My life, it seems, has been a constant immersion in the beauty and wonder of trees. Even as a child I loved, collected, and hugged them. Growing up in many places--New York, Los Angeles, Seattle, Madison, Chicago--I learned about and saw many different kinds and shapes. My mind saw, captured, and tucked away those early images in a special, easily accessible place. In some place, at some time, I saw my first Bonsai tree, and later in my life I remembered that tree and at the same time, because I always loved trees, I understood and knew things about it. For nearly 35 years I have been understanding and learning new things about trees and bonsai.
Lately, some interesting perceptions have emerged and hardened into powerful forces which guide my creative thoughts about tree design and construction. This new philosophy I call Focal Point Bonsai Design. Quite simply, Focal Point Bonsai means shaping the foliage and branches to surround and frame the area of greatest visual value. This area of greatest value (Focal Point) has to be the trunk or trunk root area, for rarely can the crown of a tree command enough respect to outweigh the trunk.
Within this brief philosophy lie a myriad of details which require enumeration and explanation. But perhaps a comparison with the traditional western approach to bonsai design would be helpful.
The western approach (one, two, three, triangle) is really very successful at reducing a very complex art to an efficient, painting-by-the-numbers system. The "how to book" compulsion and good old American can-do marketing have sold the world. The wide disparity between how American trees look following the one, two, three triangle approach and how Japanese trees look doesn't seem to compute. The one, two, three triangle philosophy really cuts the art of bonsai as well as the whole world of natural trees short, for only young trees in nature really are triangular, and that's really a result of their vibrant apical energy. No trees in nature grow with one, two, three branching. To pick out these premises to build trees around is truly limiting from a design standpoint. That every author has reiterated it as the way to go is baffling. Something is confused here!
Look at natural, mature, old or ancient trees (excellent patterns for bonsai), or peruse the myriad books of beautiful trees from Japan and note the dearth of triangle one, two, three trees. Something was obviously lost in the translation. To be sure one, two, three triangle does turn out a tree that we recognize as a bonsai. With the help of the Karate Kid movie, everyone knows what a bonsai should look like. What happened to all those other beautiful shapes and forms?
It is with this triangle in mind that I venture forth to present a humble suggestion about another approach to bonsai creation. As I alluded earlier, I will enumerate in detail the facets of my approach. Any apparent digressions are really attempts to illustrate clearly so that little confusion will remain as to what I mean.
Selecting the focal point isn't as difficult as it may seem. On many trees certain features are exciting and instantly attract the eye. Look for certain contortions of the primary trunk line, a hollowed area full of mystery, a deadwood feature that emanates age and struggle, beautiful bleached wood (mindful of the eternal inclemency of an alpine site) or great gnarled roots which draw the eyes like a magnet. These attributes are worthy of building a tree around. On the other hand many trees lack a great feature that is worthy of focusing on. Here lies one of the great challenges of Sculptural Bonsai Art. Imposing a focal point on a tree which lacks one will require sculpture. Carving is the only way. Many lower trunk areas are weak and spindly, or at least lacking in pizzazz. Heretofore little could be done to help these areas develop. The eternal hope that a few years in the ground to develop would help is protracted. Now help has arrived. Carving and sculpting can inject energy and pizzazz where none existed before. The deliberate creation of deadwood and hollowed trunks is best achieved through the use of power tools. I feel that rotary (going round and round) tools are the best--and the faster the revolutions per minute (R.P.M.'s) the cleaner and smoother the carving. I use three different tools to create Sculptural Focal Points: the small electric chain saw (major wood excavating), the die grinder with a carbide, round-nosed router bit, and the Dremel for delicate finish work. Each of these tools compliments the others. The truth is that practice makes perfect and experience is king.
The most vexing problem for any sculptor is what to create now that the tool is in hand. This involves creation (something new). It is very difficult to reduce the experience to carving-by-the-numbers. Several elements are needed to assist you in the process. If you looked at and have studied natural deadwood, several things should stand out. First, most of it is uncomfortable to the touch. This means that sanding or filing may produce an unnatural finish. Second, the grain of the wood is usually raised and grooves result. Third, surface undulations are not choppy or chunky but are rather swirls and flow from point to point. Fourth, the more skeleton like it becomes, the more aged it appears. Age and character are what great trees are about. Fifth, deadwood should be bleached to accentuate its contrast with the living areas. I recently collected a many-hundreds-years old Rocky Mountain juniper from an area in Montana. It grew in a north-facing cleft in a rock cliff which received little sun, and the deadwood was the color of plaster. It was as if it had been lime sulfured for years. This whiteness contrasting with the thin, reddish lifeline makes it easy to find the Focal Point.
Sculpting the wood is made much easier with the use of power tools. What once appeared hopeless, or at least a life-long task to me, with chisels and gouges now is measured in hours. Endless refining can be done, and the more attention that is paid to detail, the better and more rewarding is the end product. For years, deadwood was considered inappropriate on many types of trees. This philosophical stand in the face of great junipers, pines and buttonwood always seemed nuts to me. If it looked so great on these trees, why would it be deemed inappropriate on others? Well, the concept is changing, thank goodness, for in the real world of trees the relentless ravages of nature and natural aging have left every tree with visible deadwood. In many instances this deadwood has created a masterpiece of a tree that otherwise might have appeared usual and plain. In most American bonsai trees, deadwood elements are the result of shortening or removing branches and shortening trunks. The emphasis has been to hide these scars by hoping for heal-over, hiding with other branches, or the worst, to my thinking, "hiding in the back." The hiding of deadwood is like ignoring Mother Nature and art simultaneously. All of these man-made scars can be worked and expanded to yield a major contribution to the energy and variability of your bonsai. The sculpting, shaping, and refining of these areas is critical. Man made scars--I call them the dreaded bull’s eyes--are very ugly, much like seeing a tire dumped in a mountain stream. It will be there forever, just like those pruning scars. It's wiser and certainly more artistic to hollow out and carve these areas into value-added attributes, rather than treating them as something to hide. The least appreciated area for sculptural refinement is the apex or top of a reduced tree. Most of the tops have been treated by peeling the wood down with pliers or jinning tools. This makes the top look like it was stuck in a pencil sharpener. The top of a tree receives at least as much attention as its base, and it deserves careful sculptural refinement. There is no room here for quickie "that's good enough" or "we'll hide it with a new, live apex" approaches.
The heavy emphasis on the sculptural aspects of Focal Point Bonsai design is because of its profound impact on the human eye. No element of a tree has more visual pull than does well carved, bleached deadwood. You may or may not like it, but the eye goes there and works on it; it does produce a focal point! To complement, support and frame this focal point is the final element in the creation. Branch placement and shape are the key.
Here I must develop and articulate the four principles of Bonsai design and creation which permeate my productions. I call them principles rather than rules just as I prefer the term teacher to master; there is something sinister about "Rules and Masters." My principles of Bonsai are as follows:
1. All trees deserve to have deadwood, and it's best when sculpted and refined to be a value-added element to the tree.
2. All man-made pruning scars are inappropriate and ugly; no dreaded bulls eyes, please.
3. All trees deserve crooked, gnarly, undulating branches.
4. Wire training is essential to bonsai control and design. Try not to encumber a tree with needless wire, use guys and pulls when possible in lieu of heavy wire.
I have followed these principles for many years. As guidelines for bonsai creation I find them useful and stimulating. By employing these guides, my creations have a natural, almost an unman-made quality. To emulate nature and succeed is a thrill. To have trees that have been endlessly altered and sculpted and look so natural is a profound reward.
The principle that all trees deserve crooked, gnarly, undulating branches is the frame on the painting! All old or ancient trees have crooked branches. The ravages of time and age have made them so. The rhythm and lyric of the dancing branches has enticed poets, authors, and moviemakers forever, it seems. The deliberate imposition of this crooked branch conformation on your bonsai creation is instant and startling. No feature other than beautiful deadwood is as powerful and seductive. All trees, even formal upright styles, look graceful and dramatic under the aegis of undulating branches. Even one, two, three triangle trees appear better. I must say to the other side that straight branches appear incongruous, especially on trees with crooked trunks. Whatever made the trunk crooked must certainly have exerted influence on the branches. Harmony must pervade the creation. Struggle is endemic in the real world; let your branches creak and groan, swirl and dance, and harmony will raise its battered crown.
How the undulating branch is used to frame the focal point involves several considerations. First, the physical limitations of bending branches must be addressed. Large branches can be altered, but small branches are easier. Small branches tend to enhance and exaggerate the trunk's size and this is valuable. Remember that we have carved and rendered the trunk to create a focal point. Branches must not weaken or subtract power from the trunk.
Most American bonsai seem to be out of proportion--too much crown for the trunk size. Someday the trunk will catch up. It may take 50 or 100 years or more. Crowns receive all the attention. Pinch, pinch, pinch--that's the rule, and it works. Unfortunately, it works to the disadvantage of trunk size increase. So many trees have been groomed so assiduously that only a multiplicity of buds and shoots has occurred. Makes a great crown, but little accretion of new wood to the trunk has occurred. Once that tree came out of the ground or training pot and went into a bonsai pot and "Show Training" began, trunk expansion slowed down. Too much or too thick a crown overpowers the trunk in many instances. The huge cloud of vibrant green foliage which sits atop many great California junipers with their great swirling deadwood trunks seems so out of tune with reality. Whatever forces created those gnarled bases suddenly stopped and life became much better and gentler. To re-establish the dynamic forces that accentuate and highlight great trees, greater attention to branch design is in order. Each branch can be treated as if it is a small tree on its own. It can have curves and undulations, and the secondary branches can be trained into small, individual foliar plains. By reducing each branch from a large flat foliar horizontal plane to many individual planes at slightly different levels, the foliage mass is visually reduced. The intricacy of such a branch is complicated as opposed to the simplicity of the flat, full, single plane. When elegance replaces that full, simple, single plane, proper crown and trunk proportion are restored. Perhaps the best way to describe a well trained, detailed branch is that if severed it would make a dandy small tree, whether cascade or informal upright.
Diminishing the amount of foliage on a tree always exaggerates what is left. The trunk and branch lines become obvious and accentuated. Much like a great oak or maple in winter, this foliar reduction is revealing of the tree's foundation. In Focal Point Bonsai Design the high emphasis is on this exposure. As the sculpted trunk's value has appreciated, the gnarled branches close about it in an embrace. Small foliar planes, subordinated to the trunk's dynamism and the gnarled branches' embrace, lend vitality and life in a somewhat understated manner.
Focal Point Bonsai Design is fun and free, as an artful creation should be. Let your creative impulses flow as you study your trees using this new aspect.
The National Arboretum acquired this Western Yellow Pine (Pinus ponderosa), from DAn Robinson in 1980. It was the first tree collected in America to be added to the National Bonsai & Penjing Museum.
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