A Theory of Style

Credit: Dylan Fawcett at The National Bonsai and Penjing Museum D.C.

Credit: Dylan Fawcett at The National Bonsai and Penjing Museum D.C.

So far we discussed a great deal on how to start your trees and your techniques in the right direction. When I was thinking about the path my writing would take, guiding you from complete novice to at the very least “familiar” with bonsai, the next logical step in the progression would be wiring. However, I will not be discussing wiring yet. The first reason is that wiring is one of those hands on things that I really want to do my best to take detailed pictures of and so I think it best to wait until spring time to post on. Second, Wiring is really the last procedure in the process of  the initial styling of your bonsai. I wanted to make it absolutely evident that you have to learn the mechanics of bonsai before you begin to think about the creative aspects. After all, you can’t expect to ever have a wonderful tree if you ignore simple things like seasonal pruning. But unfortunately I think we have to temporarily skip wiring.

Up until now if you follow the guides I have provided on choosing a tree, prioritizing growth energy, and compacting your growth, you will have a wonderful start for your bonsai. You can use these procedures on almost any tree, without any thought of design, and you will be successful. When you wire however, you are setting what should be the final structure and style of your tree. It will be impossible to wire though, without any considerations about what the tree will ultimately look like. And so before we get into wiring, I think we must talk about style.

Style, in all realms, is one of those things that pop culture wants us to believe is boundless. By that I mean that in general things like creativity are thought of as not following any set of rules. The phrase “thinking outside the box” comes to mind. It’s almost as if artists pull some sort of magic out of the atmosphere, onto their media, and in a flash of light art is made! I don’t think this is a very accurate explanation of what is really going on. In fact I think its the rules of art that make each variety unique and help artists to flourish. Artists are good or bad based on how well they work within the confines of their art.

In cooking the true artists are the ones that blend flavors that have been time tested as wonderful. I’m not sure who was the first person to make clam chowder, but the inventor certainly played by the rules of cooking and created something wonderful. The combination of salty (clams, bacon), sweet (cream, onions), and savory (potatoes, celery, carrots, etc..) is a combination that has occurred billions of times throughout the history of food, but the person who made clam chowder created something completely new in the confines of his art. The one who thought “outside of the box” and made caramel scallops on top chef (as was famously said by Anthony Bourdain as the worst thing he’s ever eaten) was not an artist. If you want to understand bonsai as art and plan on executing it as such, you have to understand the rules.

The Front

There are a lot of things to take into account when you start to style your tree. While there are many additional elements of style that feed into this one, finding a front for your tree is certainly the most important and the first decision you must make in styling your tree. When we talk about finding the front, we’re basically making a decision as to which side of the tree will be viewed as the front. If the tree were to be displayed, this would obviously be the side facing away from the wall and towards the audience. Choosing a front is a pivotal step because you will style your tree around the intended front.

As with any choice you will have to make with your trees, there will most likely be several options, each with their good and bad points. I think a good lesson to learn here, as well as with bonsai in general, is that its not important to make the “right” choice. What really matters is making the path you choose the right one. In theory, you could choose the best side and consequently still make a less than ideal tree with your other style choices. Or you could choose a less ideal angle and end up styling cohesively with your decision and make a great tree. I believe the adage goes “the whole is greater than the sum of its parts” and as such, decisions that work together will yield a better product than ones that are individually best.

Below are some rough guidelines to use when determining the front of your tree:

1. On the front of the tree, the bottom third of the trunk will likely have no foliage covering it. The idea when styling the foliage is to create a window of sorts to see through part of the tree. This enables viewing of some of the interior structure year around, and also allows you to see through the tree to the back limbs creating depth. When choosing a front, any limbs in this section pointing toward the viewer will have to be removed.

2. One aspect to consider for the front of the tree, is to arrange it at an angle that highlights the trunk. The front should be the view that you feel is the most interesting view of the trunk as a whole. The trunk should always (even if the inclination is slight) flow away from the viewer. By this I mean that wherever the trunk emerges from the ground, its angle should be pointing away from the viewer. What this does is helps open the tree up. By initially tilting the trunk away from the viewer, it positions the bulk of the tree in the ideal focal point to be viewed at. It’s inviting, if the trunk were to lean forward first it would feel as if the tree were pushing you away or trying to hide it’s self.

3. The main branch defines the movement, direction, or inclination of the tree. The main branch is usually (but not always) the largest and first branch on the tree as you come up the trunk from the ground. if your main branch is pointing to the right, then the inclination or movement of you tree should be to the right. This obviously doesn’t mean that your trunk can only twist to the right or all your branches must go this direction, but it does mean that the overall feeling or movement of your tree should be consistent with the feeling or movement of the main branch.

4. The apex will always tilt slightly forward and should never be in conflict with the main branch. The apex, or top of the tree should always be inclined towards the viewer. It should also point, if ever so slightly, in the direction of the main branch. This builds a uniformity of style throughout the tree and a congruency between the beginning (base of the trunk) and ending (apex) of the tree.  having an apex that points toward the viewer helps to create the imagine of bowing, as if the tree is inviting you to come in closer for a good look.

5. Determining the front of your tree will likely also make you evaluate the planting angle, or the angle at which the tree sits in the pot. Changing the angle that the tree is planted at can sometimes be a crucial consideration in the design and is generally used to accentuate or increase a certain feeling of the trunk or tree’s style in general. A tree with a large curve in the trunk, for example, could change the planting angle to increase and highlight the curve or alternatively down-play it if the curve seems too overbearing. I believe it was Ryan Neil who made the point (and I believe it was from this video) that planting angle or planting position should not be used as the primary way of putting movement in a tree. A tree’s movement should be developed in the trunk and limbs, not based solely on how it is stuck in the pot.

6. You must think of your tree 3 dimensionally. You want to create a pleasing rounded canopy, so it is important to build you tree with not only the front in mind, but also the sides and back. While any display will feature a predominant view form the front, the sides and back of the tree will not be completely hidden. Its also important to make sure there are no branches (except perhaps at the apex) that point directly toward the viewer. Additionally branches should never cross one another or the trunk. You will need to style you tree in such a way that each foliage pad occupies its own space. If it helps, think of the foliage design in the front as hugging the tree. Branches will come in from the sides and use the very tips of the foliage to obscure the trunk.

A Few Final Thoughts

Obviously what I’ve constructed here is not a complete picture of bonsai style. What I wanted to do was help to give the beginner some things to think about before cutting into their first tree. If you’re taking on the task of styling your first tree, I would encourage you to seek out as much info as possible before hand. However, most things in bonsai you just have to practice.

One thing to think about that was lost on me the first time I styled a tree was the idea that the tree will not be completed after this styling. I suppose this concept is obvious and in actuality I understood it on a very basic level. But what I’m really trying to get at is that you need to think of your trees development as being on a scale of 100-0. The completely un-styled tree will be worth 100 because it is full of potential. As we work on our trees we will slowly be removing it’s potential final designs, and hopefully be narrowing to a final design. The perfect tree will be a 0.

Through our styling process we will be dividing the possible outcomes of the tree. For example, if my first decision is to make an informal upright styled tree, I will be dividing out the billions of possible final trees that do not include the informal upright design. If I remove a limb I will like wise be removing any possible designs that included that limb. The first styling of the tree is crucial because we will divide out the largest portion of the tree’s theoretical futures. If you are good at styling your tree, you may remove something like 70% of the possible future styles.

With each additional pruning, styling, and re-potting we are slowly but surely narrowing the possible out comes. Let’s say for example on our next styling we narrow the possible futures by something like 1%. Than on the spring defoliation, we narrow again by .5%. The process will go on essentially into infinity because the number that we have, can be divided infinitely. The goal is always a 0 tree, but it’s a goal that can never be achieved. When you see ancient trees that have been meticulously cared for over centuries, you will be astounded by the incredibly intricate twists and turns. This can only be achieved by thousands of choices made over a very long time.

It’s often said that the pinnacle pieces of any variety of art have a “quality” about them that is not easily explained. I believe that the greatest artists are the ones that can come to a resulting piece by this process of careful negative selection. The most successful way to create a piece of art is perhaps not by choosing what it might be, but by choosing what it will not be.

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5 Responses to A Theory of Style

  1. Paul Stokes says:

    I would love to publish some of your articles on ofbonsai.org

  2. nelibonsai says:

    Reblogged this on Bonsai advice and commented:
    Theory of styling a bonsai. Good article.

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