A Philosophy of Display
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 conference. 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 weeding out.) 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. Perspective: 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 foreground. '
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 back branches. Proportion: 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 perception. Complexity: 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 feeling. Detail: 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 the tree. 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 design elements. Negative Space: 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 other branches. Creativity: 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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Brandywine Bonsai Society is an educational organization and as a result, the material in this site may be copied for educational purposes.  If large portions are copied, we would appreciate attribution.  We welcome links to this site. 
A Philosophy of Display
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 conference. 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 weeding out.) 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. Perspective: 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 foreground. ' 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 back branches. Proportion: 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 perception. Complexity: 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
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Brandywine Bonsai Society is an educational organization and as a result, the material in this site may be copied for educational purposes.  If large portions are copied, we would appreciate attribution.  We welcome links to this site.