Co-authored by Will Heath
There comes a time in the design of every bonsai where the artist must decide on a path to follow, a path that will bring out the full artistic potential of the tree, while using only what it offers, coupled solely with the imagination and vision of the artist. This is where talent comes into play, this is also where the textbooks fail, because finding the tree within a piece of material is a very hard thing to explain and even harder yet to teach. Each piece of material is different and each offers many possibilities, but few that are artistically sound. The talented artist can sort out what is possible, what is feasible, and what will work artistically, while keeping within the boundaries set by the material itself.
This is not a step to go blind into or one in which guesses are made and fingers are crossed. The removal of a single branch can change the entire range of possibilities, a flush cut can negate any possibilities of jin in the future, and decisions concerning the potential must include only the available resources, as it does little good to base a design on components that simply do not exist.
There are no textbooks, guidelines, or rules that can lead us through this decision making process. There are no words of wisdom to study when attempting to find the tree within a piece of material, this knowledge must come from the soul of the artist, from the talent and creativity of the artist, and from the material itself. Each species of plant has different responses to training, each offers advantages and disadvantages, and each offers different design possibilities that may or may not work with another species. Each piece of material is different, each has special characteristics, each offers unique possible futures, and each offers their own individual souls waiting to be released by the artist.
Usually an artist selects a piece of material because they see a tree within the raw stock or the potential of a possibility contained within the available components. This vision may or may not fit into the standardized traditional styles, but a tree should never be forced into such, instead, it should be allowed to be what it wants to be. This is the difficult part of the decision making process, seeing what the tree offers and not projecting our own biases, thoughts, or wants onto it. One should not say, I am going to make a cascade out of this piece, if the tree wants to be a cascade, let it, do not force it to be what it is not. Sometimes this will lead to an unconventional design, as in the photograph above, but this is all right, as long as the result is artistically feasible and visually pleasing.
Sketches and computer virtuals are great tools to use for visualizing many possible futures of our material, providing that they are used to portray actual, existing components of the plant. It is tempting to stretch reality when using such tools by adding a branch where none exists, using unrealistic foliage sizes, or contorting branches and trunks in a manner that cannot actually be accomplished. Creating such unrealistic additions may make for a great picture, but it serves no purpose at all in planning our design path.
Knowing the species and the growth habits of the material is mandatory for creating realistic possibilities. If a species grows quickly, for example, one can foresee, more foliage, great ramification, or even, if the species back buds well, new branches or foliage closer to the trunk. Adding a branch to a Ficus Retusa may be realistic, however adding one to a Japanese Black Pine would not be. Of course, grafting and other techniques may accomplish almost anything in the long term, finding the tree in the current state of the material, especially for the purposes of this article, should be a short-term project as demonstrated below.
In many cases, a bonsaist will have a piece of material that they have been working with, but have come to a point on the path where they are stuck. The path forks off into many directions and the choice as to which one to take can be very frustrating, because a wrong turn now may be irreversible. This is where having the talent to see the tree within is important and where having the tools to see many possible futures of the material, without committing to any with cutters, is valuable.
The following photographs and drawings are presented in order to demonstrate the basic principles of recognizing the tree within given material and using the available, existing components to bring it out. Finding the focal point of the composition and working with that in mind, gives us a starting point, everything else follows. There are, of course, many possibilities inherent in a piece of material, each artist may see different futures depending on their own talent and vision, but in the end, all that matters is that the result is artistically feasible and visually pleasing.
The branches and foliage should follow the impressive trunk movement, growing according to the existing visual flow. Although easy to overlook with sketches or virtuals, attention to dimension is very important.
Since the apex is growing slightly to the left, the cascading part should bend to the left as well in order to achieve balance and appear to have been effected by the same forces of nature as the rest of the tree.
To achieve good balance with the trunk movement, the canopy should go further to the left. The branch on the right should bend upward in order to get closer to the other foliage on top and compact the foliage mass.
In the picture, trunk looks like it is slanting to far, even though the base looks strong enough to hold it. Keeping the trunk length and a ‘wind swept’ style now works due to foliage refinement that reflects the idea better and a change of pot to a more suitable form.
It was necessary to eliminate two of the four branches, in this example those that were in the middle. This tree has rich contours and texture on the trunk and great movement. The remaining design is easy if we just follow the character of the tree and let the tree tell us what it wants to be.
All the character was already in this tree, it was speaking loudly of what it wanted to be and required only listening. The only task was to build the branches and foliage to look like a tree in nature; perhaps growing in a open and windy ocean site.
This tree was in desperate need of a restyling. The foliage was way to heavy and covered the branch movement. simply by opening up the foliage, we exposed the hidden dimension and impressive “Phempis” character that was only waiting to be released.
By only removing the over abundance of foliage on this tree, we can bring out the “bunjin” that it wants to be.
What many would see as hopeless, hidden inside this material was a very nice bonsai in the “Raft” style. Some slight pruning and wiring was all that was needed to find the tree within this material.
This tree had connected roots and the “wind swept” style was a suitable choice for this material. But, the first, second and third trunk were going in similar directions and had similar movement. By making a few minor adjustments, such as bending the third trunk downward a bit, and adding some ramification, the raft windswept tree hidden within was released.
This is a good example of a tree that was being forced to be something it did not want to be. Thinking outside of what we first see is sometimes the best way to see new possibilities. In this case, by rotating the tree, the average cascade becomes an excellent slanting style.
Another example of thinking beyond what is presented, by tilting this tree dramatically, we can see what is really hidden within. We can see that this tree has been attacked by nature on the lower parts. Using this focus point, we can remove the lower branches to add to this feature and create an informal upright style that incorporated hanging branches to create dramatic nuances.
The good thing about this tree is that it has contrasting combinations between the zigzagging trunk (masculine) and the spotted flowers (feminine). Beautiful and unusual style “bunjin cascade” that needs just a little refinement. Knowing when you have found the tree within is just as important and hard to master as searching for it.