Principles of design in relation to Bonsai

by Victoria Petermann

Bonsai is a tree grown in a container which expresses, entirely, the beauty and volume of a tree grown in its natural environment.

fig1Fig 1

Our sense of space and structural coherence is derived from our experience in the world of physical objects. The actual appearance of things, is essentially different from the quick preconditioned glance of recognition that serves the purpose of everyday living. It is, therefore, important to give sufficient time to look and observe trees in their natural environment before one begins to design a bonsai tree. The eye needs to be trained to appreciate and assess the relationships that occur in nature. In this way, it will be possible to understand the character of any tree given by a relationship between its height and width, by the changes of its contour, and by a multitude of other contrasts within that specific tree. The aesthetic value of bonsai lies not only in the beauty of the tree, but in the harmony between the tree and the pot in which it is grown, that is in the composition (design) of the whole.

In defining composition, we can establish that it is the way in which the elements of a work of art are combined into a satisfactory visual whole. This result is much more than the sum of its parts because it creates a harmony that pleases the eye.

fig2Fig 2

Art involves the idea of human creation and so bonsai becomes a balanced combination between artistic and natural beauty. All visual arts share the same formal means that corresponds to our perceptual responses. Each art makes use of these in different ways to create a composition. It would be safe to say that all compositions aim at movement to create a sense of rhythm through the varying movement of its parts. See this, for example, with the line that carries the eye, at different speeds, or through the changes in colour or tone that occur in a particular tree.

A main element of design is line. A line has within a certain energy that appears to travel along its length and implies a speed and feeling of activity in the space around it.

fig3Fig 3

Line can express emotion; a straight line is associated with strength and stability, a zigzag line with excitement and movement, and horizontal lines, when operating together, express a balance of opposite tensions. If we look at a formal upright tree, Fig. 1, we can see how the vertical pull of the trunk balances the horizontal reach of the branches, to create a sense of absolute balance and stability.

The introduction of diagonal lines, creates powerful directional impulses and a sense of dynamism so that the unresolved tendencies of the, Fig. 2, line towards the vertical and the horizontal positions are held in balanced suspension. The designs of trees, such as in the shakan and fukinagashi styles are based upon this principle.

fig4aFig 4a

fig4bFig 4b

A rhythmical quality is introduced into a tree when curved lines are used in its design, Fig. 3. If we look at the trunk of an informal upright tree, we can clearly see how a sense of excitement and rapid movement is achieved by the changes in the trunk line.

Design is a dynamic visual experience and as such, no part of the visual field is inert. The negative spaces, that is, the spaces surrounding the tree, play an important role in balancing the composition by creating satisfying relationships and intervals.

fig5Fig 5

If, for example, we look at the same tree with the foliar mass distributed differently, Fig. 4, we will clearly appreciate how the sense of dynamism created in the first instance (A) by the negative spaces is lost in the second example (B) because the negative spaces create a mirror image in their similarity.

Satisfying relationships and intervals can also be created by the proximity and/or similarity of units.

If two dissimilar shapes are situated close together, they will be seen as a visual whole because of their proximity. An example is in the relationship between the rock and the root in a root-over-rock composition, Fig. 5, in which they are not the same shape, both root and rock read as one whole. Similar shapes, colours, or textures, on the other hand, are linked although they are placed far apart in the visual field. This is the case with a Japanese winterberry where red flowers strongly relate to each other through the texture they create and its strong colouring. Contrasts and similarities must occur in a composition.

fig6Fig 6

The strength of a design lies as much in the repeating motifs, the echoes and similarities as in the differences and contrasts.

A sense of imbalance is often an essential part of the composition. The ultimate goal is to allow the viewer to experience the composition as a whole and not as a collection of fragments. In a forest planting, for example, we can see that a sense of equilibrium is achieved by the differing sizes of trees used, Fig. 6.

fig7Fig 7

Both the tree and the pot, in bonsai, create the whole, therefore, it is very important where the tree is placed within the pot. By placing a tree in a pot, new forces are brought into being, namely the energies that operate between the tree and the sides of the container.

fig8Fig 8

The difference in weight distribution creates a sense of space. On viewing a finished tree, one must feel like an integral part of the visual image, as one explores the relationship, differences and tensions within the design.

Optically a sense of harmonious balance should be achieved between the dynamic forces of the composition when positioning the tree in the pot. If we were to place the same tree within a rectangular pot in three different positions, different tensions would result, giving three very different compositions.

First, if we placed the tree in the centre of the pot, Fig. 7, the forces would be of equal strength and the composition is static.

fig9Fig 9

Placing the tree in the front and centre of the pot, Fig 8, the composition loses its sense of depth, because the tensions created in the foreground are overpowered by those created in the background.

But, if you place the tree off-centre and slightly towards the back of the pot, Fig. 9, a different set of forces

come into play. In this way dynamism and depth would be created by the constant change of the tensions within the pot.

Every visual experience is simultaneously the reception of fragmentary information, the giving of form to the visual sensations, and the arousal of a tactile response.

What ultimately matters to the artist is the quality of emotion evoked because it will be this feeling that will dictate each design. It is vitally important to develop an intuitive judgement, to work within the natural momentum of our emotions, and in the placement of the different elements of the composition to create a sense of organic unity in the designs.


  • Bonsai design - Japanese Maples Adams, P.; Unwin Hyman, London, 1988.
  • The Complete Book of Bonsai. Chan, P.; Bracken Books, London, 1989.
  • Art, an introduction. Cleaver, D.; Harcourt, Brace A World, New York, 1966
  • Painting: Some basic principles. Gore, F.; Studio Vista, London, 1965
  • The Masters' Book of Bonsai. Koide N, Kato, S., Takeyama, F.; Kodansha International, New York, 1989.
  • Basic Design: The Dynamics of Visual Form. Sausmaret, M.; Studio Vista, London, 1964
  • The Complete Book of Bonsai Tomlinson, H.; Dorling Kindersley, London, 1990.
  • Bonsai Today-Issues 22 & 23. W. J. Palmer (Editor) Stone Lantern Publishing.


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On the weathered shelf

A self-cleaned cat in autumn

Curls around itself.

Random Bonsai Tip

Wiring is probably the most commongly used technique for shaping trunk and branches, but it can also be used for thickening the trunk or branches