Simplicity is the goal in every art.

I do believe that there are concepts in any art form that are universal. With that believe, I also explore other art forms for inspiration, ideas and motivation as well as skills and knowledge. I have recently embarked on trying to improve my photography skills as I am notoriously bad at it. In the process of reading up on this topic, I stumbled upon this statement:

“Ultimately, simplicity is the goal in every art, and achieving simplicity is one of the hardest things to do. Yet it is easily the most essential.”

What does this mean for Bonsai? Bonsai in its simplest form is a tree in a pot that resembles an old tree in nature. That then probably takes us back to the original design concepts as proposed by Chinese and Japanese scholars and masters from the beginning to today. My own opinion is that the strictness of the original, especially Japanese rules, have been watered down over the years as Bonsai art started to spread to other parts of the world since World War II. Western ideas of what art looks like and what it should be as the individual philosophies of artists as well as the type of Bonsai material that they can work on has shaped this over time.

Simplicity can also refer to the horticultural side of keeping trees alive. It comes down to water, nutrients, climate, inclusive of light requirements. Yes, it is that simple, but take any one of these for granted and you end up with a deteriorating or dead tree.

From a design perspective it is important to know something about the different styles or forms of Bonsai and by then adhering to the style “rules” in its purist form, simplicity in design will be shown. Part of this is to follow the basic shape and growth pattern of the original tree if it comes from nature or has been in a pot for a long time. Radically changing the shape or form of a tree away from its natural flow, can not only stress the tree, but also lead to a quite complicated design that might need constant maintenance or interference to keep it in that shape. This means that the tree is kept under stress for a longer period of time.

A tree that does not show these characteristics or one that can be shaped from seedling or cutting stage will be easier to shape and still adhere to the concept of simplicity. What does this look like?

  • Establish a flared, radial root system growing from a wider buttress and is exposed at soil level.
  • From here a gradually tapering trunk will grow depending on the style.
  • The first branches will start about a third of the trunk height from the soil and will alternatively grow on two sides of the trunk with every third one to wards the back.
  • These branches will gradually become shorter and thinner as you move towards the top or apex of the tree.
  • The apex could be in-line with the nebari or base of the trunk.
  • Finer branches are grouped to allow the leaves or needles to form “foliage clouds”.
  • Empty spaces or the spaces between the branches will balance the tree to form a whole or one unit to look at.

That is bonsai design at its simplest or most basic. We do know that it is never that simple. Branches do not necessarily grow in that pattern and nature sometimes play cruel tricks on plants (this could be great for Bonsai) to alter growth patterns and directions. This is where the artist comes in and it leads to a second quote from a photography resource:

“Photography is not looking, it is feeling. If you cannot feel what you are looking at, then you are never going to get others to feel anything when they look at your pictures.”

I am not too concerned about what other people think of my trees. I need to be moved or have an emotional reaction to a tree for it to make impact. I also do believe that it is this, the fact that a Bonsai tree can invoke a feeling, an emotional reaction, that makes it art. I also do believe that it is usually the simplicity in a design or form that triggers the higher emotion. Less is more. Wabi-sabi. Literati. The emotion of a trees that looks old, feels old, shows character, fits its pot and as a whole make you stand still and study it, is a piece of art.

A lot of very complicated designs, excruciating bending, very heavy wire and at times heavy machinery (not really, just power tools), are used to get a tree to look like a Bonsai tree. Is this part of our instant generation? It has its place under the right conditions. I just wonder whether going back to the original simplistic view of Bonsai, the pure meaning behind the art form and taking a longer view or approach to the development of the tree, might not stir a stronger emotional reaction and make more people fall in love (also known as addiction) with this pure, simple and very rich art form.

What do you think?

Wiring in three phases.

I prefer to wire and shape trees in three stages. The first stage involves the trunk and larger branches. The second phase incorporates the secondary branches and the third is the fine wiring and placement of tertiary and finely developed, ramified branches / twigs with leaves or needles. Each phase lasts a minimum of a year and includes at least one growing season. This video shows some intermediate wiring.

Why? I do find that this way produces a better, more refined product and it gives the tree more time to adjust and recover from harsh bends. My gut instinct tells me that it might also be better for sap flow in especially Junipers compared to trees that undergo a full wiring, bending, cutting and sometimes even a full repot in one session. I do hope that this last scenario is not a common thing.

I might have to change this as I now live in a warmer climate with a longer growing season. Time and attention to growth patterns will tell.

Chamaecyparis progression

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.

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This is what I thought the front of the tree should be based on the Nebari.

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This is the view from the other side after a quick clean-up of the lower branches.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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The Nebari shows more prominent growth on the left hand side. This means that the tree could slant towards the right.

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With that in mind the leaves are removed from the smaller branch.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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The rest of the tree is cleaned-up by thinning out some of the foliage.

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At a slight slant to the right.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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This looks like a nice little tree already with the bark stripped off the smaller branch (Jinned) as well as a back branch and some other smaller branches.

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I could have stopped with the previous photo’s style, but wanted to style this in a Windswept style. Slightly more pronounced slant, more thinning and wired.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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The final product, all potted up and kept in a sheltered place.

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The size is 16 cm by 10 cm by 10 cm. Now it will be fertilized and watered regularly.

Inspiration – where to get it from.

It is said that a creative spirit needs inspiration. As Bonsai design is a creative activity, it is IMG_0265therefore 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.

IMG_0269Exposure 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 IMG_0271to 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.

IMG_0257Other 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 IMG_3432-0good 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.

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Creativity, Bonsai, Learning and Art: My Thoughts

 

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, IMG_0269crawled 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”.

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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.

IMG_0275You 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.

Applications:

  • Read profusely.IMG_0268
  • 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.

References

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.

Tanuki – Cheating or Design Technique?

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

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From: artofbonsai.org

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.

A0B7514F-C852-4AA4-9296-EDDF2C729AC2I 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 asA47DF033-8C01-4C66-9DDC-E2A8D839DB39 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.

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Deadwood inspiration from Driftwood

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.

Pohutukawa as Bonsai

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Root over rock as Bonsai

Metrosidorus excelsa, also known as the New Zealand Christmas tree and in Maori, Pohutukawa, is an interesting tree to style as Bonsai.

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This looks like two smaller trees, simulating a clump style 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.

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Masses of aerial roots makes it perfect for a root over rock style.

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.

 

 

 

Fibonacci and Bonsai

golden1In my previous blog, which focused on the seven Da Vinci principles, I started to think a bit more about Da Vinci’s use of mathematical proportions in Art and especially Bonsai.

Leonardo Da Vinci has long been associated with the goldleonardo_fibonaccien
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, tfib01he 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.

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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.

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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?

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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?

Leonardo Da Vinci and Bonsai

Yesda-vinci-profile, 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?

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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.

References

Gelb, Michael. J. 2014. Creativity on Demand. How to ignite and sustain the fire of genius. Colorado: Sounds True

www.davinci.ac.za/

www.andreabalt.com/7-ways-to-think-like-leonardo-da-vinci/

Nebari – The Root of the Matter

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These roots have grown over time, dropping of the side of a cliff.

No, we are not talking about the Nebari fictional alien race from the planet Farscape, but the Japanese term generally used to indicate the roots and specifically the root flare at the bottom of the trunk where the root region starts. It also indicates the visible surface roots.

Wikipedia refers to it as: “Also known as “buttressing”, nebari is the visible spread of roots above the growing medium at the base of a bonsai. Nebari help a bonsai seem grounded and well-anchored and make it look mature, akin to a full-sized tree.”

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My idea is to write three or so Blogs focusing on Nebari and the development of roots. There is no doubt in any Bonsai artist’s mind that the roots of a plant is where it all starts. Healthy roots = healthy plant (generally). A plant absorbs most of its water and nutrients from the soil through the roots. We therefore have to know something about soil and its water retention and draining properties. Not all soils are created equally. We also need to know something about the physiology and anatomy of roots. This knowledge will help us to understand many of the concepts around root pruning. This will come in later Blogs.

Autumn bonsai images 2014 (17)

A tree growing in a woodland area. These roots definitely add to the character of the tree and indicate that it has been there for a while.

Getting back to the Nebari, the main aim of establishing a root flair at the base of a tree is to indicate age. A wider base caused by a flaring just above the roots, helps to establish the taper of a tree. One way to develop taper is to increase the circumference of the tree at the base and to keep the top of the tree relatively thin. Young trees do not have a huge flair at the base, but older trees show this without fail. In saying that, there are trees that are used for Bonsai that do not show a big root flare. Junipers come to mind here.

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The roots are spread over a flat surface and tied to this surface.

There are multiple methods to improve the Nebari of a Bonsai tree. The first one is the continuous root pruning of downwards growing roots. For the health of the tree it is advised that this is done over time to enable the tree to grow new roots in the place of the removed roots. A second method is done through air layering. This is simply done through preparing the bottom of the trunk as one would for air layering and heaping up the soil or packing sphagnum moss around this area. Roots will over time establish themselves in that area. I have read about a method where a wire is bound tightly around the trunk just above the roots. The flow of nutrients will be impeded and that will cause new roots to grow from above the wire. I have not tried this method myself before and cannot comment on how successful it is. Other methods include drilling holes through flat tiles and tying the roots of the tree in a horizontal direction to the tile with wire through the drilled holes. It could also be done through grafting.

In the end, the Nebari plays a vital role in the aesthetics of the tree. It is crucial thfotolia_2553306_XSat some sort of Nebari be established as it indicates age, shows that the tree is balanced and sturdy and has been there for a long time.

The next Blog will address the science behind root development.

Movement and Flow in Bonsai

Let us first define the two concepts to ensure that we are all on the same page during this discussion. Movement is what physically happens with the trunk and branches. In other words, whether the trunk moves to the left or to the right or in an S-shape to both sides alternatively. Flow is the general direction that the tree leads the eye towards. There are a few things that determine this flow.

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A formal upright tree does not necessarily show flow as the idea here is that the tree is symmetrical and well balanced.

Most sources recognise that it is the first or primary branch as

Homemade Bonsai

The primary branch’s movement is towards the right and the apex is also in that direction. Overall flow therefore is to the right. It can also be seen that the tree is planted towards the left of the mid-line of the pot.

well as the apex that determines the flow direction. I would like to add the trunk line to this as well. Although the trunk could be leaning towards the left, the primary branch could be moving to the right and the apex could be on that side as well. Overall the flow will be to the right. All the other branches and in some cases the nebari, will have to be designed to follow this flow pattern.  What if this does not happen? The main issue will be that the tree will look unbalanced and disturbing to the eye.

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This is an example of a tree with flow in all directions. The trunk on the right flows to the left, the trunk on the left, flows to the right.

Flow is important as it will determine the placement of the tree in the pot. Trees should be potted behind the mid-line of the pot, but the flow will determine whether it is planted to the left or right of the mid-line. As said, it comes down to the flow. If the flow is towards the left, the tree will be planted to the right of the mid-line. If the flow is to the right, the tree will be planted to the left of the mid-line.

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The primary branch is towards the right, so is the apex and therefore the overall flow is to the right. The tree is therefore planted towards the left of the mid-line.


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This tree has its primary branch moving to the left and the apex is on that side as well. The trunk is also slanting that way which makes it easy to determine that the overall flow is towards the left.

The display of the tree is also determined by the flow. The placement of the companion plant (kusamono) will be on the side of the flow direction. For example, if the flow is to the right, the kusamono will be placed on the right. This becomes very important when shohin are displayed in a multi-tiered stand. Trees should either be all adding to wards the overall flow of the whole display, or they should complement each other by forming a “closed” display. This means that they do face each other within the display. It all depends on the effect that the artist wants to create.

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The main tree shows its flow to the left and the companion tree shows its flow to the right. These two trees complement each other.


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In this shohin display the top tree is balanced with no overall flow. The next shelf down shows the tree on the left with its flow to the right and the opposite is true for the tree on the right. On the bottom shelf, the tree on the left flows to the right, the tree on the right looks relatively balanced and if anything, the primary branch could be moving to the right. In this case the companion plant to the right of the display, flows to the left. A well-balanced display.

The principle of flow and the calming effect that it can have on the observer cannot be underestimated. It is the same when one looks at a masterpiece painting. There is always some sort of flow to be seen. This is either in a specific direction (see kusamono placement above) or it is towards a focal point within the artwork (see shohin display above). This principle can therefore be seen as a wider artistic principle and not only applicable to Bonsai. For me it also has to do with the flow of energy. The overall flow of the tree indicates a flow of energy. This adds to the dynamic nature of a display or to a more relaxed feel. Where there is flow in too many different directions, the energy flow is all over the place which adds to a feeling of discomfort when observing the display.

References:

I would like to acknowledge the websites that the photos came from as used in this blog post.

http://michianabonsai.club/sample%20bonsai.jpg

https://sanaakosirickylee.files.wordpress.com/2012/05/bonsai-17.jpg

https://encrypted-tbn3.gstatic.com/images?q=tbn:ANd9GcS9a_9UTyb_T8ZVzWH445ALrtjodYvDzxgwOtL3JN6aJAsICNlD

https://encrypted-tbn0.gstatic.com/images?q=tbn:ANd9GcSIAPeSEvPE8vsZk9tD36gsAcAQQR_Ee7UPYtL0bwceqOcqU9KP

http://dupuich.smugmug.com/Bonsai/Exhibits/GSBF-XXXIII-Convention-Exhibit/DSC0047/1078632432_2rHzx-S.jpg

http://bonsaitonight.files.wordpress.com/2009/05/display-10.jpg

Siberian Elm – Ulmus pumila

This little Elm had a huge ugly cut right at soil level when it came IMG_2951into my possession a year and a half ago. This was carved quite deeply to get rid of and then it was extended upwards to try and get a more natural look. The carving was further worked on today. The large carving at the bottom has weathered well and the shari extending upwards from here was made deeper as well as fine carved with a Dremel. A small carving was done on the back where another large (not as large as the front one) cut was made. This resulted in a hole now going through from the back to the front. It is quite high up near the apex.IMG_2953

The leaves have now all dropped and it was decided to work on the carving a bit more and then to also pull the branches on the left down a bit. The flow is to the left. The branches on the right will be kept short and at the next repotting, the tree will be slanted to the left slightly and it is leaning to far forward at the moment.

I have not seen too many of these around and treat it as I would any other Elm. The leaves are still very large and with proper pruning it will hopefully get smaller. The bottom left branch will also be left to grow as it needs to get some width on it.IMG_2956

Swamp Cypress – Taxodium distichum

IMG_2943Two years ago this was a two and a half meter nursery tree. I chopped it down to about a meter at the nursery as I could not get it in my car. Then the journey began. It was potted in a Bonsai pot and left to grow, It had a light prune and a bit of a carve a year before and today it was time to revisit the shari and to get some wiring done. The buds are very fragile this time of year and great care has to be taken to not break them off.

The carving wasIMG_2945 done first. The original carving was done with very rudimentary tools. I now have a rotary carver as well as a router that I use for carving. I went deeper today and added a bit more detail to the top. Out came the burner to get rid of all the frilly bits. The bark and branches were protected by aluminium foil. It was finished off with a wire and then a nylon brush.

I used guy wires to pull the thicker branched down and then used 1 mm wire to wire and place the thinner branches. Now it has to rest and grow when Spring comes around again. I will also have to repot at a better time as I discovered that the soil was very wet. It is Winter in New Zealand now and it has been raining non-stop over the last 48 hours. These trees prefer a bit of a wetter soil, but this is just too wet at the moment.IMG_2947

This is a very easy tree to grow and it buds profusely in spring and carry on with this almost right through Summer. There are gaps on the left hand side that must be filled. I will keep an eye on any buds forming in that area like an expectant father. The top branches also must be shortened, but I will leave it as is for now as I need more buds and growth in that area to replace some of the existing branches. It has a soft foliage and contrasts well with other trees as the leaves are a very light green. These turn yellow-brown in Autumn.

Creativity and Bonsai

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Tree by Robert Steven

There is no doubt that Bonsai is a Creative Art form. Once the horticultural needs of the plant is met, the creative and art side of Bonsai kicks in. In thinking about this concept of creativity and how it applies to Bonsai, I had a lateral thought moment that it is not dissimilar to what Maslow proposed as the hierarchical needs of human beings. The major difference is that we do not work with an organism that can think when it comes to Bonsai. The lowest level of needs around the Biological and Physiological must be met for the tree to stay alive and the next levels applies to us and not the tree. Higher levels of Maslow’s theory do refer to the need for creativity and maybe through that, a level of self-actualisation for us as humans. There is a need for us to be creative. Not all of us are in touch with our creative sides. Mine came late. I realised that I could grow things, that I am good at educating people and once I was exposed to the Art of Bonsai, I found an area where I could feed this need to be creative and become involved in another where I could educate and be educated.

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Trees by Lindsey Bebb

What is creativity? I have consulted the writings of some of the gurus on this topic and came up with the following:

  • It is the process of having original ideas that have value – Sir Ken Robinson.
  • The phenomenon whereby something new is created which has some kind of value – Wikipedia (probably not a guru).
  • Micheal Gelb suggests that for original ideas to provide value, they must be translated into action. He also refers to the term “creative energy”.
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Trees by Masahiko Kimura

How can we apply this to Bonsai? I see three movements in the Bonsai world. The one is the creation of Penjing – landscape scenes mainly out of China. Another one is the following of the rules and “laws” of the traditional Japanese style and the third one, which is growing rapidly throughout the West, a more informal, creative style. Whatever path you take, creativity is needed to pursue it successfully. Sir Ken Robinson’s idea of having original ideas probably leans itself more to the more informal style as one is not necessarily bound by the “rules”. Although I have made a thorough study of both Penjing and traditional Bonsai, I find that I do lean towards a more informal, creative style. Why? It could be that it suits my way of thinking or it could be that the material I have available to work with, leans itself more towards it. The New Zealand Bonsai scene is relatively young compared to the rest of the world and we are bound by regulations through which we cannot import trees and have to rely on what is already here and then work according to what these trees allow us to do.

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Trees by John Naka

Is this a problem? No, I do not think so. I just had the privilege of helping to select the trees that will be on display at the National Convention later this year in Christchurch. The trees put forward for selection are of good quality and very dissimilar to each other. The variety tells me that there is a creative spirit or energy (Gelb) present. The lesson that I get out of this is that once we throw the shackles of conformity and “rules” off, creativity is enhanced.

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Trees by Ben Oki

This is seen throughout the world. I am not saying that the rules and the foundations of Bonsai must be thrown away, what I am saying is that it is clear that where people have the opportunity to be more creative through what the tree allows us to do, the results are as spectacular as when we follow the traditional rules. It is fascinating watching our best Bonsai creators in action and studying their creations. Even the ones with a thorough traditional Japanese grounding show that you have to respect the tree and when we especially work with wild harvested material (Yamadori), the tree’s history must be respected in the design.

What does this mean for our creativity? You have to let the tree lead you, but within that you still have options. Some of these options will include the following of traditional “rules”, but where the tree does not allow this, one will have to apply original ideas (back to Sir Ken) and if this leads to a well-designed Bonsai tree, then creativity is seen in action. It has value as it has added to a body of knowledge, ideas and even new techniques that could be used in future. I can use the composition of Music as an example. The composer needs knowledge, technique and an open mind to compose. The composer would have studied Music, played it, composed it, made mistakes and would have experienced success. The same is valid for Bonsai creation.

Study what is available, practice a lot, work on minor trees and work on superior material as well, but above all, ensure that you have an open mind. What does the tree allow you to do? How do you use that to create beauty? Do you have original ideas? Do you add value?

My last thought for today: Look outside of Bonsai for inspiration. Read and use You Tube to learn about other creative pursuits and let these inspire you to be even more creative.

References:

Creativity on demand by Michael J. Gelb. A great read for general creative inspiration.

Creative Schools by Sir Ken Robinson. I am an education leader (something has to pay for my Bonsai addiction) and find that I can apply ideas from all over to my recreational and creative pursuits.

Wikipedia. It always gives me a heads-up when I start to wonder about things.

The photos on this page ashamedly (on my part) comes from this website: http://webecoist.momtastic.com/2009/06/09/tree-art-6-amazingly-creative-bonsai-artists/

I apologise if I have broken rules to use them here, but all I am trying to do is to promote Bonsai in general and certainly not for my own gain.

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Shorter days, colorful leaves.

IMG_1899For us in the Southern hemisphere the leaves of our deciduous Bonsai trees are starting to change color and they will soon be on the ground. In the Northern hemisphere Spring growth is to be seen everywhere and I have noticed a proliferation of photos indicating just that on Social Media. The difference is that the daylight hours are getting less in the South and the opposite is happening in the North. Suffice to say then that it must be the availability and intensity of light that triggers these phenomena. Today I would like to explore the color changes in leaves during Autumn.

IMG_1235We know that there is a pigment in leaves called chlorophyll. It is the site where photosynthesis takes place in leaves. This is the process where water and carbon dioxide gas with the aid of light energy is converted into sugars for plants to use as food or to be stored.

As the days (light) get shorter, there is not enough light energy for photosynthesis to take place at optimum levels. The trees must rest and basically shut down and the only food available to get through winter, is what is stored. As this progresses, chlorophyll disappears from the leaves and the bright green fades away. Chlorophyll is not the only color pigment in leaves. As the green fades, the other color pigments become visible. These are the yellows and orange colors (carotenoids). In some trees, like maples, the glucose produced during photosynthesis gets trapped in the leaves and the sunlight causes the leaves to turn this molecule into a red color. It is known that the cooler temperatures have a role to play in this. There are other pigments present as well. Red anthocyanin pigments can also be produced during this time.

Currently, my trees, and especially the Maples, are not showing the bright red colors yet. This is late for this time of year. Our night time temperatures have not dropped sufficiently for this to happen. Other climatic factors play a role as well. What is needed for all the splendor of autumn to show in our Bonsai trees is a warm, wet Spring, followed by a Summer with average temperatures and an average rainfall as well as an Autumn with many sunny days and relatively cold nights. There is nothing we can do about any of these except for controlling water, but it might be possible to shift trees in one’s garden during Summer and Autumn to make use of micro-climates caused by other plants and the layout of your garden.

Scientific knowledge supports Bonsai cultivation

The old debate of whether Bonsai is Art or Horticulture is actually a non-event as we all by now know that a dead tree cannot be designed as a Bonsai and be admired as a living sculpture. We need both. The tree must be kept alive and sculpted to enable the Bonsai within to be shown.

I am in the process of re-reading a lot of my quite sizable Bonsai library. The majority of these books and magazines focus on the Art side of Bonsai cultivation. It is rare to find a good solid article or chapter in a book, dedicated to the Horticulture involved in Bonsai development. A quick search on the Internet shows more of the same. There is a bit more to be found on the Internet, but a lot of this is not necessarily linked to Bonsai specifically. A few examples are of importance here.

The first to mention is the practice of defoliation. When we remove the leaves from a tree, we drastically reduce the level of transpiration (loss of water through leaves), which is an important process supporting the flow of water through a plant. Partial defoliation obviously does the same, but just less. Then there is the practice of leave cutting. This will reduce the surface area of the leaves, which in turn will also have a reduced transpiration level as an outcome. Photosynthesis levels will also drop. There are very good reasons why we do this in the cultivation of Bonsai, but it is a process rarely seen in the cultivation of other plants.

Another of our Bonsai specific activities is the process of deadwood carving or carving in general. Deadwood is dead and nothing much needs to be taken into consideration except for aesthetic principles. When we carve into living wood, things change a bit. Tree tissues are laid down in layers. On the outside we have bark and under this we have the phloem, the tissue that conduct the nutrients produced in the leaves through photosynthesis. The next layer is the cambium. This tissue is responsible for the secondary growth in stems as well as roots. The next layer is the xylem. This tissue transports water from the roots to the leaves. Then we get to the lignin. These are dead cells and make up what we refer to as “wood”. This is the stuff we carve. To get to the lignin, we have to go through the living layers. This needs to be done carefully as we are interfering with some very important processes when we start carving. Not only do we interrupt the flow of nutrients and water, we directly impact on growth. This works well for us as well, as the cambium layer is the one that will help with the healing on the edges of the carving. 

My advice is for Bonsai enthusiasts to read and learn about the science behind our activities as well. Not only will this knowledge help to keep more trees alive, it will help us understand the design process and principles better as well.