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?

Newbie Bonsai Help.

It is very common to see a photo of a seedling or small nursery stock on social media with the following comment: “I am new to Bonsai, please help with advice”. Where to start? What the follows is a number of people writing one liners or a bit more with a genuine interest to help.

I have been demonstrating and teaching Bonsai now for many years and am following what I think is a logical series of steps to enable the new Bonsai enthusiast to work towards a specific goal. It is almost paint by numbers, but in the absence of knowledge and skills, it is the best way to get the basics across in a short period of time. Here are the steps:

  • Unearth the topsoil to look at surface roots.
  • Determine the front of the tree.
  • Decide on a natural flow of the trunk dependent on the style envisaged.
  • Decide which branches / side shoots to keep.
  • Remove excess branches and foliage.
  • Some of these can be selected for deadwood (jin).
  • Create Jin.
  • Wire main trunk if required.
  • Bend trunk to desired shape.
  • Wire branches into position.
  • Clean hanging foliage up.

Each of these steps require a lot of knowledge to get to the end result. This is part of the conversation as the design unfolds. Small nursery material can take up to three hours to style with a new enthusiast in a workshop situation. The hands-on work takes only about thirty minutes to complete, but the explanations and answering of questions, in my mind the most important part, takes up a lot of time.

This Juniper is nursery stock and is 20cm high from the top of the soil. It has been standing around here for a year or so and received very little attention.

The first step is to scrape some of the soil away to see if there are any prominent, larger roots that can help to make a decision about the front / viewing side of the tree. In this case it only contained a whole lot of fine fibrous roots.

It is therefore now up to the trunk line to give an indication of what could be a possible front. For newcomers, we usually look for good movement and flow.

Once the best angle is determined to show things like flow and movement as well as taper or interesting features, it is marked and excess branches and foliage can be removed to reveal the trunk line. The conversation at this stage will include things like removing branches growing from the same height, branches on inside curves and crossing branches.

Some of the branches are identified as possible deadwood branches and these are kept a bit longer. Bark is then removed.

All of these steps have cleared the path for the trunk to be wired. Just the basic of wiring is explained and demonstrated at this stage as this skill is seen as a bit more advanced for a newbie. I think it is important to allow the person to start on their wiring pathway as it is an integral part of Bonsai design. As said, we stick to the basics at this point. It is more important to talk about design and flow at this point.

The branches can now be wired.

The next step is to place the branches in position while a conversation about safe bending takes place. Overall tree health is emphasized at all times. Once the placement is done, excess foliage, especially those growing downwards or upwards is removed. The concept of foliage pads is also touched upon. I find it is important to at this stage point things out like depth (back branches) and negative space. These are all explored ta more advanced workshops.

The last part of the workshop is focused on future growth, the role on foliage in feeding the plant (photosynthesis) and then the very important aftercare of the tree. Protection of small buds and the removal of older foliage as the tree buds over the next few months is discussed as well as feeding requirements and protection over the next month or so.

Potting, root management, carving, severe bending and more advanced wiring techniques are all part of more advanced techniques to be covered at advanced workshops.

The Bonsai Curriculum.

In the Bonsai Focus of September / October 2015 (136), Louis Bourdeau in an article titled “Silent communication”, mentions that the essence of Art is the use of raw material and the modification of it with the proper techniques to create an aesthetic creation. This is one of the better definitions or descriptions that I have come across thus far. My journey continues, but it will take take a lot to improve on Louis’ definition of the essence of srt.

As Bonsai artists, our raw material will always be the plant material that we work with. This is very different to any other art form where the raw material is not necessarily a living organism. Maybe body painting falls into this category as well. Other aspects of our raw material include the soil medium that is used as well as the pot. All of these aspects have their own dimensions and issues that must be thought about to bring about the desired aesthetic creation.

The next part of the definition is the reference to the proper techniques. This is where things become interesting. In all my years of teaching students the art of Bonsai, it is this part that for most, is the most intriguing. Maybe it is the use of tools or just the problem solving aspect, but I have yet to meet the student who does not want to learn more about the different techniques. These include things like wiring, potting or re-potting, bending branches, creating foliage pads, etc. Usually these are categorised as beginner techniques through to that of advanced or master techniques. It is interesting that it is done in this way as it probably fits the structure of apprenticeship quite well. 

I would like to argue that all techniques are equally important. It depends on the material that is in front of the artist. If bending of thicker branches are called for, then the artist will need to have mastered the correct technique for this. If we want to place techniques in a system of hierarchies from beginner to advanced levels, we will have to classify raw material as beginner to advanced as well. Seems a bit unfair on the beginner artist as he or she might be in posession of advanced material and will have no clue to proceed. How do we deal with this? This is probably where clubs come in. 

The next question then is whether we need a recognised curriculum to take club members through all the techniques, starting with the basics and going through to the advanced techniques. What happens when a club member joins three quarters through the curriculum and missed the early parts of the curriculum. Although this sounds like me just rambling along, I do think some thought needs to go into how we structure our teachings. Most Bonsai schools run different levels of classes to cater for the different expertise levels. These are run by professionals with the aim of making a living. This normally does not happen at club level.

In education there is a concept known as Differentiated Instruction. Roughly defined it means teaching towards meeting the needs of individual students. It means that you could have many different levels of expertise in your class, all with different needs, and you have to cater for that. What does this look like in a Bonsai Club or even a Bonsai School? The Japanese apprenticeship system is great, but it mostly relies on verbal communication or demonstrations to teach techniques. As said, nothing wrong with that and probably the best way to do it. Modern education do ask for structure and do ask for solid planning and execution during the teaching and learning process. This means curriculum. What would a Bonsai Curriculum look like? Food for thought.

Back to Louis’ description – the end result is the creation of something that is aesthetically pleasing. What is needed to get to this point? That journey from starting with raw material to the end product, inclusive of all the techniques necessary to get there, is the Bonsai Curriculum. Techniques are not that difficult to describe, demonstarte and teach. What will have to be included in the Curriculum to teach the aesthetic part of our Art form? Much has been written about the aesthetics of Bonsai, but how is this taught and incorporated in a Curriculum?