No language succeeds without structure. The fundamentals of communication are always relevant and always necessary. Skilled individuals can, with creativity, use clever violations of these fundamentals and communicate successfully, but only with some risk and by using context to convey meaning. Even these violations make some contextual reference to the basics, however. Without the fundamentals, without some kind of basic reference, communication is impossible; be it verbal, written, physical, aural or graphic communication.

Context is often the most important element in communication. Read these newspaper headlines*, for instance:

  • Kids Make Nutritious Snacks
  • Prostitutes Appeal to Pope
  • British Left Waffles on Falkland Islands

*Steven Pinker, 2002 (from The Blank Slate)

In a strict sense, the above newspaper headlines could be comical or libelous. However, the likely logical context we infer helps us to read the correct meaning in each case.

This book has been an attempt at identifying some of the very necessary basic components for artistic communication. Even with these guidelines, there has to be room for self-expression. Self-expression is certainly a part of what artistry and communication is all about. However, self-expression that successfully communicates is virtually impossible without a grounding in the fundamentals and clear or contextual references to them.


Bonsai is defined in all kinds of ways by all kinds of people. One popular and effective definition of bonsai is as a means of self-expression. Your individual working concept of bonsai will drive your bonsai stylings and surely your own particular idiom will embody your artistic attempts. But if you are ignoring the conventions of artistry, your work will come up short in its ability to communicate with those who see it — other than yourself. Self-expression is impotent and largely irrelevant without a common reference for conceptualizing your communication.

A silly example

Imagine meeting a gentleman at a party one evening. You say “hello,” and he responds with an ear-splitting “PEEYOW!” Shocked, you ask if he is okay.“PEEYOW!” is his response. At this point you politely excuse yourself and go find others to talk to. Yikes!

Now, this person is just happy and he uses PEEYOW! as his preferred means of expressing this happiness. However, there is no common reference for just anybody to be able to grasp the meaning. So, his expression is wholly irrelevant to those he meets.

Now, it is a common convention for happiness to be expressed by an exclamation of some kind, but that exclamation is usually formed within the context of a commonly understood convention, like the vocabulary of the relevant language (or the contextual understanding that the guy does not speak English). Further, exclamations of happiness are usually bound within the context of social norms. In other words, communication is largely bound by basic conventions; widely recognized norms that are readily understood by just about everybody.

Bear with me here…

Now, let’s apply self-expression to bonsai: Let’s say all of your bonsai have highly ramified branches. You take pride in your skill in getting a densely ramified structure on all of your trees and you believe that this defines your work. This is how you express your love of bonsai; the beautiful silhouette formed by the fine tracery of shoots.

bad form

You can’t understand, however, why your friends and fellow club members don’t like your work. They don’t seem to understand that this is how you like your trees to look.

Your friends say, “This is not how bonsai are supposed to look,” but you’ve seen that all of the bonsai in the best Japanese shows have this degree of ramification! Why doesn’t anyone recognize that? You love them, but why doesn’t anybody else?

The reason is that you’ve taken a specific, beautiful characteristic of tree form out of context and you’ve not used it in an artistic manner – in a communicative manner. Yes, the ramification is well developed and beautiful. However, the branch structure that supports it is awful (as in the image above). There may be great artistry used in the formation of the fine shoots, but no artistry is used in the formation of the trunk or the branches. Furthermore, you don't use companion elements or formality when displaying your bonsai. This lack of design integrity causes your work to fall flat.

This case is just like the one with the “PEEYOW!” guy. In each case, a basic convention has been used out of context and the result is that few understand or find interest in the attempt to communicate. No one finds interest or beauty in failed communication. At best, interest in these kinds of attempts is because of their peculiarity.

Bonsai succeed or fail on the basis of their artistry. Good bonsai are the ones that speak to us, the ones that are successful in communicating the artist’s message, the ones that are successful in touching something within us. Learn to be more artistic with your bonsai work and you will be learning to make better bonsai, with less chance of making of visual representations of “PEEYOW!”

This is not the end

Well… actually it is the end of this book, but I hope that you will not consider this to be the end of the discussion on the matters addressed here. The best parting advice I can offer you is:

  • Learn the language or artistry - its conventions, grammar, syntax.
  • Study art of all kinds. Seek to discover why certain examples of artistrywork and why others don’t work so well.
  • Observe and study how various artists imbue their work with originality and daring while maintaining communicative value
  • Stop thinking of bonsai design as rules-based and begin thinking of it as communication-based (the conventions of artistry are references for how to communicate, not what to communicate).
  • Don't mistake natural for beautiful or evocative.
  • Approach each design project with a specific aim.
  • Describe and interpret, don't chronicle.
  • Provide a specific point of view rather than a verbatim re-creation.
  • Learn to think in terms of design integrity rather than design conventions.
  • Don't sacrifice effective communication on the altar of self-expression.

Know that this book has been little more than an introduction to these ideas, conventions and concepts. I sincerely hope that you will delve deeper into them in order to gain a more well-rounded understanding.

Thanks for reading my little book. I hope you learned something and had some questions answered. However, I hope especially that you now have many more questions than answers. Those questions are gifts which, through your own research, will give you far more than a mere simple answer ever could.