Bonsai Aesthetics

Aims and Challenges

What do you want to communicate with your bonsai?

Yes, you have to be trying to communicate something to the eventual viewer of your bonsai or you will probably fail to do so – probably resulting in an uninteresting bonsai.

Answers to this question will vary greatly among individuals and for different bonsai because each tree and each artist has an individual character. There are, however, some basic aims and basic challenges involved in bonsai art, no matter the tree or the individual.


One common aim in bonsai design is that of depicting an ideal. It is interesting to develop and exciting to view an archetype. Many of us are ever on the lookout for the makings of the Über tree, the sort of ultimate statement of a bonsai specimen. Here, I’m not referring to the ultimate bonsai design. Rather, I mean an archetypical example of one certain kind of tree or one certain form of a tree.

Trident maple
Acer buergerianum. Photo courtesy of Bonsai Today.

This kind of effort can easily be overdone due to gross exaggeration (as in the image here), but in order to be effective, the design must employ some exaggeration. In art, this exaggeration in design is called emphasis, or sometimes focal point design.

In filmmaking, for instance, the director or cinematographer when shooting a scene in shadows may cast a light across the main character's eyes. This is so the audience can see the important expressions of the actor so as to characterize the sadness or terror or surprise that is important to the scene. This is artifice, but important to the communicative value of the scene.

When painting an image of a heroic figure, the artist may place the painting's point of view such that the hero towers over our perspective, looking down upon us in all of his glory. This is how the artist communicates the hero's strength and power and heroism. Here, the emphasis is created by point of view.

In photography, the artist may lend emphasis to a particular area of the photograph by slightly blurring other areas. We first see the sharpness and it is clearly the focal point.

With bonsai, emphasis is usually, but not always, involved with size,perspective, movement or texture. (more on emphasis in chapter 5)

Some examples:

Here (below), the emphasis is on strength and power. The hugely tapered trunk communicates these qualities. This kind of design is popularly referred to as sumo style* bonsai (*M. Page). Aside from the size and taper of the trunk, which indicates power, this configuration is also indicative of a very close perspective. It evokes a sense of standing right at the foot of a great tree with the powerful structure towering over us.

Images courtesy of Bonsai Today.

This kind of design is also indicative of fantasy. More than just exemplifying power and size, this sort of design is often a foray into a fairytale story or image.

Fantasy is a powerful and common motivation for the styling work of bonsai artists. Many of us took up the bonsai endeavor because through bonsai we could realize some of the things that appeal to our sense of fantasy. Fantasy inspired creativity often involves caricature and the trees shown in the images above certainly are caricatures of powerful trees. In these cases, the naturalness, even the treeness of their character is secondary to emphasis and fantasy.

These bonsai designs (below) emphasize the power and tumult of nature’s impact on a tree. These bonsai communicate that fierce winds have forced the trunks and branches of these trees into gnarly, twisted shapes that epitomize force and movement.

life and death
Needle Juniper. Photo by Elize-Marie Mann.
life and death
A pine with a tortuous trunk. Photo by Klaus Buddig.
life and death
Needle Juniper. Photo by Kurt Gagel.

These designs (below) emphasize the struggle between life and death. They depict trees that have been tortured by nature’s fury, and yet have clung to life for a very long time.

life and death
Clear evidence of struggle. Photo by Sylvia Smith.
life and death
Mugo Pine. Photo by Kurt Gagel.

Part of what makes these kinds of images so interesting and powerful is how they contrast with our own mortality. When we see such images, our own conscious or subconscious reference is to ourselves rather than merely to the trees — which makes them all the more interesting on a conscious, ego-referencing level. We are rendered insignificant by comparison to such constitution and longevity.

The branches of these trees (below) exhibit the gentle, delicate movement that communicates grace and beauty. The thin trunks and the graceful branches are strongly suggestive of feminine grace. The texture of the bark is also indicative of femininity and beauty.

This Stewartia almost personifies feminine grace. Photo courtesy of Bonsai Today.
A graceful and tranquil maple. Photo by Wolfgang Putz.

Personification in Artistry

After reading the previous section on some of the ideals of nature expressed in bonsai design, it should be apparent that these ideals usually describe human qualities.

In many cases, what we appreciate in art and in nature are similar or identical to those things we appreciate in ourselves. It should be no surprise then that much of our artistic work can be described as an effort at personification. Artistry is often an effort to imbue our work with human qualities.

Even if we are not imposing human qualities directly on our work, we often create an image that provides contrast between ourselves and the image or qualities exhibited by the work — as in the dramatic suggestions of lots of deadwood on an obviously old tree. The great age that is communicated is made more interesting by the contrast it represents to our own short lives. Or, in how we often appreciate the great hulking size of a huge tree, due in part to how it contrasts with our own comparatively insignificant size.

The degree of success we have in conveying these human qualities and human emotions through an artistic work is often directly proportionate to the overall artistic success of the work. Most of us find ourselves quite interesting and complex (ego) and we often work to impose ourselves (our own perceived qualities) or our experiences onto the art that we see. If we can very easily do so, we may find the work much more interesting. If in a piece of art we can find no clear reference to the human qualities we appreciate in ourselves or in others, we may have little interest in the work.

For instance, when a photographer takes a picture of an empty park bench in winter, she’s not trying to capture an image of a park bench! What she’s doing is capturing human emotion and human experience; perhaps what she feels when she sees the bench.
In this case, she may make the photo in black and white (sentimentality, memory, the past, melancholy) and she may include one or more bare-branched trees in the background (winter, cold (works well with the b/w presentation), sadness, etc.) and there are no people in the photo. If she’s really good, she may ensure that there is no ice or snow seen in the photo — which would be a too-literal explanation for why everything is so cold and lifeless.

Even though there are no people in the photo, there is no sad face, no reference to humanity (beyond the bench), the photo is a picture of loneliness, of sadness; human things, human emotion. That is art; making the invisible visible, even tangible… making the absent present through our own eyes as a reflection of our experience.

Now, this interest generated by personification in artistry is not always an effective tool, but it is often effective to some degree. Personification as embodied in the ideals of nature is just one tool that you might consider using in bonsai design.

Species-Specific Designs

You may have noticed that certain species of trees used for bonsai can often be found styled in a manner similar to other bonsai of that species. For instance, it is common to find Cryptomeria japonica styled in a formal upright form and seldom in any other style. And you will usually find Zelkova serrata styled in a broom form. These are examples of species-specific styling. These species naturally grow in these forms and so their bonsai counterparts are also found most often in these forms.

Cryptomeria bonsai. Photo courtesy of Bonsai Today.
Cryptomeria in nature.
Zelkova bonsai. Photo by Elize-Marie Mann
Zelkova in nature. Photo courtesy of Treenet.com.au.
Flowering quince bonsai. Photo courtesy of Bonsai Today.
Flowering quince in nature. Photo courtesy of Colo. State Univ.
Juniper bonsai. Photo by Elize-Marie Mann.
Juniper in nature. Photo by Boon Manakitivipart.
Bald cypress bonsai, flat top style. Photo by Carl Bergstrom.
Bald cypress in nature, flat top style. Photo courtesy of Bonsai Today.

While these natural forms need not be the only examples you should follow in your design work with these species, they should often be something of a basis. Often these forms are used to highlight what are considered the most important features of the species. These forms most effectively show off important species characteristics and are, therefore, more easily appealing.

Avoiding these species-specific elements in bonsai design may be an ill-advised bit of working against nature and human appreciation/interest. Surely this is not always so, but there is often reason to carefully consider your deviations from nature’s model in your bonsai design efforts.

“Tree” concerns are just the tip of the iceberg of effective and meaningful bonsai design. In the next chapter we explore some of the other issues.