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Behind the Rules

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By Robert Steven

In my intuition I find myself,
In myself I find freedom;
In nature I find the rule,
In the rule I find the wisdom.

Obviously, all the textbook conventions for bonsai are derived from fundamental concepts of artistry and aesthetic principals of visual art. Among the aesthetic principals of visual art are line, form, color, texture, composition, dimension, perspective and balance. A working understanding of these concepts will enable us to freely create and innovate without hesitation because we understand the essence of the art and what these conventions refer to. Furthermore, a solid understanding of horticultural theory and natural rules is very important to our ability to simulate natural phenomena in a convincing manner.

Basic aesthetic principles easily explain all of the so-called rules in bonsai. The commonly cited fault lists in bonsai books should be treated as basic guidelines rather than absolute rules. These lists should also be taken in the context of artistic aims as applied to individual bonsai efforts, rather than thoughtlessly applied to all bonsai. The objective is to create an artistic and appealing bonsai instead of a textbook-true bonsai. Nature is always perfect in imperfection. So-called the imperfection is our human misinterpretation and limited knowledge about the true essence of beauty; we always consider the imperfection as defection rather than natural phenomena. Every style or shape and character of trees in the nature is not formed by miracle, there is always reason, either natural rule or horticultural aspect behind. For this reason, when we create a bonsai, we should put all these aspects into account including exploring the "imperfection" as part of the natural beauty. We should create a soulful and beautiful bonsai rather than "correct" bonsai. The task of a bonsai artist is to explore the character of the tree and conveying the thematic message effectively through the overall design and presentation. This makes art different from craft.

Textbook-true bonsai are seldom appealing and artistic simply for the fact that the way one rule suits a certain condition may not be applicable to other situations. Advisable application of basic bonsai styling convention should take into account the overall structure we have to work with and our artistic aims. Furthermore, the faulty element may indeed become a feature of added value, depending on what other features must be compensated for in the composition. The fault can, of course, be significantly diminished in importance if the overall presentation triumphs in spite of the fault. However, there are a few faults that are difficult to compensate for, like bar branches, spoke-wheel branches, comb branches, inverse taper trunk, etc - but these are not always impossible to visually compensate for.

Here are a few examples:

Eye-poking branches are considered to be faults because they donít present a good use of dimension for the viewer; but sometimes such a branch is needed to fill an ugly gap in the structure (see picture below).

Behind the Rules

Crossed branches are not good because they look messy and disturb the visual flow; but they are often needed in windswept or literati form bonsai as the below simulated picture (see picture below).

Behind the Rules

Parallel branches indicate bad branch order and composition in the body, but can be ignored in certain circumstances (see picture below).

Behind the Rules

"Knee roots" that rises up from the soil are considered to be bad, but they can be a counter balance element in certain slanting-trunk bonsai. This fault is similar to having too many roots on one side of the trunk (see picture below).

Behind the Rules

The curve of the trunk should not come frontward like a pigeonís breast. This simply explains the dimensional matter because such a curve will not be seen and will simply look like a straight line from the front due to the two-dimensional effect.

Bow shaped trunk is considered monotonous, boring and unnatural. This is not always true, however, when a proper composition is smartly done (see picture below).

Behind the Rules

The recommended placement of the branches on the left, right, back etc., is indicative of proper composition and helps to create good physical volume. But in many styles, one-sided branches offer an interesting and different impact (see picture below).

Behind the Rules

Lower branch should always be bigger than the ones above. This helps to indicate the normal growth of a tree. This element is also a matter of perspective - showing how we view a tree from bottom up. But in many cases, nature shows us exceptions to this idea (see picture below).

The decreasing internodes space between branches ascending the trunk is another element of perspective, but disorder between internodes can offer a charming appeal (see picture below).

Behind the Rules

Parallel trunks with no taper present a challenge to perspective, but the distraction can be mitigated in an innovative bonsai (see picture below).

Behind the Rules

"Frog-leg" trunk formation is a fault owing to the problem of symmetrical composition, but such a formation can be adjusted to diminish the effect by repositioning the viewing angle (see picture below).

Behind the Rules

In many cases bonsai do not look good because of inconsistencies of line and form. For example, the dynamic trunk line of a literati style bonsai is topped by a dense, heavy, umbrella-like apex. Another example would be the combination of curving branches on one side with clip-and-grow zigzag branches on the other side. Yet another could be the combination of one sparse foliage canopy with another fuller canopy on a twin-trunk form bonsai (see picture below).

Behind the Rules

As said, textbook-true bonsai do not always look good. The below illustration shows perfect root formation, good anatomical and optical balance, good dimension and composition. This tree seems to follow the "rules" correctly, but it ends up with an awful design, unnatural and disintegrated in harmony. This is the result of "check-list" practice (see picture below).

Behind the Rules

So, to create good bonsai there is no single pattern or rule to follow. One convention can be applied in various ways to account for different physical conditions and styles. Blindly applying the "check-list" of rules is like the Chinese proverb: Wu lun thun zhao - swallowing the walnut without breaking the shell. Breaking the rules in bonsai is not vandalism.

Behind the Rules

Robert Steven - Indonesia Bonsai artist, collector and teacher who has been traveling intensively around the world giving lectures, demos, workshops and judging. Own his permanent bonsai display center in Jakarta, Indonesia with over 500 bonsai collection and has won more than 200 awards in national and international contests. Well-known with his aesthetic and artistic approach in bonsai art. His recent bonsai book "Vision of My Soul" had been best-seller and widely recommended as one of the best reference sources for bonsai art teaching. The first luxury limited edition was sold out and will be reprinted in August 2007. His bonsai thought and collection can be viewed at his bonsai blog : http://knowledgeofbonsai.org/robert_steven

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