Beginners Corner - Design

by Dorothy Franz

In the previous issue I dealt with the importance of roots and establishing a pleasing trunk. Initially, I had intended on focusing on branches and foliage next, which expands and completes a bonsai but in writing down various points I realised that everything depended on design.

Anyone who has been doing bonsai for a while has learnt the basic principles, but sometimes our creative side tells us different things. Any tree that adheres absolutely to the guidelines will become a bonsai, but will it have soul? Will it have character and exude a feeling of contentment and pleasure?

The part of the world we live in and nature and the trees around us has a direct bearing on the way we view trees. One must be aware of the personality of the tree throughout its development so that one can create and maintain the visual impact and aura of the tree.

We all have a right and left brain and some people are better able to marry the two than others and therefore makes some of us more artistic and adventurous than others. The individuality and uniqueness of a particular tree is what makes it stand apart and what ultimately makes it a good bonsai. We can all learn the right techniques to accomplish this.

The character of a bonsai tree can be significantly altered by simple things such as changing the length of a branch, j inning or by the removal of certain branches.

Initially one concentrates on overall design and not on details in branches and foliage. The art of bonsai is equivalent to that of a sculptor who has material in front of him; he then decides what he does not need to achieve his aim and whittles it away. We look at our material and cut off what we feel we do not need. Except that we do not always have branches in the best places or at the right angle, which makes our task a little more difficult.

The main elements to consider are Line, Proportion, Symmetry, Balance and Harmony.

Line denotes a certain energy and can be expressed by a straight line, which gives one a feeling of strength and stability. A curved or zig-zag line suggesting excitement and rhythm or horizontal lines creating opposite tensions.

Proportion is the ratio of the height of the tree to the width of the base of the trunk, which should gradually taper to the apex.

Symmetry refers to the outline or silhouette of the tree. The idea is to get sufficient symmetry for the composition to look orderly. This doesn't mean that everything must be even.

If it doesn't look comfortable try to find out why. It could mean that your eye is forced to look away from the trunk, that some foliage is sticking up or down, that some branches point up and others point down or there is an eye-poking branch.

Balance is the visual weight. Curves in a trunk will shift the visual weight. Branches then have to be arranged to compensate. The amount of foliage on the branches is very important. A tree leaning too far back or forward would upset the balance. As bonsai design is a visual expression no part in the field is inert. Negative space therefore also plays an important part in the balance of the composition.

Harmony and mood go hand in hand.

The roots of the tree, the trunk line, branch placement and the foliage mass together achieve overall harmony with no one aspect totally dominating the other.

A bonsai is only considered to be a mature tree when it has second and tertiary branches. This ramification is only achieved over time by pruning, pinching, defoliation, feeding, repotting etc.

The three main parts of a bonsai will together give it its aesthetic import, namely, the tree (root, trunk and branches), the container and the ground cover. Above all keep the design simple.

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Distant mountain heights...

Lonely trees clinging...

In the hollow of my hand

Random Bonsai Tip

Use vinegar and water to remove moss but it is not as effective as using Limestone Ammonium Nitrate (LAN) and water. Be very careful not to spill any of the LAN on the roots of the bonsai tree as it may burn them and may in the worst case cause the tree to die. Carefully paint the LAN and water mix on the trunk of the bonsai tree and within days you should see the moss turn brown and die.