Aims in Bonsai: A Psychological Perspective
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Author:  Dave Williams [ Fri Sep 07, 2007 6:24 pm ]
Post subject:  Aims in Bonsai: A Psychological Perspective

This thread is for discussing Dave Williams' article, " Aims in Bonsai: A Psychological Perspective "

Author:  Will Heath [ Sun Sep 09, 2007 11:45 pm ]
Post subject: 

First let me personally thank you for taking the time to compile your thoughts on this subject and write this article, it is exactly articles such as this that expands our understanding of this wonderful art and by doing so, strengthens or appreciation and sharpens our own talent.

I have had this article on my mind for a few days now and there is one thing that I must bring up as it has been bothering me.

You gave us an arrangement of 7 curved lines and stated that it evokes the 'stereotype' schema for bonsai, but not for tree. However, I believe that what invokes the 'stereotype' schema for bonsai in this arrangement is not the outline of the tree as you suggest, but indeed the outline of the pot.

Let's look at the two images attached below. The first one is of the 'stereotype' schema for bonsai, but without the pot. The second attachment is of the schema for tree, but with a pot.

Which image invokes the 'stereotype' schema for bonsai now. Which invokes a tree? Was it the pot in the article images that caused us to call a bonsai to mind and if so, how does this relate to why we see some trees in nature and think of a bonsai?

Will Heath

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Author:  Dave Williams [ Mon Sep 10, 2007 9:35 am ]
Post subject: 

Firstly, thank you for your appreciative comments. I was very pleased to have been asked to write the article and doing so was my pleasure.

You make a very good point and you are absolutely right. It should have occurred to me that the defining characteristic differentiating the two arrangements would be the 'pot' element. Thus, I am not making a fair comparison. I think I went too far there in an attempt to make the point.

Without in any way attempting to make excuses, I will present the following.
A footnote I added to the original article (I don't think it made it to the published version), was that the strength of a schema can be assessed by the degree to which the elements that evoke it can be disarranged before the image no longer evokes that schema.

For example, our face schema is so strong that it's actually quite hard to arrange the two dots and curve in such a way within the circle that it does not evoke the 'sense' or 'feeling' of 'face' (I actually had to move the elements outside of the circle to stop it from doing so).

Thus, with arrangements of element that evoke schema, it's not an 'either/or' event (either it does or does not evoke a schema), it's more how easy or difficult it is for the viewer to fall into the illusion, i.e. get the 'feeling' of what the arrangement represents. The ease or difficulty is an indication of the strength of the schema.

When viewing the arrangements you attach, I do feel that the lower one is still somewhat less evocative of the 'stereotypical bonsai' schema (i.e. it gives less of the 'feeling' of the bonsai stereotype).

That being said, I do notice a change in the degree of difference between them. In the way you present them, they have become more equivalent. Perhaps they both evoke a bonsai schema now. The top one by virtue of its more stereotypical arrangement and the lower one by virtue of the element suggesting 'pot', so it could be that neither really evokes the schema for tree in nature any more.
As schemata differ between people and as such are very subjective, I think we'd have to put it to the vote to test it. Nevertheless, you are quite right in making the point.

Anyway, in answer to your question 'how does this relate to why we see some trees in nature and think of a bonsai'? I think it relates to why we see some trees in nature and think of a bonsai because the degree to which this happens can indicate the presence and strength of our schemata.

Participants in this forum are likely to be intimately acquainted with trees and bonsai and so will have very rich and complex schemata. Thus, their richer and more complex schema for 'tree in nature' is likely to be broad enough to encompass also the more stereotypical arrangement I presented to evoke the bonsai schema.

For example, a possible reason for my including a 'pot' element in that image is that without it, the arrangement evokes in me the 'feeling' of the willows growing by Hampstead ponds (as a part of my overall tree schema). So, for myself, I had to include the 'pot' element in order for the arrangement to evoke 'bonsai' (yes, I should have been thinking more).

However, it is a truism to say that people with less experience of trees and bonsai will have less complex schema. This may equally be true for those starting out in bonsai and beginning to learn. In this case, it is more likely that their 'tree in nature' and 'bonsai' schemata do not overlap and in fact may be very different.

This is where I think things can begin to go wrong because it results in the concepts and requirements for each also being very different, when in fact, they are closely related. That is, one is a representation of the other, rather than a stereotypical representation of itself as something separate and distinct from the other.

I certainly remember this being true in myself when I first started and as I said, I wasted a lot of time trying to get trees to conform to what I thought a 'bonsai' should be rather than what a tree should be.

The best way to get an idea of the existence of these schemata in people is not to present them with arrangements that will evoke them, but, as I indicated in the article, simply to get people to draw 'a tree' and to draw 'a bonsai'.
It's likely that the results you get will range from two completely different images that bear little relation to each other (e.g. like the arrangements I presented), to a complex image that could be either. For example, I think people who have a lot of experience with trees and bonsai, when asked to draw a tree, will draw quite a complex image and then when asked to draw a bonsai, might look at you oddly and simply add a pot to the existing image.

However, I think it's likely that people with much less experience of trees and bonsai, will tend to draw a more stereotypical image of a tree (e.g. something like my 'tree' arrangement), and more to the point, when then asked to draw a bonsai, will then draw a completely different image (e.g. something like my 'bonsai' arrangement).

Similarly, if we were to remove the element that suggests 'pot' in my two images and present them to a person with a complex tree schema, asking them to categorise the images, they might say something like 'that one's a willow, that one's a young oak'. But both are trees in nature.

On the other hand, if we were to present the same two images to a person less intimately acquainted with trees and bonsai (but with some superficial exposure to each), I would hypothesize that most such viewers would classify one as 'tree' and the other as 'bonsai'.

I hope this answers your question. I think it would be an interesting empirical study.

Author:  Andy Rutledge [ Sat Sep 15, 2007 9:59 pm ]
Post subject:  If I may add...

First, I want to thank Dave for such nice article. It is, in my opinion, one of the more comprehensive, valuable and, for me, rewarding articles I've seen published in the bonsai community in years. Few, if any, have been successful in touching on so many of the factors relevant to the shaping of ideas and the reward received when viewing bonsai.

I would add that one of the vital elements to which Dave paid tacit attention, namely simplification, is one of the most important factors affecting our perception of treeness when looking at bonsai, as well as one of the most important factors in bonsai artistry success. Moreover, simplification is one of the primary root factors in the debates of tree-vs.-bonsai and naturalistic-vs.-neoclassical.

The very necessary pratice of simplification in its many forms (branch position/order fundamentals, ramification, wiring/styling, foliage pad structure/use, etc...) is oft maligned, particularly when the discussion is an effort to champion naturalistic efforts in bonsai. For instance, neatly crafted foliage structures are often cited as an "unnatural" feature in neoclassically styled bonsai. This is something I find unfortunate, since this feature of simplification is a mechanism of artistry, not of any sort of styling or styling theory.

Simplification is absolutely necessary when one is working with miniature material in an effort to evoke the image of an enormous and complex organism, like a tree.

What's more, the bonsai fundamentals of simplification are far more important and effective than any amount of in-nature tree gazing and contemplation for students working to gain skill in crafting convincing bonsai. The image and verbatimm structures of a large tree are rather irrelevant to a neophyte artist working to craft 1:30 scale image, where the example structures can never be replicated. It is technique that is more relevant during this time (years); the results observed after applying specific techniques directly show worlds more than results observed after trying vainly to reproduce the impossible details of a large tree.

During the beginning, especially, bonsai students should concentrate on bonsai techniques--and in the bonsai (not big tree) context--as a means to communicate, rather than on examples from nature. Trees in nature may speak to us on some level, providing inspiration and iconic ideals, but it is technique (simplification, specifically) that allows us to actually reproduce the fundamental image and eye-to-ideal-to-memory-to-heart experience for those observing our work. It is later, years later sometimes, that it becomes important to seek inspiration from trees in nature.

Simplification is the fundamental artistic mechanism that works to support our schema appropriately, so that we do not confuse the tree in nature image with the bonsai image ...for the wrong reasons.

Kind regards,

Author:  Attila Soos [ Tue Sep 18, 2007 12:54 pm ]
Post subject: 

Thanks Dave for this outstanding article. It is one of a kind, never seen anything like this, written from your perspective. And yet, the subject treats the very basic issue of how we see bonsai.

To me, the article is a reminder of how we translate our visions of a tree into the language of bonsai. It makes me realize that bonsai has its own language, through which the artist communicates with us.

We take a visual image of a tree from nature and translate it into anoter, much more simplified visual image. We do this "translation" though a series of well tested and standardized bonsai techniques.

I really like the part where you warn about the pitfalls of using other bonsai as inspiration. This is like using the translation of a literary novel as the basis to translate it into a third language...and then using the second translation as the basis for a third translation into a fourth language. This well explains how the so-called "cookie-cutter bonsai" are born. They just copy techniques, without any connection to a natural souce of inspiration.
(But I agree with Andy that in the beginning stages of learning, acquiring technique is the most important objective, and copying existing bonsai is the best way of doing this).

Part of this translation from nature to bonsai is the intimate knowledge of how our eyes recognize certain visual patterns. Horizontal lines have very different effect from vertical or slanted ones, and our bonsai techniques have long incorporated this knowledge, through the imaginative use of triangles and other geometrical patterns.

I recognize that our bonsai schemata comes from seing these techniques over and over again, but I believe that this is a great thing, having these techniques available to us. People who see them as a hindrance, have not fully understood that without these techniques there would be no bonsai. Just as without paint and brush, there would be no painting as we know it today. People who are constantly preoccupied with how to "break" or ignore this process of simplification, would be well advised to learn how to properly use them to their advantage.

Of course, the question always remains, how far should we go with the simplification process, or how much can we reproduce from nature without simplification, by simply copying what we see. This is the dillemma of the so called "naturalistic" movement. It is a nice dillemma to have, since it is a matter of artistic desision: the artist decides what works and what doesn't. As a result, some of these creations will be very powerful and inspiring, others will be written off as failed attempts.
But experimenting is the nature of the arts..

Author:  Walter Pall [ Tue Sep 18, 2007 3:57 pm ]
Post subject: 

this is the best piece about the art of bonsai that I have read in years.

Author:  Dave Williams [ Wed Sep 19, 2007 5:40 am ]
Post subject: 

Thank you Atilla and Walter for your comments.
Atilla, I agree with all the points you make. I do agree with you and Andy concerning technique. It is important that we acquire good technique first, as without it all else is academic. As you say, copying existing bonsai is the best way to do this as it allows us to compare (and evaluate) the results of our efforts to exemplars of what we are trying to achieve, which is how we learn.

I think your point about how our eyes translate patterns and that horizontal lines create different effects from vertical or slanted lines is very important. It underlines the principle that our perception of a thing is always slightly removed from the reality of it.

For example, in reality, the two lines shown in the image below are identical in length (3.3cm x 3.3cm, at least, on my monitor), but our perception is that the vertical line is longer (humans are more sensitive to the vertical). This may explain, for example, why it can sometimes be hard to choose a pot of exactly the right proportions for a given tree. It is also something we need to take into account when creating a bonsai in order to achieve the effect we are seeking. As you say, this has already been done for us and the understanding of the principle is embedded in the rules and techniques we have to learn.

However, I would like to highlight the difference between technique and result. Our bonsai schema comes from exposure to images of bonsai (i.e. the results of applied technique) rather than from exposure to the techniques employed in their creation. Thus, in some cases, where the schema is limited or stereotypical it can be a hindrance, whereas knowledge of the techniques available to us can never be a hindrance.

For example, a stereotypical bonsai schema can sometimes result in the inappropriate application of good technique to create a bonsai that tells an incoherent story, but without good technique, the schema is incidental as it is unlikely we could create anything rewarding anyway. So yes, good techniques must come first. However, schemata inform our application of those techiniques and so developing a rich and complex schema is also necessary.

I also agree absolutely with Andy's point about simplification (simplification - distillation = tomayto - tomahto). I agree that simplification is a defining component of the art and I think your (rhetorical) question about how far we should go with the simplification process is a very good one.

I once saw a wonderful Japanese print that represented a cat in only three lines. The image represented pure 'cat-ness'. All the movement and predatory litheness of 'cat' was in those three lines. I think the dilemma as to how far we can distill (simplify) the essence of 'tree-ness' in the same way, or how far we should attempt to represent more the 'reality' of 'tree' is, as you say, a wonderful dilemma to have. I think that the dilemma exists is a testiment to the broad scope of the art, whereas attempts to 'purify' bonsai can only limit it.

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Author:  Attila Soos [ Wed Sep 19, 2007 12:19 pm ]
Post subject:  Re:

Dave Williams wrote:
However, I would like to highlight the difference between technique and result.

Great observations, Dave.
In my post, when mentioning exposure to technique, I was referring to being exposed to the visual result of the technique. Sorry for the confusing language. You rightfully corrected it.

Author:  Eric Schrader [ Wed Oct 03, 2007 12:07 am ]
Post subject:  amazing

I really appreciate that you have written this article. I think that a lot of this has been touched on by other people in other places but nobody has ever put it all together so concisely or elegantly so that we all can appreciate and understand it so easily. The concept of a schema is something that I will hold in my brain for a long time. This article is of great benefit to the world bonsai community. Thank you.

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