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Art Principles


The Principle of the Steelyard in Formal Bonsai Display

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By Carl Bergstrom, USA


The conventions of formal bonsai display are more than arbitrary protocols lent gravity by the weight of history and tradition. Rather, the conventions of formal display reflect basic principles of perspective, balance, and composition. In an introductory essay on bonsai display, Andy Rutledge illustrates the way in which the layout of the tokonoma reflects the viewpoint of a human observer as she contemplates a natural scene.

formal bonsai display

Figure 1. Why do we favor the arrangement above over the arrangement below?

formal bonsai display

But why does the scroll hang between tree and accent, and why does it crowd the larger, dominant form of the tree instead of resting equidistant between tree and accent? Rutledge attributes this in part to the need for left-to-right rhythm in the composition.

The positions of each element provide more than rhythm, though - they provide balance. The tokonoma is balanced much in the same way that landscape paintings are often balanced, through a compositional principle known as the steelyard. The principle of the steelyard suggests that visual weight balances much as physical weight does. When a composition has an obvious pivot or axis, the large or visually weighty main subject should be placed closer to the pivot point than a smaller or less weighty secondary object, just as a heavy weight must be placed closer to the pivot of a lever balance than the counterbalancing lighter weight on the other side.

If a composition includes a strong vertical element through the central 2/3 of the frame, this vertical element makes a like a pivot. In landscape painting, a tree is often used for this purpose, as in Pieter Bruegel the Elder's "The Harvesters".

The Steelyard

Figure 2. The steelyard in Pieter Bruegel's The Harvesters.

Here a tree cuts the frame, acting as pivot for the larger foreground subject (the relaxing peasants) and the smaller rear subject (the harvester emerging from the fields).

The principle of the steelyard in bonsai display

Figure 3. The steelyard in the tokonoma

In formal bonsai display, the tree is typically the subject rather than a pivot. In the tokonoma, the vertical scroll plays the roll of the pivot element. The visually massive main subject, the tree, is then placed close to the scroll; the less massive accent object is placed at a distance so as to appropriately counterbalance the display.

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