year long, pruning, pinching, wiring, watering, you name it, and give it no special protection or care; summer heat has absolutely no impact on the foliage (see the third photo above – it’s still fresh and green); and it appears the webworms, which moved onto my property this year with a vengeance and ate a lot of bonsai foliage, do NOT like the taste of yaupon. I don’t even recall seeing a webworm near either of my specimens. Perhaps that’s one of the reasons the species name is vomitoria. No kidding.
We’ll continue to follow the development of this bonsai in 2016. In the meantime, I’d love to hear from you if you found this blog post helpful.