Article 69 – ‘Design: a discussion’ Part 1

Hi, welcome to Taiga Bonzai in this article we discuss the complexities of design, it’s meaning and message what the designer or artist is attempting to impart with their perception and to attempt to make sense of it all in a rational manner.

Introduction – there are two basic principles in understanding design, (a) ‘perception‘ – the act or faculty of perceiving or apprehending by means of the senses or of the mind; cognition. (b) ‘concept ‘ – something conceived in the mind, a thought or notion to test or implement new ideas. These two factors are strongly connected because from what is perceived by the mind can be conceived in other ways or forms.

The arts – to explain the above statement we offer these examples. The Sistine Chapel ceiling (Soffitto della Cappella Sistina), painted by Michelangelo and other leading painters including Sandro Botticelli, Domenico Ghirlandaio and Pietro Perugino between 1508 and 1512; a cornerstone work of high renaissance art depicting the human form.

Michelangelo ‘The creation of Adam’

Other painters viewed art in different ways, English artist Laurence Stephen Lowry is famous for painting scenes of life in industrial districts often referred to as ‘matchstick men‘. Spanish painters Pablo Ruiz Picasso a post-impressionist (known as Cubism) and Salvador Domingo Felipe Jacinto Dalí i Domènech was attracted to Cubism, but moved closer to Surrealism in the late 1920s. American painter Paul Jackson Pollock a major figure in the abstract expressionist movement was widely noticed for his “drip technique” of pouring or splashing liquid household paint onto a horizontal surface, enabling him to view and paint his canvases from all angles.

Perception and concept has had an effect on other art forms, music like painting has undergone changes, classical, the blues of the deep south, big bands including Duke Ellington, Count Basie and Glenn Miller; the music of the swinging sixties to what is being touted today. Fashion, cuisine, architecture and other art forms have been affected by perception and concept through time.

Bonsai horticulture which began in 6th century China has also received its fair share of perception and concept. The first fictional work regarding bonsai ‘The Tale of the Hollow Tree‘, by Utsubo Monogatari originating in the year 970 states “A tree that is left growing in its natural state is a crude thing. It is only when it is kept close to human beings who fashion it with loving care that its shape and style acquire the ability to move one.”

But what is Monogatari saying, does it mean that we can change and fashion our trees into any shape or form as many modern bonsai designers are apt to do, where the designed specimen has little or no resemblance to its wild counterpart. According to American horticulturist John Yoshio Naka “Don’t turn your tree into a bonsai, turn your bonsai into a tree.” A tree that resembles its wild counterpart to some degree, the aim of bonsai is to mimic or copy what we see in nature but in miniature form; no doubt there will be many differences of opinion on this hypothesis.

The catalogue of styles – lists over 30 classic artistic representations with many quite common and others rare due to the complexity of design. We will discuss a few of these classic designs to shed light on what to some may be a little difficult to comprehend starting with the formal upright.

Chokkan – (formal upright) according to the guidelines as depicted by the old masters, the tree has a straight, upright, tapering trunk. Branches progress regularly from the thickest and broadest at the bottom to the finest and shortest at the top. This gives the branches a triangular shape and symmetry with none pointing directly toward the viewer, which is sought after for a formal upright style. There should be strong surface roots (nebari) visible, moving from the base of the trunk downward into the soil and radiating evenly around the trunk.

In looking at the image below the picture on the left an actual living Chokkan bonsai arguably does not conform to the guidelines, because the branches 1. 2. 3. and 4. protrude outside of the triangular shape and symmetry in addition, the foliage is rather overbearing. The composition of tree and pot can be construed as rather mundane, but this is how the designer perceives this specimen to be as a representation of what is found in nature.


In the right picture (same tree) the foliage has been reduced and conforms to the required triangular shape and symmetry. Sharimiki and Jin have been added to the trunk and apex respectively to give the viewer an indication that the tree has befallen some catastrophe at some point. It can be argued that the right hand picture would glean more interest than the left hand picture due to enhanced character, but it all depends on personal design preference; be it acceptable or not.

Fukinagashi – Wind swept – this style describes a tree that appears to be affected by strong winds blowing continuously from one direction, as might shape a tree on a mountain ridge or on an exposed shoreline. The windswept characteristic can be applied to a number of the basic styles, including informal upright, slanting, and semi-cascade, multi-tree bonsai can also be developed with elements of the windswept style.

The image below is of a 10 metre plus conifer growing on the shoreline of a lake in Ontario Canada, the left hand picture depicts it’s current design shape and symmetry due to element onslaught. We know that this tree although leaning to the left will not topple over, because it’s root spread will cover an extensive area and thus stability is ensured. Looking at the right hand branch it appears that there is very little foliage if any and can be deemed surplus to requirements.

If this tree were in miniature form changes could be made for example, the right hand branch has been shortened and Sharimiki has been applied to distract the viewer’s attention away from the straightness of the main trunk, which could be reshaped if needed. The lower branches have been removed, others pruned, these could be wired into shape to create a more compact look. Such simple changes have arguably improved the tree’s overall symmetry and composition keeping it within the wind-swept style. This is only one concept of design and although some might agree with this viewpoint others will differ.

We understand the viewpoints of Utsubo Monogatari and John Yoshio Naka because both have valid argument, but it is you the designer who makes the ultimate decision. In the next discussion on this subject we look at more classic designs, one of them being Penjing landscapes the Vietnamese Hón non bó and Japanese Bonkei versions. Until next time, BW, Nik.

Article 68 – ‘Finding the front’

Hi, welcome to Taiga Bonzai, in this article we answer a recently posted question of how to determine the front of a tree.

Introduction – all bonsai material regardless of the species (conifer or deciduous) will have certain characteristics that allow you to decide which is the front and which is the back. The signs that allow such determination are: 1. the Nebari or root system, 2. trunk and its movement, 3. branch configuration 4. the tree’s overall style and/or potential; we are referring to trees that have some maturity a minimum of 4 to 5 years old – not saplings, which lack such characteristics.

This Cotoneaster Lucidus now 19 years old – rescued from a garden centre’s waste bin in 2003 had no potential whatsoever, to solve the problem it was decided that the focus of attention should be aimed at developing the nebari. Every two years the plant was re-potted but was elevated each time by 1.5 cm exposing the root system that hardened off until the desired effect was achieved. The left branch was trained in a horizontal position and the right branch out and down to balance the composition, then finally placed in a shallow ceramic container.

Arguably the greatest teacher is nature itself, a walk through a woodland, forest, bog, swamp or mountainous terrain will reveal a wealth of information for example. Exposed roots systems, gnarled and twisted trunks and branches that have suffered severe weather patterns and this is what we try to imitate. However, when removing plants from the wild one has to be careful, permission has to be granted from the land owner; there are three posts on ‘Selecting material for bonsai’ part 1, April 15 2016 – part 2, April 23 2016 and part 3, August 06 2017.

Nebari – this Fukien tea Carmona retusa reveals it’s 5 root system in a ‘claw’ like manner allowing the viewer to see through it, left hand and front roots are dominant giving the impression of strength and stability, the root on the right although smaller balances out the above two roots whilst the two roots at the rear are in support. If we had of shown this tree in reverse the whole perspective of strength and stability would have been lost. Of course there are cases where this can not be achieved especially if there is no prominent root system, one then has to rely on the trunk and its movement for inspiration.

Fukien Tea Carmona retusa

Trunk and movement – staying with this Fukien tea for the moment – as the image shows there are acute turns in the trunk both left and right starting from the base to the apex, hence there is much movement and one might argue that such movement is rather excessive. Moreover, the foliage is masking the middle and upper portions of the trunk, but in our defense we are not the designer/s of this specimen, it came into our possession in 2013 as an import probably from Asia; where in that part of the world bonsai growers tend to be a tad more zealous in their approach to design.

Branch configuration – all trees regardless of the species have either dense or open foliage for example, Betula pendula commonly known as the ‘Silver’ or ‘weeping birch’ has open foliage and branches that droop down, Picea glauca has dense foliage often detrimental to the tree’s health as the inner branches are deprived of sunlight; hence they wither and die. According to the bonsai guidelines a bonsai should in all intents and purposes resemble its wild counterpart, branches should be evenly spaced from the base to the apex where they will be more abundant. As we have stated nature itself is the best teacher Autumn/spring is a good time to view trees as their branch placement is easier to see. Below is a hand-drawn image to give you some idea of the guidelines.

Branch placement

Seasonal change – the Northern hemisphere at this juncture is in the depths of winter, hence collection is virtually impossible for obvious reasons; in temperate zones seasonal change does occur but it is generally gradual. Of course there are instances where adverse weather patterns can have dramatic effects for example, a cold front with record-level snowfall caused major problems in most parts of the Attica region of Greece – Wednesday 17th February 2021.

Venturing into the interior – in August 2017 we obtained this Ginkgo biloba also known as the maidenhair tree, it is the only living species in the order Ginkgoales, which first appeared over 290 million years ago. The leaves are unique among seed plants, being fan-shaped with two veins radiating out into the leaf blade instead of a central vein that is found on other plants.

Ginkgo biloba before and after work

The left image depicts the tree after purchase, the right image shows the tree in summer 2021 the question is how did we arrive at the final design as the tree had no potential. Venturing into the interior to discover trunk movement and branch placement, measurements were taken to mark the lengths of each section, then duplicated on paper. Having discovered the tree’s potential the design was formed, foliage and branches were pruned – the lower branch on the right was jinned; the tree’s nebari is visible and will develop over time.

As stated the right image shows the tree in early summer, we could have pruned it back but decided not to, it was time to give the tree a break from the shears. We hope this article will give you some idea of how find the front of your tree specimens and should you require more information then the book Taiga Bonzai ‘Simplifying the Art’ is available. Until next time, BW, Nik.