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Feature article

The Principles Of Good Bonsai Design

by Robert Steven

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The following article is an excerpt from Robert Steven's new book, "Mission of Transformation." We are very proud to offer our readers a glimpse into this wonderful follow up to Robert's first book, "Vision of My Soul" and we sincerely hope that you enjoy it as much as we have. For advance orders of "Mission of Transformation" go to www.stonelantern.com

Nature is a Masterpiece truly created by art and science…

The Principles Of Good Bonsai Design by Robert Steven

Since Bonsai is similar to other art forms, such as painting, sculpturing or the graphic arts, the same design principles used in these forms can be learned and applied to bonsai. Many bonsai artists use these principles intuitively and subconsciously, unaware that they are doing so. The results from intuitive and subconscious application of artistic principles might be good, but if these principles are implemented consciously and constructively, the results can be even better and more convincing.

I have been strongly influenced by the book “How To Think Like Leonardo da Vinci” by Michael J. Gelb. This book describes the seven Da Vincian principles, Curiosita, Dimostrazione, Sensazione, Sfumato, Arte/Scienza, Corporalita and Connessione. The most impressive principle of these to me is Arte/Scienza, the development of balance between science and art, logic and imagination; it is a concept that requires thinking with the whole-brain. This concept can be incorporated into our daily life, including our creative thinking on bonsai design, in order to combine our artistic sense with scientific fact.

Imagine while you are learning to cook, you cook chicken curry and your wife comments that it does not taste as good as the one you had in the Indian restaurant last weekend. You know exactly what she means, yet you have no idea how to create the exact same taste, because you do not know what each ingredient does to the taste or how combinations of ingredients work together. Cookbooks are no help, as they all give different recipes of curry with no explanations as to the role each ingredient plays in the finished product.

It is easy to say that whatever you cook, it must taste good; but to create a dish that tastes good, one must first learn what each ingredient adds to the taste and how multiple ingredients work together in order to create something that tastes good. Cooking is art as well, but it is also a science, the science of chemistry, in which we need to learn the contribution of each ingredient to specific tastes. This knowledge should be describable and learnable, even if one has intuitive cooking talent.

Beethoven composed his famous masterpiece Ninth Symphony while he was losing his hearing and in the legend of the first female royal physician of the Joseon Dynasty of old Korea, Jang-Geum won the royal cousine competition while she was losing her ability to taste. These stories and many other like examples are all about mastering science and the senses.

A good bonsai design should be artistically beautiful, with convincing horticultural clues, and should convey a thematic message. While examining horticultural clues, we imply plant physiology, tree morphology and environmental factors. In this article, we will discuss how to design good bonsai using design principles to achieve artistic beauty. If we can successfully integrate these two aspects, the thematic message will easily be created and communicated to the viewers.

Designing bonsai is all about composition using the composition components of bonsai. The composition components of bonsai are the roots, trunk, branches, foliage pads, crown, container, and accessories (rock, grass, moss, soil etc.). Composition is the placement or arrangement of these components in a unified manner within the work, which results in a creation that is aesthetically pleasing to the eye, and which gives a sense of harmony to the viewer.

All the design components of bonsai have certain aesthetic characteristics of line, form, texture and color. Now we will bring these elements together while managing the work in order to create a good composition using the principles of design.

Before beginning to work on a design, we should always start with an idea. In bonsai, we should not be overly obsessive with a certain design in advance, yet a general idea should be found within the bonsai material we are going to work with. This is because our task is to explore the tree character through the transformation process in order to obtain an image of a mature or post-mature tree. With this in mind, we use the existing physical features as the available design components and then create other new components to be arranged for the composition.

Bonsai material offers us the roots, the trunk, and maybe a few branches as the basic available design components. These components each have their own basic characters in line, form, texture and color. Through careful observation, we can find the design idea that best fits the material and then take the next step, which is to train new branches that will form the ramification and foliation. The design idea must include considerations of natural phenomena, horticultural clues, plant physiology, tree morphology, and environmental factors.

In order to create a good bonsai, horticultural aspects, as mentioned above, should be incorporated into the composition by using the principles of design.

The principles of design are:

  • Balance
  • Movement and Rhythm
  • Emphasis
  • Simplicity
  • Contrast
  • Proportion
  • Space
  • Unity


Balance is the equal feeling of weight in perception. Balance in an art form may not really have actual or physical balance, but rather an illusion of balance, which is referred to as optical balance or visual balance. In bonsai, the shape and position of the roots, the trunk, the placement of branches, the configuration of foliage pads, the crown, and the container will determine the visual balance of the overall pose of the bonsai setting. However, the container acts more as an anchoring illusion which gives visual stability to the tree so that the tree does not appear to be in danger of tipping over or falling down.

Asymmetrical balance is believed to be the best in composition because it suggests a more dynamic feeling that is less boring. The same belief holds true for all bonsai styles with the exception of certain styles like formal and informal upright.

There are horizontal, vertical and radian balances in design. In bonsai, we work on approximate horizontal balances. Vertically, we give more weight to the bottom part, especially with the container, to create the image of stability. Radial balance is important in bonsai as well, in which all the components are distributed around the center point or spring out from the trunk line.

Asymmetrical balance can be achieved by several methods:

Balance by value. Smaller darker color can balance larger lighter color.

The Principles Of Good Bonsai Design by Robert Steven

Photograph courtesy of Soekimto

The small black rock is balancing the heavy crown and gives a firmer image to the trunk base in the vertical balance.

Balance by color. Smaller bright color can balance larger more neutral or duller color.

The Principles Of Good Bonsai Design by Robert Steven

The rock is very bulky, but the bright green foliage gives a good counter balance.

Balance by shape. Small, complicated shape can balance larger simpler shape.

The Principles Of Good Bonsai Design by Robert Steven

Photograph courtesy of Walter Pall

The small deadwood on the right is balancing the tree composition. Although the deadwood is of a lighter color, the “complicated” line movement plays the balancing role better than if it were a straight line.

Balance by texture. Smaller, rougher, and complicated surface texture can balance larger, smoother texture.

The Principles Of Good Bonsai Design by Robert Steven

The “ rough” contour of the foliage is balancing the smooth texture of the pot.

Balance by position. A smaller object farther away from the center can balance a larger object that is closer to the center.

The Principles Of Good Bonsai Design by Robert Steven

Photograph courtesy of Rudi Julianto

The smaller canopy placed farther away on the left is balancing the large object in the center.

Balance by eye direction. Certain edges or pointed shapes, which draw visual direction, can transfer weight from a heavier side to a lighter side.

The Principles Of Good Bonsai Design by Robert Steven

The pointing tips of the branches are drawing our visual direction and transfer the visual weight from the right side to the left.

Movement and Rhythm

Movement is the directional path of our eyes or the viewing flow when we look at a work of art. By arranging the design components and elements in certain way, can create a force of movement or control the direction the eye of the viewer travels along the visual path of the design. In bonsai, this movement can be created with the trunk line, branch direction, foliage shape, or even the position of the container.

Movement can also be achieved by repetition and action. Repetition of similar elements will create movement or a path that the eye travels and if the repetition leads the eye through a periodical or alteration regularity and irregularity flowing path or in staccato movement, then it will create a rhythm. Certain lines and forms can also create the illusion of “freeze frame” motion or action such as the twisting trunk and branches used in bonsai.

The Principles Of Good Bonsai Design by Robert Steven

The repetition of similar foliage pads creates the movement of this tree.

The Principles Of Good Bonsai Design by Robert Steven

The line arrangement of the twigs creates an illusion of the motion of the blowing wind captured in “freeze frame”

Movement can be created with three kinds of lines:

Actual line. A real line such as the trunk or branch.

  • Implied line. Not a real line, but a visual path created by the arrangement or shape of the components for the eye to travel along the design. Examples would be the configuration of foliage pads, the position of the trunk, or the placement of branches.
  • Psychic line. This line is invisible to the eye and is a psychological line created to draw and direct our viewing. One such example would be the pointing tips of foliage that may direct our eyes to move from one side to the other side. [/list]
The Principles Of Good Bonsai Design by Robert Steven

The trunk and branches have the actual lines to show the movement in the tree. The shape of the foliage pads creates an implied line to enhance the movement to the right and the overall composition creates a psychic line to direct our visual flow from the left to the right. Consequently, the tree shows a very dynamic motion.


Emphasis is the intended focusing or highlighting of a particular characteristic of the design, which has the purpose of creating a focal point or point of interest. In bonsai, this emphasis can be on over-sized roots, the trunk, deadwood, or any other unique feature that stands out for one reason or another. It could be the most complex area or simply a sudden change in line direction, size or shape.

The Principles Of Good Bonsai Design by Robert Steven

The over-sized rock is emphasizing the theme of a tree that “grows on the rock”


Simplicity is the elimination of non-essential elements or details. Some features that are not contributing to the essence of the design, or which may distract from the interest, can be eliminated. Such features may distract from the focal point or lend a negative impact to the overall beauty.

The Principles Of Good Bonsai Design by Robert Steven

Photograph courtesy of Sandro Segneri

This is a good example of simplicity in bonsai that shows a very clear focal point. Only the important components are exposed in very efficient and effective way.


Contrast is the difference between or opposition of various elements. Contrast can create visual interest and add variation to the design. Too much similarity will make the design monotonous and uninteresting, but too many contrasts will be confusing, so contrast must be used properly in order to enhance the beauty.

Contrast in bonsai can be found on the lines and form of the trunk and foliage, the color of leaves and flowers, the bark color and texture, between the deadwood and live veins, between the rock and the tree, or even in the color of moss against the soil surface.

The Principles Of Good Bonsai Design by Robert Steven

Photograph courtesy of Walter Pall

The contrast in the color between the leaves and the trunk, and the neutral color of the pot makes this bonsai vary charming and interesting.


Proportion is the relation or ratio comparison of elements in size or quantity. In bonsai, proportion can refer to the anatomical condition of a mature or post-mature tree; this is what I call anatomical balance, which is the size proportion of the trunk, branches, tertiary branches and twigs. It can also be the relation or comparison among other components, such as grass, moss, rock, container, or accessories.

One proportional issue, which is never completely solved in bonsai, is the size of the leaves, but using simplicity can minimize this issue, as with the refinement of the foliage pads. The size of flowers and fruits in bonsai might be an issue as well, but only to a certain extent. Due to genetic predispositions, flowers and fruit are impossible to reduce substantially in size, however this is generally accepted for decorative purposes or accentuation. Generally, we must remember that if there is any component “out of proportion”, it will seem to be unrelated to other components and the overall design will not appear to be in harmony.

The Principles Of Good Bonsai Design by Robert Steven

Photograph courtesy of Hastra

Although there is an impression of emphasis on the base, the size of the branches are not proportionally fit to the trunk size as would be expected of a mature tree. So even though the foliage is trained as a mature tree and the pot is proportionally selected, the overall image looks artificial.

Proportion in bonsai can create perspective and dimension; it can also emphasize the chosen focal point. Good proportion in bonsai can also influence the comparative size illusion of the tree in relation to the total presentation. Among others, one of the most important components that must have good proportion is the container. The success of a bonsai creation may depend very much on having the ideal container to tree proportion. The size of the container can create different nuances, mood of the theme, and it can affect the focal point.


Space is the interval or distance between the elements. Negative space or empty space in bonsai is very important because emptiness is also a very important part of any composition. It does not merely represent an absence or void, negative space can play an important role in bonsai design, which is to create mystery, illusion, movement, contrast, simplicity, dimension, perspective, balance and nuance. Intelligent use of negative space in bonsai will give a very important impact to the illusion of depth; it can draw a visual distance between the foreground, middle ground and background. The best method to achieve this effect is by overlapping the components; by doing so, our mind will perceive there are gaps of space in-between the components and create the illusion of perspective.

The Principles Of Good Bonsai Design by Robert Steven

Photograph courtesy of Walter Pall

This is a good example of how to give sufficient space to a bonsai design that makes the tree look very natural with clear volumetric dimension.

Negative space has weight and mass and it creates a balance with the positive space by giving the eye a place to rest. It provokes the viewer to interpret the visible within invisible, the tangible within intangible, and the presence within the absence. A concave shaped space in front of the container, especially in grouping or landscape bonsai, can create a curvilinear perspective and an illusion of wider view, while certain space arrangements at the rear of the container can create an illusion of infinity.

The Principles Of Good Bonsai Design by Robert Steven

The concave shaped space in the front draws the object farther to the back and creates foreground. The overlapping land contour creates the illusion of perspective gaps and the negative space in the composition creates balance harmony.


Unity is the hallmark of good design. All elements and components should be composed with integrity, in a consistent manner, and successfully applied with the principles of design in mind. Unity will give a sense of visual pleasure if all the elements and components are arranged in harmony, complementary to each other, and with an appealing focal point, instead of competing for attention. When unity is achieved, the thematic message will be more clearly communicated.

In bonsai, unity is not only achieved by the implementation of design principles, but also with the integration of horticultural clues. When unity is achieved, the creation will be aesthetically beautiful, logical in nature, and the thematic message will be well perceived, because the tree will speak for itself, conveying a silent chronicle of its life history.

The Principles Of Good Bonsai Design by Robert Steven

Good visual balance, rhythmic movement, emphasis of a focal point, simplicity, contrast in color, anatomical proportion and effective space arrangement will make a bonsai design look harmonious in composition.

Unity in bonsai design can be achieved by several methods:

Consistency. The repetition of all elements and components should show certain similarities in character, either by the line of the trunk and branches, the form of the foliage pads and crown, the shape and color of container, etc. They should all create a visual relationship that speaks of the same source.

  • Relevancy. The character and arrangement of all elements and components should be relevant to the concept and idea of the design. In the case of bonsai, they should all refer to the horticultural clues, the plant physiology, the tree morphology, and the environmental factors that fit to the pose and character of the tree.
  • Integrity. All elements and components should be arranged to show a logical relationship and connection as an uninterrupted union. Sometimes we need to use the “third element” to bridge the connection between two or more elements which are placed apart or seem to be unrelated. [/list]

Unity without variation is boring, but too much variation without unity is chaotic. Do not apply the same principles equally to all bonsai designs, as one may be more important than the other, depending on the mood, the nuance, the character, and the idea we want to convey. One creation may be strong in balance, another may be strong in movement, and yet another may be strong in emphasis.

Lastly, do not hesitate to incorporate your own personal touches as a signature of your personality; without this, the creation may well suffer from lack of character.

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