|A blue atlas cedar on display at the national museum|
A key design practice in bonsai is a set of commonly understood, named styles that describe canonical tree and setting designs. These well-known styles provide a convenient shorthand means for communicating about existing bonsai and for designing new ones. Bonsai styles describe a number of basic attributes of a bonsai, such as the angle and straightness of its trunk, its branch configuration, and the number of trees in the bonsai container.
|Traditional Japanese Ceramic Bonsai Pots|
As with all aesthetic rules or guidelines, the various accepted styles will guide a bonsai designer, but are not completely deterministic. The species of the bonsai, the age of the tree when it began bonsai training, the tree's pre-existing shape and structure, even the bonsai artist's training and preferences, strongly affect the shape of the resulting bonsai. These competing influences ensure that the style system acts mostly as a creative aid, not a dominating constraint, in producing a finished bonsai.
The main aim of bonsai aesthetic practices is to create miniature trees with an air of age in their overall shapes, proportions, and details. The quintessential bonsai is a single, dwarfed tree in a small container. It has the appearance of a mature tree, but not of a completely natural one. Instead, a designer or artist has manipulated the shape and surfaces of the tree to enhance or exaggerate the tree's apparent age, and also to give it a defined "front" from which it is meant to be viewed. Anyone questioning the effect of the bonsai designer's work can test the quality of the design by viewing it from the rear, where exactly the same trunk and branches will generally look awkward, cluttered, or otherwise unattractive.
No trace of the artist
At the same time, the designer's touch must not be apparent to the viewer. If a branch is removed in shaping the tree, the scar will be placed at the "back" of the tree where it cannot be seen. Alternatively, the tree will not be shown until the scar has been covered by years of bark growing over it, or a stub of the branch will remain to be cleaned and shaped into looking like it was broken by wind or lightning. Similarly, wiring should be removed or at least concealed when the bonsai is shown, and must leave no permanent marks on the branch or bark.
Other guidelines address the balance of visual weight among the trunk, roots, foliage, and branches. The extensive catalog of recognized tree styles form part of this set of guidelines. The term "balance" here may refer to either:
- static visual balance, where careful application of symmetry leads to a stable and restful shape (like the formal upright, or Chokkan, style), or
- dynamic visual balance, which may arise from an asymmetric shape or one that implies instability and movement (like the cascade, or Kengai, style).
|Traditional Bonsai Shear and Brush Set|
Proportion among elements
Flexibility of the rules
One or more of the accepted rules of bonsai form can be bent or broken for a particular tree without destroying its fundamental aesthetic and artistic impact. In fact, going beyond the prescribed rules allows aesthetic growth in the bonsai art, as seen in many of the masterpieces created by Masahiko Kimura and Kunio Kobayashi. The following characteristics are desirable in many Japanese bonsai and other styles of container-grown trees, whatever the style: Gravitas
This is the trait which all of the remaining points of aesthetics seek to create. It is a sense of physical weight, the illusion of mass, the appearance of maturity or advanced age, and the elusive quality of dignity. Many of the formal rules of bonsai help the grower create a tree that expresses wabi or sabi, or portrays an aspect of mono no aware.
By definition, a bonsai is a tree which is kept small enough to be container-grown while otherwise fostered to have a mature appearance. Bonsai can be classified according to size. Mame are ideally less than 10 cm (4 inches) tall and can be held in the palm of the hand. Shohin are about 25 cm (10 inches) tall, while other bonsai are larger and can not be easily moved. For both practical and aesthetic reasons, the guidelines outlined here are generally most effective and most often applied to larger bonsai, while the smallest specimens of bonsai may adhere to no rules other than "miniature tree" and "grown in a container".
|Cutting Back by Leslie Buck|
This refers to enhancing the “woody-ness” of a bonsai’s trunk and branches so that they have a
mature appearance. This typically means the bark surface is encouraged to become rough and dark-colored. In some cases this aesthetic technique will vary, as in a birch tree bonsai attaining the white colour and exfoliating bark of a mature specimen.
Bonsai aesthetics discourage strict symmetry in branch and root placement. Radial symmetry is nearly always broken by the requirement for a clear "front", which exposes the tree's trunk and major branches. The left, right, and back sides will have more branches than the front. Left-right (bilateral) symmetry across the trunk is also discouraged, and designers work to alternate branches among the left, right, and back parts of the tree without ever placing two branches at the same height or extending two branches the same distance away from the trunk.
Leaf reduction is related to the general miniaturization described above but is something which varies over the life cycle of a particular bonsai. For example, a bonsai’s leaves might be allowed to attain full size for many years in order to encourage vigor and growth of trunk, roots, and branches. It is usually desirable to attain a degree of leaf reduction prior to exhibiting a bonsai. Leaf reduction may be encouraged by pruning and is sometimes achieved by the total defoliation of a bonsai during one part of its growing season. Conifer needles are more difficult to reduce than other sorts of foliage.
Ramification is the splitting of branches and twigs into smaller ones. It is encouraged by pruning and may be integrated with practices that promote leaf reduction.
|Lime sulfur to bleach deadwood|
Bonsai artists sometimes create or emphasize the appearance of dead wood on a bonsai tree, reflecting the occasional presence of dead branches or snags on full-sized trees. Two specific styles of deadwood are jin and shari. The presence of deadwood is not as common as most of the other points mentioned here, but can be used very effectively on selected tree species and bonsai styles. See deadwood techniques for more details. Jin Seal is basically lime sulfur that provides an excellent solution to bleach deadwood on Bonsai.
Trunk and branch curvature or contortion is an optional goal. Bonsai can achieve a sense of age while remaining straight and upright, but many bonsai rely upon curvature of the trunk to build the illusion of weight and age. Curvature of the trunk that occurs between the roots and the lowest branch is known as tachiagari. Branches are also curved and re curved to help them fit the designer's requirement for "positive space", and to separate small branches so that they do not cross or collide.