How can a tree be structured to look like a miniature version of its natural form? How can a person work with a tree’s natural growth processes to create a living artwork?
The above questions guide the creative processes of bonsai artists. A bonsai is an artistic representation of a mature tree. Bonsai is created in a partnership between the tree and the artist.
The tree has physical characteristics that it brings to the artistic partnership. These physical characteristics include the line of the trunk, the shape of the crown (branches and leaves at the top of the tree), and the texture and color of the leaves, trunk, and branches. Watch this video to explore the physical characteristics of a California Juniper in The Huntington’s bonsai collection.
Proportion, Balance, and Harmony
When a bonsai artist shapes (or “trains”) a plant, they use the physical characteristics of the tree to create proportion, balance, and harmony in the bonsai. Proportion, balance, and harmony (also called unity) are three of the principles of design.
Proportion refers to the spatial relationships within the bonsai. A bonsai artist might ask, Do the proportions of the bonsai mimic the proportions of a tree in nature? Bonsai should remind the viewer of ancient trees in nature, so it is important that the artist gets the proportions right.
Balance refers to the way the viewer sees the weight of the tree. A bonsai artist might ask, Does the tree seem stable or like it is about to fall over? Bonsai should feel stable, so it is important that the artist create a sense of balance.
Harmony refers to the presence of similar and dissimilar (different) features in a bonsai. Examples include rough vs. smooth, thick vs. thin, long vs. short. A bonsai artist might ask, How do the similar and dissimilar features of the plant work together? Bonsai should look cohesive, like all the pieces make sense together, so it is important that the artist create a sense of harmony.
Bonsai artists use artistic and horticultural (plant-care) skills to shape their artworks.
Math Connection: Fractals and Pruning
Fractals are never-ending patterns. They are created by repeating a simple process over and over again. Trees have fractal structure! They repeat the process of creating branches over and over again throughout their lives.
Understanding the fractal structure of trees helps bonsai artists in their design efforts as they try to replicate those fractal structures in their bonsai. The fractals of trees serve as guidance. They are like a language that the trees use to communicate.
“When we learn the language of the trees, the trees will tell us when it's time to prune and where to prune.” —Ted Matson, Curator of the Bonsai Collections
Bonsai artists can use fractals to imagine the future growth of the trees, and to carefully remove certain leaves and branches to help the plant grow in specific directions. This careful removal of branches and leaves is called pruning.
Bonsai is never a finished work of art. The artist works on the plant throughout the plant’s life, and the artwork changes as the plant grows. Fractals are one way the plant communicates with the artist throughout its life.
Choose one of the above bonsai. Allow the questions and prompts below to guide your observations. Once you’re done, you can choose a second bonsai and repeat the process. Compare your responses for the two bonsai. You can also compare your responses to those of a peer.
Questions & Prompts
Adapted from David de Groot’s Bonsai Evaluation Form.
What name or title would you give to the bonsai? Why?
Does the bonsai seem to have a theme? What do you think the bonsai artist is trying to say?
Which emotions do you feel when you look at the bonsai? Does it remind you of any memories?
Does the bonsai seem more abstract or representational? Does it tell a story?
What relationships do you see between the plant’s length and height?
Where do you see symmetry on this bonsai? Where do you see asymmetry?
Describe the lines, shapes, forms, textures, and colors you see on the bonsai. Describe the space you see around the bonsai.
Assess the proportion, balance, and harmony of the bonsai.
Do the proportions of the bonsai mimic the proportions of a tree in nature?
Does the tree seem stable or like it is about to fall over?
How do the similar and dissimilar features of the plant work together?
Does the bonsai appear to be healthy? Why or why not?
Practice the Art of Observation
Bonsai is about observing the features of ancient trees and finding ways to replicate these features in miniature.
Find an old tree that you think is beautiful. Local parks, schools, botanical gardens, and arboretums are all great places to find old trees.
Carefully observe its features. You might want to use sketching or notes to help you with your observations.
If you were to create a bonsai inspired by the tree, which features would you want to highlight? Why?
References and Resources
Adams, Peter D. 1989. The Art of Bonsai. London: Ward Lock.
Ceronio, Charles S. 1999. Bonsai Styles of the World. Pretoria : C.S. Ceronio.
DeGroot, David. 2015. Principles of Bonsai Design. Lynnville, IN: American Bonsai Society.
Fractal Foundation. n.d. “What Are Fractals?” Accessed July 28, 2021. https://fractalfoundation.org/resources/what-are-fractals/.
Naka, John Yoshio. 1980. Bonsai Techniques. Santa Monica: Dennis-Landman Publishers.