Winter Blog

The Mystery of Bonsai Design


When contemplating the future of any particular bonsai, we must remember that we rarely have full control over its growth. Usually it has had some prior work done to it, and the design direction is more or less spelled out for us. In some cases, we can use that as an advantage and continue along the lines of the established growth design, or, for those who like a more dramatic bonsai, there are opportunities to contradict the design with some radical cuts and bends. Either way, an understanding of the key characteristics that make up an interesting and exciting bonsai design is incredibly important.


When working on clients’ collections, I am often presented with trees that are tricky from a design point of view, and occasionally my suggestions are met with a lack of enthusiasm. Many bonsai enthusiasts become sentimental about successes, and hold onto these in a material form, yet fail to understand the intangible lessons. Therefore, the sentimentalities are materialised in keeping branches or design features that are ultimately ruining what would otherwise be a good bonsai. As a result the lesson is not learned, and that technique is not applied to other areas that would benefit. 




I often see trees that are far too tall, which have huge bases and the apex way too far from the base. These trees remind me of the Myanmar women of the Kayan Lahwi tribe, who adjust their appearance by coiling brass around their neck, lowering their collar bones, giving the appearance of a longer neck. This design flaw in bonsai is usually easy to fix, but in conifers is much more difficult. This is a result of enthusiasts misjudging the correct proportions of a quality bonsai, which I believe stems from a lack of understanding of the sizing guide for exhibitions. A brief understanding of these guides will be a shortcut to extracting the most out of your bonsai.



Mame: under 10cm


Shohin: under 20cm


Gifu (uncommon due to no category in exhibitions for this size): under 30 cm


Chuhin: under 40cm


Okimono/Omono: larger than 40cm



When trying to choose a design path for your own bonsai, keep these sizing categories in mind. This will give you an edge when trying to create something truly beautiful. 





When considering the design for any given bonsai, it is important to start from the ground up – literally. Start with the roots, then the trunk, then the branches, and lastly the apex. The Nebari (surface roots), in the western world of bonsai, is particularly important; however, in Japan, it has not traditionally been considered to be quite so important. While Nebari is a significantly beautiful feature, it didn’t seem vital to a good bonsai design. The ‘Tachiagari’ (entrance) of the tree was much more significant and was always the focus of bonsai design. You may hear terms such as ‘pigeon breasting’ or ‘welcoming’ when people unknowingly critique the Tachagari. What is important is that the Tachiagari should have a good grounding to the soil, and an openness, which is usually created by the tree retreating slightly to the rear before ‘bowing’ to the front again. More complicated bonsai have a much more nuanced Tachiagari: 



the main body of the trunk should be interesting and contain some movement, the best parts should be ‘framed’ by the foliage, and the somewhat less desirable sections should be camouflaged by said framing.



The Tachagari will ultimately give you clues as to where the first branch should stem from. The first branch is crucial to setting the narrative of the composition. While Bonsai is somewhat of an art, its artistic nature comes not from its appliance but more from the poetry of what is not said in terms of the story of the existence of this tree. Take a tree with a large Ten Jin (a Jin extending above the apex of the tree – a Jin is a teach branch left on the tree to tell a story about the tree’s life); for example, does this Jin tell the story of a lightning strike, or a drought, or a strong wind? It’s what remained un-happened is the seeing of what-being that makes bonsai a mysterious art form. The first branch is typically your direction-setter for the composition, which means if your first branch is on the right, and the composition should also lean toward the right. Often times when a composition seems off but it is unclear why, it pays to try covering up the first branch (to imagine it being removed) and see how the composition changes. The first branch should be the strongest, and largest, and ideally come from the outside of a bend on the trunk. First branches can also be allowed to come from behind, named ‘Nōzoki-Eda’ (peeping branch) and can set a tone of mystery, making the foliage seem more like mystical clouds covering the tree. 







Most of us know that branching should follow a few rules or guidelines:


- Branches seem the most realistic when they emerge from the outside of a bend


- Branching should alternate from left to right


- Branches should be thickest at the bottom of the tree and thinnest at the top


- No two branches should emerge from the same point


- For conifers, branches should be angled down and for deciduous they should be angled up.


When thinking of foliage in terms of a composition, it is important to start thinking of it as the ‘frame’ of the artwork. So we use the foliage to frame the interesting parts of the trunk or to crop out sections to create supposition. The role is to outline the shape of the tree and frame the interesting parts of the trunk.



What are the less known attributes of branching and foliage though? Well, we should start with creating movement with branches. 


When working with a rather uneventful trunk, movement can be added with careful branch placement. While working with Taiga Urushibata on a formal upright trunk, he explained that alternating long branches up the trunk will add movement in the silhouette and mintage the straightness of the trunk. This technique has worked well for trees that would have otherwise have perished in design, had this characteristic not been incorporated. 








The apex is the pinnacle of pain for most bonsai enthusiasts. While it is difficult to produce a convincing apex, there are some tips I can offer to make it a little more manageable. 


Firstly, we need to understand that that the higher we get up the tree, wiring each branch, the less we need to angle the branches down, and at a point they will end up hormonal, and then start to angle up. Where exactly this happens is difficult to explain, as the answer always changes; however, the point where you are trying to signal the beginning of the apex is where the branches should approximately start levelling out, and then start to angle up. 


With the remaining buds left, it is best to start wiring them into a spiral toward the top. This will take the length out of the long buds, camouflage the branching, and create uniform bud distribution.






What is more important than design or skillset is the narrative of the tree. Does your bonsai tell a story about how it came to be that shape? And what forces in nature dictated how that tree will grow?


The sun would be the most influential factor in how a tree grows. Every aspect of your tree should primarily be focussed on the tree’s desire to collect as much sun light as possible, no matter what. Placing branches directly under each other will look odd, because the bottom branch would have never grown into the shade, as the foliage is always chasing the light. A good way to check to make sure you have done this is to see if any light is touching the leaves; looking from above, can you see the foliage? If not, that branch will die. Additionally, if you extend the buds of an underneath branch beyond the branch above, it’ll show the bottom branch is trying to grow out into what available sunlight there is.


The wind will ultimately knock all endeavours of sun-catching off course, and, therefore, in conjunction with that desire of sun-fetching, will create movement. 


The wind will also break branches creating Jins and Shari. This may also be caused by other factors, such as a drought, erosion or interference from animals. These factors must be rather obvious, so as to not be confused with each other and cement the tale in your narrative. The most extreme of this factor is of course, windswept style.





Wabi-sabi is an incredibly difficult to teach because it is more about a feeling that a tangible thing. Much of Western writing about wabi-sabi focuses on the visuals aspects, failing to emphasise that it is the deep appreciation for an indescribable feeling of beauty held in a moment, after which is only left as a memory. Time is a key factor in wabi-sabi and it is the appreciation of each moment and a reverence for moments past, over long periods of time, and the feelings and recognition of true beauty found in each moment, fleeting as they may be, that is closer to the explanation of wabi-sabi than anything to do with visual imagery. 


You may have heard of wabi-sabi explained as two juxtaposing ideals which, in the Japanese culture, are never said alone, always wabi-sabi. 


Wabi literally translates to Poverty, but not in the western sense. Although this translation does not begin to convey the richness of its true meaning. Instead think of wabi as an independence from the material, an inward richness, with higher values than the ornate, or material wealth. Therefore; poverty that surpasses immense riches. In practical terms, we see this exemplified in the contentment of a family living in Spartan conditions, with simple food and few possessions, but surrounded by, and in tone with the events of every day life. In the abstract, or artistic terms, we see the artists who does not indulge in complexity of concept, the over ornate expression, or the pomposity of self-esteem. He or she is quietly content with the simple things, and so make them the sources of their inspiration. 


Sabi, on the contrary, denotes loneliness, solitude. Aesthetically this meaning is much broader. There is an antique element implied, combined with a primitive lack of sophistication. We could go into the utensils used in the Japanese tea ceremony for an exterior example. But for now think about the pots we use for Bonsai. The essence of sabi, therefore is the coming together of grace and antiquity. 

To summarise wabi-sabi as a whole: wabi implies Poverty, simplicity and contentment; sabi, on the other hand, entails loneliness, solitude, some deliberate antique imperfection and the absence of over-sophistication. However this is still a surface-level Westernised interpretation. 


One of my own wabi-sabi moments came when I was studying bonsai in Japan. It was the late afternoon and spring was breaking; it was getting warmer and I didn’t need to bring a jumper to work with me anymore. The sun was setting later, and in the evenings my Oyakata would tire of working and announce: “Okay, freely”, which translated to: I am too tired to keep teaching. You are to continue working on your own or clean up and go home (essentially do what you want now). I would usually at least finish what I was working on, and then tidy the workshop before leaving. I would often like to walk around the nursery and inspect all the trees I would otherwise have to run past whenever Oyakata would call for my assistance. There was one particularly stunning composition that my Oyakata’s son had created. Taiga is a world-renowned artist who studied with the famed Masahiko Kimura, the world’s most respected bonsai artist. Taiga’s composition was in the greenhouse at the back of the nursery and was a small Itoigawa Juniper planted on a rock with a Chojubai (dwarf quince) as an accent. I would sit and study it when I had the opportunity. However, this evening I sat, and decided not to concentrate on studying, just enjoying it. It was at this point where I felt wabi-sabi. It was like feeling love, or being hit in the heart by a hammer. It was truly a moment where I had a deep appreciation for a truly beautiful moment. It felt like time melted away (or I was completely oblivious to its passing). It was one of a handful of times where I felt spiritual, and I was transcending my ego, problems, worries, stresses, lessons, life. Now, I am very happy Taiga produced that composition, but this has happened to me a few times in my life in different situations, but this one was with bonsai, so it was appropriate to share this moment. You may like to reflect on times you may have felt wabi-sabi: a moment that you truly felt beauty.


It is important to try to create your own collection of wabi-sabi-inspiring trees, and to do so, you’ll need to develop or buy promising stock. Your journey as a bonsai enthusiast will change from here forward. You will now become incredibly discerning, moving on from any experimental or otherwise rubbish trees. I want you to ask yourself: Do I want 20 amazing trees that you have the time to work on in nice pots, or 100 garbage trees in grow pots looking unkept?


Additionally, make your bonsai display in your garden beautiful. Too many times I have seen collections that are brilliant, only to see that they are on broken or ugly benches, on less-than-flattering tables or on the ground. Organise your collection. If you don’t get pleasure from your back window, you need to change something. Show them off so they you guests are intrigued and ask you about your collection. If you have too many trees to manage that then it’s time to focus your collection down to what’s manageable. It’s also easier to maintain a Shohin collection over a larger tree collection.




When you are trying to develop an opportunity for witnesses of your trees to feel wabi-sabi, we must work on sections where we can create notions of supposition within the works. 






noun: supposition; plural noun: suppositions

  • a belief held without proof or certain knowledge; an assumption or hypothesis.



This may be hiding the origin of a branch, or a section of important trunk line to draw the viewer in and entice them to investigate the tree, to confirm or deny the supposition you forced them to take. This is a powerful technique professionals use to create trees that always have the novice asking: “how do they do it?”


At this point you might begin to notice that you are thinking of your approach to bonsai less like a stylist and more a poet, writing a haiku poem about how your tree came to be. Remember it is the cues that show what you have left out of the composition that tell the real story. It’s this notion of leaving key parts out of the composition where wabi-sabi is a key contributor in the philosophy on bonsai design.





When studying any art, these topics are the cornerstones to compiling a composition and we must capitalise on their ability to bringing an artwork together. Line in Bonsai will give the tree direction and movement; think of the trunk and its ability to dictate the direction of the tree. The overall shape of the tree gives meaning to the line, and will help set a frame in which the composition sits. Form is where the more poetic side of bonsai comes into play. Form will give cues of a contradiction or juxtaposition where the line may head off in one way, but the from will be pushing the tree in another. Asymmetry is crucial, as many of you may have seen a symmetrical tree and wondered why it is so lacklustre – this is the reason. 





In the photos below, observe the way in which these principles have been utilised to create a composition.


In the BLACK is the LINE, the direction your eye follows along the trunk line.

In MAGENTA we have the SHAPE, the boundaries of the composition.

In GREEN we have the FORM, showing a contradiction in the flow of the composition, which will give interest.

In BLUE (top left) we have POINT, the final “pointer” for the direction of the composition. 

In YELLOW we have the ASYMMERTRY, showing a dramatic lean to the left.


Supposition was crated by the main trunkline being impeded by the foliage as it dips down to crates the final section of the composition.


With these principles outlined within this Blog it will now be easier for you to see these roles being played out in your own compositions, and make sure to accentuate and subdue them as you see fit for each composition. It is also worth reading more about the founding principles of art.



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