What to do on a wintry day with the wind howling outside, rain bucketing down and more to come judging by the Ruahine Ranges covered in dark, ominous looking clouds? One idea is to cuddle up and get a good book out, another to get a hearty soup on the go, but the one that I gravitated towards, was to work on a nursery stock, small Chamaecyparis obtusa standing on my Bonsai bench. It has been there for more than a year now, just waiting for a day like today.
The Chamaecyparis, also known as the Hinoki False Cypress, is native to Japan. It is a very slow growing tree and the nursery label on this little one states that it will grow to 60 cm high by 50 cm wide in 10 years. It has whorled branches of lovely dark green foliage and an upright habit with character and charm. Obviously not for long.
Before I start, here is some more information on the Hinoki Cypress. The foliage consists of evergreen, fine scale-like leaves, dark and shiny green above (adaxial) with glaucous margins between scales which form a distinct “x” shaped pattern beneath (abaxial). This species is monocious with small male reddish brown cones and slightly larger female flowers which are round and yellow-green in color. It bears fruit in late summer, but these are quite small. The bark is gray and scaly with long furrows of reddish brown inner bark which peels in long, narrow strips.
With this wind howling outside, I am going to let it influence my thinking and create a windswept (Fukinagashi) style shohin. I am sure that other styles will come to mind as I progress with this little tree.
It is said that a creative spirit needs inspiration. As Bonsai design is a creative activity, it is therefore important to be in touch with the sources of our inspiration. I have recently returned from a conference relating to Education where I was exposed to a variety of speakers. I was very aware that during and immediately after the conference, I was definitely more motivated to work on certain things in my main job. This came from listening to these powerful speakers and becoming aware of the latest trends in my vocation. This is the same for my Bonsai activities.
Exposure to other Bonsai people will lead to higher levels of inspiration and motivation. I live in an area in New Zealand where there are not that many other Bonsai enthusiasts and you sometimes do feel isolated. To overcome this, I have to make an effort to meet up with other Bonsai people. The local club, although very small, serves as a source of inspiration. I am the teacher here and other people rely on me for the advancement of their skills and knowledge. This places me in a position where I have to stay on top of my game. Through this I have also realised that I only know about the tip of the iceberg and that I need to learn as well. Again it comes back to people, as I can only get this knowledge and skills from others who are more advanced than me, or have produced resources that I can learn from. So, first of all people.
It is important that as a Bonsai artist, you realise that there will always be something new to learn or practice. I like the way that a lot of martial arts movements are set up. There is a clear line to follow from beginner level through to a very advanced level. I am not saying that we have to start different colour belts to show our proficiency in Bonsai, but the levels of training can be copied. A sensei at one dojo always learns from a more advanced practitioner somewhere else. This means you either have to go places or you have to get the masters to your place. This is already happening in Bonsai throughout the world and this has opened up many more opportunities for Bonsai professionals. As a side note, I do use the term Bonsai professional in a different context to Bonsai master. Not all professionals are masters and not all masters are professionals. More on this in later blogs. Back to the main thread of this blog. Where do we get inspiration from to excell in Bonsai activities? I have already established that it is mainly through the exposure to other people and preferably to more advanced practitioners. That means that you have to be a regular club member, be active in this club and teach at that level. The next step is to align yourself to an organisation or club where more advanced teaching takes place. From there it is important to attend shows, regional and national and even international teaching opportunities. Displaying your own trees is a big part of this. Immense growth takes place when you receive feedback from visiting judges once you get over the fact that you might get some negative input as well. Good teachers will make sure that this feedback is constructive and you can learn much from that. Just leave your ego at the door when you go into this type of situation, after-all, there is no ego in Bonsai as an art form.
Other forms of inspiration comes from man made resources. I find a lot of inspiration in my very large Bonsai library (wonder what the total cost of this is), which consists of books and many magazines. I currently hold a subscription to two international magazines and also receive our national production on a regular basis. Books come through online bookshops and I am now also in the fortunate position that I receive books from publishers and authors to review. Magazines keep me up to date with what is happening in the Bonsai world and brings the latest shows into my living room.
My next source of inspiration comes through good blogs. I follow about 25 blogs and find them informative and a major part of my everyday learning. My own education has increased immensely once I started my own blog (this one) up. I have to research every topic as there are always people out there who will catch you out if you talk nonsense. Try it, not the catching out bit or the talking nonsense bit, but the blogging bit. I also regularly visit websites dedicated to Bonsai activities and other related topics (suiseki and general horticulture).
Then there is You Tube. What a great learning tool. Here I am subscribed to at least thirty good quality channels and people who regularly post new material and from which I learn heaps. Just type Bonsai in the search area and you will find a great resources at your fingertips. While I am on internet based things, Facebook is exploding around Bonsai matters (probably lots of other things as well). One needs to be disciplined when you venture into this mosh pit of activity. Not everyone who has a presence here are noteworthy, but most of the “big” names in Bonsai are represented here.
I am very sure that there are many more sources of inspiration for Bonsai activities and I also know that what works for one person, does not necessarily work for everyone. The bottom line is that you cannot venture on this Bonsai journey on your own. You need other dedicated people around you and always be aware of the one-up principle, you need to learn and be inspired by people or a person who knows more than what you do.
Then there are my own trees. The moment I start to spend time with my trees (and the trees of other people), my motivation levels rise and there is no substitute for it. Yes, it can lead to frustration if you do not get it right, but overall it is invigorating and inspiring when you work with trees and realise the progress. Surrounding you with good people, good resources and good trees will always expose you to enough resources to keep going and to keep going at a high level.
I truly believe that creativity and to create is not just a mental need that all people need in their lives, but it is also a physical need. To create takes one out of your comfort zone and puts you in places where you have not been before. My choice of Art that I use to feed my creative spirit is Bonsai creation. I will be the first to admit that I probably spend a lot more time on the husbandry, maintenance and redesign of Bonsai than what I do creating Bonsai, but that is part and parcel of what we do as Bonsai artists. One of the main reasons why I am involved in this Art form is that it is never complete. You are constantly searching, asking questions and probing for your creation to become a master piece. Does that ever happen? I have not seen it in my own work yet, but have so in others and I am driven to get my own artwork to that level.
To explore Creativity as a study area, means that I read a lot and get trapped into conversations about what creativity is, how we can develop our own creativity and the creativity in others (that is the educationist in me). I spend a lot of time with creative people and I also do believe that it rubs off on other people mainly due to the passion that is shared when creative get in contact with each other. It can be a very solitary pursuit and aloneness and mindfulness is important in the pursuit of higher levels of creativity, but I also do believe that it is a social activity. It needs to be shared and shown.
A good definition that I have encountered on this path of creativity that I have walked, crawled and sprinted on, comes from Doreen Marcial Paraba in her book “Unlocking your Creativity” (2015) where she states that “Creativity is initiating, activating, and complementing ideas that are original, unusual, useful, or innovative. The ideas may advance an existing concept or seemingly spring forth from nowhere”.
From this one can deduct that the end product should be useful and be put into action (a concept that the above mentioned author agrees with). Can that be applied to Bonsai? Most definitely it can! We start a tree from either a seedling, a cutting or raw material. We therefore activate the idea that we have and apply it to the tree. Real creativity is when we are original. In Bonsai there are “rules”, first started off by Chinese Bonsai practitioners and then taken further by Japanese artists. Out of these eras came many rules and conventions that should be applied to Bonsai for it to be Bonsai in its art form. Do these rules restrict us in our thinking? No, it does not. It serves merely as a guideline, a foundation to work from. These “rules” did come from a deeply ingrained sense of Art applied to plants and therefore is legitimate (based on history) in the world of Art and Creativity. Most art forms do have a history and a foundation level of skills and knowledge. We see the same in Bonsai, making it a legitimate art form.
Can we be innovative? The above mentioned definition emphasises originality and uses the words, unusual and innovative. This is not restricted to the Literati style of Bonsai. Every tree has different growing conditions, trunk shapes, branch structures and foliage patterns. Even trees within the same species show different characteristics. Just as one artist can paint many different paintings, Bonsai artists can design and create many different forms of trees either within one species or across many different species.
A lot of people that I encounter, do not think that they are particularly talented when it
comes to creativity. When asked whether they have explored it, the answer is usually negative, followed by a whole lot of different reasons of why it is not happening for them. It is interesting that out of these conversations a large proportion of people identify that they cannot remember them ever being creative and except for early drawings and fooling around with paint, this aspect of their lives were just never explored or developed. Many literature sources that I have encountered ask the question “Is Creativity Learnable or Teachable?”. The answers range from “it is in our nature to be creative” to “we use our imaginations all the time” to “”creativity skills are learnable with training”.
This training can take many different forms. I learnt first through exposure to watching my father work with his Bonsai, to helping him with some tasks, to starting my own Bonsai and later reading profusely and learning from other more advanced artists. We know that Bonsai professionals usually undergo a long apprenticeship period, but these days learning can take place wherever, whenever and at the pace of the learner. Advances in technology have made this possible and it is possible that one can advance to a very high level of understanding and expertise without having to go through a lengthy apprenticeship. I still do believe that some form of exposure to good technique, skill and understanding is important for one to advance your own level of artistry and creativity.
You will probably not develop a very high skill level by just reading or just watching other people engaged in the practice of Bonsai. Learning is an active process. You need practice, you need to do and you need to get feedback to enable you to learn. Another great way of learning is when you start to share your knowledge and skill with others. In other words, teaching. Learning is a very interesting area of science. It is all about establishing neural pathways within your nervous system. The more you do something or interact with it, the easier data flows along these pathways and it can become an automatic response. Can you imagine how hard it will be if you have practiced the wrong technique over and over again and then have to unlearn it to enable you to learn the correct one. This is another reason why we do need exposure to others to establish these neural networks. Learning is also a social practice.
In summary then. We are all creative, we all need an outlet for our creative spirit, Bonsai can provide that outlet and we can all learn to become more creative and to express this in Bonsai as an art form.
- Read profusely.
- Watch many videos.
- Get to know the foundations and rules of Bonsai (only to bend them later).
- Join a club.
- Visit and talk to other Bonsai artists.
- Create and maintain your own Bonsai.
Poreba, D.M. (2015) Unlocking your Creativity. New York: Penquin Random House (Alpha Books). 318p.
Fisher, D. & Frey, N. (2013) Better learning through structured teaching. Vancouver (USA): ASCD Press. 158p.
Wikipedia defines Tanuki Bonsai as a technique where a living tree is joined to an
interesting piece of deadwood to create a composite in the
driftwood style. It goes further to state that the deadwood usually has the form of a weathered tree trunk. The tree is attached to the deadwood by making use of screws, clamps or wire. Over time, the tree will grow into the channels created and in so doing will disguise the fact that it is a separate entity.
In Japanese folklore, Tanuki, the Japanese raccoon-dog. are shape-changing tricksters. It is also known as Phoenix-grafts in the West. Personally, I think it is a good artistic technique to either enhance a piece of deadwood or a tree. There is no difference in attaching a tree to a rock compared to attaching a tree to a piece of deadwood. I had to try my hand at this. My experience is written up below.
I first had to find the right tree. I decided on a young Juniper with a lot of flexibility. The next project was to find a suitable, characterful piece of deadwood. I managed to get a piece on the beach. A note of warning is needed here. If driftwood from a beach is used, it is important to get rid of all salt on and in the wood. I submersed the wood for three weeks in fresh water and regularly changed the water as well as used a high pressure stream of water and scrubbing on it. It was then left in the sun for another week. The third component was a pot selected from my pot collection.
The first job on the pot was to get enough tie wires in place as the deadwood and tree must be secured very firmly. It is wise to get a hardener on the deadwood. I treated it with lime sulphur as the bottom part will be in the wet soil. I have read that the end could also be placed on a solid object like a tile to minimise the part in contact with the soil. My first challenge was to drill extra holes in the pot. For the first time in my life, I had a pot which is so hard, that the drill bit did not even make an indentation on the pot. The tie wires therefore had to be attached through the drainage holes.
The next phase was to ensure a flat structure at the bottom of the deadwood to make it stand more solidly in the pot. This was done by simply determining the angle, marking the wood and using a handsaw to make the cut. Next I had to drill holes into the deadwood for the tie wires. Advice found was to use a router to create channels in the deadwood. This was not necessary on this piece as it had natural channels that could be used for the tree to be placed in snugly.
The tree was now prepared by preparing the roots and cleaning up the trunk. It was put in place starting at the bottom and fixing it to the deadwood with non-reacting (copper) thin screws. I pre-drilled the tiny holes as the tree is very thin in places and did not want it to split. Branches which came in the way of this process were removed. I decided to leave the growth at the top as is as I did not want to stunt the growth too much at this stage. The whole idea is that the trunk fattens up to secure itself into the channels and adhere to the deadwood. Branches were wired and now the maintenance work of feeding and watering begins. No pruning will take place until the two entities become one (hopefully).
Cheating or a legitimate technique? You decide! I found a reference on bonsainut.com that mentioned that Masahiko Kimura designed Tanuki and it also mentioned that John Naka once threw one out of a display and told the owner to go and get a real Bonsai. I will update this post as the Tanuki showed here progresses.
In a recent Blog post by Harry Harrington (Bonsai4me), I was amazed by this artist’s technique in creating deadwood. His carvings are superb. On the same day, I happened to be at a beach on the west coast of the North Island of New Zealand (Paraparaumu). The beach was filled with driftwood and I could not resist studying them to find inspiration to style dead wood when I get back home. Fortunately I had my iPhone with me and took the following photos. There is nothing like nature (and Harry Harrington) to create the ultimate natural deadwood designs. In studying these photos I did get a few ideas and now have to get the practice in to recreate this on trees.
Metrosidorus excelsa, also known as the New Zealand Christmas tree and in Maori, Pohutukawa, is an interesting tree to style as Bonsai.
I have recently had the opportunity to photograph a few very old Pohutukawa trees in Mt Maunganui in New Zealand. I have no idea how old they are, but their form is quite distinctive when you study the trees in nature. From this I came to the conclusion that they are best suited for informal upright, clump style or root over rock style. They naturally grow aerial roots and form good bark on exposed roots. The red coloured flowers add to the spectacle. The three Bonsai photos are mainly from the http://www.nzbonsai.co.nz website and the http://www.bonsaiforbeginners.com site. The photos following from there are the photos of the trees growing in Mt Maunganui, New Zealand. The first group is typical of the clump style growth that a lot of these trees show.
The next group of trees shows why I think the Pohutukawa is excellent material for root over rock style.
Some of these trees are also seen in nature as examples of an informal upright style.
I have also noticed some branches hanging very low, almost to the point of being a cascade or a semi-cascade.
I have been growing cuttings of another form of Meterosidorus, namely the Metrosideros kermadecensis. This tree has smaller leaves than the excelsa which is great for Bonsai. All these varieties are frost sensitive and needs protection in cold climates.
Leonardo Da Vinci has long been associated with the golden
ratio. Da Vinci created the illustrations for the book, The Divine Proportion, by Luca Pacioli. It was written in about 1497 and first published in 1509. Pacioli was a contemporary of Da Vinci’s. In the book, Pacioli writes of mathematical and artistic proportion, especially the mathematics of the golden ratio and its application in art and architecture. The golden ratio and the Fibonacci numbers or series, comes from the work of Leonardo Bonacci, also known as Fibonacci, an Italian mathematician. Many writings exist about Fibonacci, Da Vinci and the applications of the mathematical ratios and numbers in art, nature and a few other areas as well. I will focus a bit more on Bonsai design and am hoping to bring some of this “divine proportions” to Bonsai design. First a bit more about the Mathematics involved.
As said, much has been written about the Fibonacci numbers and its appearance in various patterns of spirals in especially leaves and seeds. The Fibonacci series is a series of numbers formed by adding the previous two numbers together to get the next number.
0, 1, 1, 2, 3, 5, 8, 13, 21, 34, 55, 89, 144, 233, etc.
In Bonsai, the theory is that when you cut a stem, the stem puts
out two growing shoots during one growth period. This could be more (pines or where whorls are formed), but the theory is that we keep two stems. If you keep on cutting these shoots as per the illustration, you will increase the number of smaller shoots over time. This is called increasing the ramification of your Bonsai tree. The theory is that if it is done according to the numbers as found in the Fibonacci series, that you will have a visually more pleasing appearance.
Further to this, the ratio of two successive numbers in the Fibonacci series can be calculated by dividing each number by the number before it. The ratio seems to be settling down to a particular value, which is called the golden ratio or the golden number. The value of this ratio is approximately 1.618034. This is often represented by the Greek letter Phi.
The arrangement of stems around the trunk could also be of interest here. When the golden ratio is used in a mathematical equation in relation to circles, it is found that stems / branches could be in a visually ideal position if they are 137.5 degrees or 222.5 degrees (make up 360 degrees in a circle) apart from each other.
For completeness sake, I will also try to explain the Fibonacci rectangles and spirals here. If we start with two small squares of size 1 next to each other and we then place on top of these two squares a square of size 2 (1 + 1) and then carry on like that as illustrated in the diagram, rectangles of various sizes can be drawn. These are the Fibonacci rectangles.
A spiral can also be drawn in the squares, a quarter of a circle in each square. These spirals are seen in the shape of shells and also in the arrangement of seeds in flowering plants. The spiral in the squares makes a line from the centre of the spiral increase by a factor of the golden number in each square. Points in the spiral are 1.618 times as far from the centre after a quarter turn. In a whole turn the points on a radius out from the centre are 1.6184 (6.854) times further out than when the curve last crossed the same radial line.
Am I the only one seeing spirals in these examples of deadwood?
Where does this all fit in? That depends on you and how far you want to take this. For me it is just interesting and something that can be kept in the back of the mind while styling Bonsai trees. I will be looking a bit closer at the shape of curves / spirals in future and I will also be looking at where I place especially the first two branches. Maybe that 137.5 degrees angle is not so silly after all?
Yes, you are correct. Da Vinci never designed Bonsai, as a
matter of fact, there is no evidence to indicate that he even saw a Bonsai. What is this article about then, you may ask. In my quest to understand more about the creative process and trying to better myself as a creative person, I explore a lot of different theories and principles and try to open my mind to as many influences as possible to find my own rightful place within the creative space. My chosen field is that of Bonsai creation. We all know that the roots of Bonsai are firmly established in Chinese and Japanese culture. We also know that Bonsai as a creative activity has now spread to all corners of the world and it is clear that other influences are being incorporated into the creative concepts serving as foundations for Bonsai. The recent Artisans Cup in the USA is an example of this, but there are many others spread throughout Europe. A very distinctive style is emerging out of Africa as well. Why not look at the seven Da Vincian principles as a source of inspiration or direction in relation to Bonsai design?
There are seven Da Vincian principles that can be used to give direction to a person’s life in exploring creativity. These are:
- Curiosity – An insatiably curious approach to life and an unrelenting quest for continuous learning.
- This principle can directly be implemented in the life of any Bonsai artist. Being curious about life in general and then also the creative process surrounding Bonsai cultivation, is very important in establishing the next steps for growth. Asking questions, exploring concepts, trying new designs on the creative side, but also being curious about the horticultural process underlying Bonsai are all part and parcel of the Bonsai artist’s grounding. I encourage artists to make notes, read often, watch videos, talk to other Bonsai artists, attend conferences and to never stop asking questions. Leonardo da Vinci’s notebooks amount to over 7000 pages.
- Demonstration / Independent Thinking – A commitment to test knowledge through experience, persistence and willingness to learn from mistakes.
- As Bonsai artists we are involved in a practical application of centuries of knowledge and techniques. The last few decades saw an explosion of information and it is our job as artists to make sense of all of this and to apply what suits your own philosophy and style to your own designs. Yes, you can copy other people, but I am convinced that real satisfaction and personal growth comes when you use all of your knowledge and skill and create something new. This can be applied in a very practical way in Bonsai as each plant is unique.
- Sensation – The continual refinement of the senses, especially sight, as the means to enhance experience.
- According to Da Vinci, experience is delivered through the senses: sight, sound, touch, taste and smell. Bonsai creation is all about using your senses, especially sight, touch and smell. The more sense you can incorporate into your interaction with your trees, the more fulfilling the experience. You learn and experience through your senses. One of the problems that I experience is that modern day living is too noisy and very visual. So much so that it leads to sensory overload. Something that I need to work on more is to refine my sensory experiences by deliberately focussing on those sensory stimuli that matters during the creative process and to block or filter the “noise” out.
- Smoke (Sfumato) / Embrace uncertainty – Becoming open to the unknown. A willingness to embrace ambiguity, paradox and uncertainty.
- In her blog, Andrea Balt mentions that we cannot “make use of our full creative potential without the ability to embrace uncertainty. An open, always questioning mind is our creativity’s best ally.” In Bonsai there are many uncertainties, especially when it comes to severe styling processes. Will a tree flourish after severe root pruning, how will it react to wiring, did I cut too much, etc.? There are many different thoughts and ideas around when things should and should not be done when it comes to repotting, lifting yamadori, using chemicals, etc. Embrace the unknown.
- Art and Science – Whole-brain thinking. The development of the balance between science and art, logic and imagination.
- Your brain operates as a whole organ. Society has been telling us for a long time that one half is more dominant than the other. As an artist you are using both halves. You are programmed to be creative, it is just a case of exploring and finding your creative roots. The capacity is already there. This principle can also relate to the two parts of Bonsai creation. There is the creative / art side and then there is the science / horticulture side. Both are equally important. Embrace both. It could be that one of these attracted you more to Bonsai than the other. It is your task as a creative Bonsai artist to get yourself up to speed with both aspects. A beautifully created dead Bonsai is as unappealing as an ugly, living Bonsai. Study the art of science and study the science of art. Da Vinci was ambidextrous, something you can try to help with the development of the motor functions of both halves of your brain.
- The body (mind-body care) – The cultivation of grace, ambidexterity, fitness and poise. Balancing the body and mind.
- This one is self-explanatory. A healthy body is needed to dig trees, cultivate the trees, carry them around, etc. There is more to it than just being fit enough to do what you have to do around your trees. There is also the healthy body – healthy mind concept that is so important in the creative process. This principle was taken very seriously by Da Vinci in his day-t-day life. Mild exercise and good nutrition with ample rest serve as foundations for what is needed.
- Connection – A recognition of and appreciation for the interconnectedness of all things and phenomena. Systems thinking.
- Da Vinci said: “Learn how to see. Realize that everything connects to everything else.” The growing medium that you plant your Bonsai in, the aesthetic effect of pot and tree, the light that all leaves get, the link between water and nutrition, your interaction with the tree, everything is connected. You are connected to the tree and everything the tree is connected to.
For you to be a better Bonsai artist and based on the Da Vinci principles, in summary: Be curious and never stop learning. Test yourself and be independent in a practical way. Use all of your senses when interaction with your creativity. Embrace the unknown and explore. Use your logical and creative powers. Look after yourself and realise that everything in life is connected.
Gelb, Michael. J. 2014. Creativity on Demand. How to ignite and sustain the fire of genius. Colorado: Sounds True