LESS IS MORE
"Simplicity is difficult, not easy.
Beauty is simple.
All unnecessary elements are removed –
only essence remains."
- Alan Hovhaness
Japanese aesthetic embraces this idea. It is
especially relevant when preparing a bonsai
display, since the viewing time frame is limited.
The display as a whole needs to make an
immediate, harmonious impression; then
individual elements are noticed and appreciated.
The first element that draws the eye must be the
tree itself, not the pot, the stand, or accessories.
Most of us have a limited number of pots,
stands, and companion plants available to choose
from. Therefore combinations are often far less
than optimal. It is necessary to physically
assemble a display well in advance of an exhibit;
simply mentally planning the display involves too
much wishful thinking! ("I have a beautiful
flowering companion plant; I'll use it in this
show." But on the morning of the exhibit, it turns
out to be much too large in relation to the tree.
Because of time constraints, it gets used anyway
and totally overpowers the display.) One of the
most frequent criticisms of displays that I have
heard from bonsai experts giving critiques is that
the accent plants are too large for the trees.
Attending critiques is an extremely valuable
learning opportunity, by the way. I consider it to
be the best value for the money at any bonsai
One way to achieve well-designed displays is
to limit one's collection to fewer trees, keeping
only those with a serious chance of being
exhibited with pride in the future. Then one can
search for a proper pot that suits each tree, and
that works well with them, and an accent plant
the proper size that is especially appropriate to
the landscape setting the tree represents. I is
better to have 5 really good trees in harmonious
pots with appropriate stands than to have 50 trees
in ill-suited pots and no appropriate stands or
accents. Are we capable of such discipline?
That's what auctions are for! (Both acquiring and
Both custom and superstition playa part in
Japanese aesthetics, but Westerners need not feel
bound by ideas not relevant to their culture. For
example, the name for the number 4 in Japanese
sounds the same as the word for death; therefore
grouping 4 of anything is not considered
auspicious. In spite of the Japanese preference
for odd numbers of elements over even numbers,
there is no real aesthetic basis for this idea.
Likewise, the Western superstition about the
number 13 being unlucky need not prevent us
from using 13 trees in a grouping!
Japanese culture inserts much symbolism
into aesthetic matters; certain associations of
plants, animals, seasons, colors, etc. are
understood by the society as a whole, much as
our culture finds it natural to associate poinsettias
and holly with the Christmas holidays. (Do you
ever see poinsettias in a home at any other time of
the year?) These cultural associations are not
aesthetic principles. There are, however, some
relevant aesthetic FACTS that can be applied to
bonsai design and display. Here are a few.
Objects can be made to appear closer and
larger by placing smaller things behind them,
which is relevant to group plantings. This can be
achieved in very little space (the width of a
bonsai pot). Try planting really tiny trees toward
the back. To preserve logic in such a group, the
branches of the "distant" trees should start lower
than the first branches of the larger trees in the
Making good use of back branches also
conveys a feeling of depth in a single tree. For
those of us who have learned bonsai design
mainly from photographs, it is all too easy to
design "two-dimensional trees" with too few
There is much mystique surrounding ideas
such as the "Golden" this-or-that and other
measures of proportion, but in practical bonsai
design this strict adherence to ratios is not very
useful. For example, a curve in a trunk or a
diagonal trunk line can throw the whole
calculation off when it comes to placing a tree
in a pot. One really needs to simply stand back
and take a careful look at the tree or group of
trees; with even a small degree of artistic
understanding a person should be able to see
what looks best. The size relation of trees and
accents has already been mentioned. Naturally
the ratio of tree and companion planting will
not be the same as in nature, where a 40-foot-
tall tree may have a 4-inch violet growing near
its base. But an accent plant should be far
smaller than the bonsai. Having the bonsai
raised on a stand with legs and placing the
accent on a flat slab helps with proportion
Intricate detail draws the eye forcefully.
This can be a problem in two areas particularly:
stand decoration and companion plants. A stand
with much ornamentation will upstage all trees
except the most powerful ones. The stand
should practically be "invisible" in a display; a
stand that is the right size, shape, and color for a
tree will not be at all memorable!
Very elaborate companion plants (with long
tendrils creeping luxuriantly out of the pot, for
example, or masses of very showy blossoms)
will draw the eye to themselves instead of
taking second place to the tree. "Less is more"
really matters with accents. The idea is not to
exhibit a lush horticultural specimen but to help
"set the scene": to evoke a season, a habitat, or a
The ideal is uninteresting; particulars add
individuality and charm. Interest can be added
to a tree by attention to small details that may
deviate from the rest of the design. A standard
bonsai specimen may be enhanced by a delicate
branch that takes an unusual turn, for instance,
or an interesting shari.
The Japanese tend to "design to the ideal":
their mass production of bonsai insures that
most of their trees will be pleasing to the eye,
but not necessarily memorable. It does take
sensitivity and artistry to allow a tree to make
its own statement rather than adhering rigidly to
an approved template. This is what separates
the bonsai artist from the weekend hobbyist.
Nothing is wrong with either approach, but the
results will differ.
For those of us who don't want (or dare!) to
change a pot during the year, it makes sense to
choose the pot color for a deciduous tree to look
right during the season when the tree is most
likely to be exhibited. There are now many pots
by European and American potters as well as
Asian imports that have subtle multicolored
glazes; when a tree is ready for exhibition there
is a wealth of wonderful pots to choose from.
Just remember that the pot should not upstage
Light versus Dark:
Dark colors tend to recede visually, while
light colors seem to come toward the viewer.
(This has been explained by out· brain
interpreting darker areas as being in shadow.)
Use can be made of this fact in bonsai. Placing
light-colored moss at the front of the nebari will
draw one's attention to that area and made it
advance visually; this is especially helpful if the
front of the trunk is flat rather than rounded.
The trunk of a tree will "pop out" at the viewer if
it is light in color; in Japan a lime sulfur solution
may be used to whiten the trunks of certain
smooth-barked trees such as beeches when
preparing for a show. The light coloring of jin
and shari on a tree makes them very dramatic
Sometimes "nothing at all" is a powerful
design element. Leaving space between
branches and foliage masses is important in
bonsai sty ling. The open space underneath the
lowest branches of a tree will highlight the line
of the trunk and lower branches. Finer branches
projecting into this space can be very lovely and
add a delicate contrast to the thickness of the
It is natural that Westerners should look to
Asian examples when designing bonsai and
creating displays; the art has been practiced there
for many hundreds of years, and those cultures
have very advanced aesthetic standards. There
is also a place for experimentation and new
ideas; even in Japan styles of bonsai and display
go in and out of fashion over the years. In the
West, Nick Lenz, for example, is wildly creative
and also a true artist. He can "pull it off." In
innovation in bonsai display the only caveat is
this: artistry is nearly always creative, but all that
is creative is not necessarily artistic! We are
practicing an art, and it is important that we
uphold artistic standards as well as we possibly
can. We owe it to our trees and to the long
history of bonsai.
Commentary by Charlotte Smith -- July, 2005
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