What is good bonsai design?

This book is an effort to help bonsai enthusiasts understand how to use time-honored methods—artistic methods—for producing more successful and meaningful bonsai designs and displays. The text will examine in some detail the language of art as applied to bonsai. This examination of what some perhaps mistakenly call the rules of bonsai is meant to explain and expound upon the commonly cited fundamentals of bonsai styling that are referenced in other texts.

This book provides some relevant, important insights into human psychology and perception, but only to a point. The reader should understand, though, that and understanding of psychology and behavioral science is necessary for effective artistry.

As all of the chapters in this web book work together toward conveying a well-rounded picture of artistic principles for bonsai design, I suggest that you read it from start to finish. However, you may find it useful to bounce around the different sections. Each chapter has information and explanations that may help you to improve your design efforts, but each is only one piece of the puzzle.

Foreword by Nick Lenz

In the innumerable workshops I teach, I use two words to describe bonsai material I am stuck with. The first is ugly. This describes a piece of material that is beyond hope. Usually it is a stick with bad swirl-around roots, an inverse taper and at least one goiterous bulge of multiple branches. In this case, I usually pronounce the word with sympathy, despite the expectation from the student that I can turn it into a superior bonsai by black or white magic.

The second word is ugly. This is delivered with great excitement and usually describes a collected plant of incredible convolution, interest and suitability to bonsai culture, which I duly point out with enthusiasm.

Ugly and ugly, describing opposite poles.

In a one to one situation, with a real tree, the aesthetics of a piece of material can be demonstrated in hopes that the student will either begin a rewarding developmental process or feed the damn thing to his pet moose. I would never dare write about bonsai aesthetics…

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Preface by the author

Why do you consider certain works of art to be beautiful or evocative and others to be dull and uninspiring? Why is it that one piece of music can be soothing and pleasant to hear and another may seem chaotic and unsettling to listen to? Why is it that when you look at some paintings, you are drawn to one particular part of it or you immediately grasp the artist’s message? How can a piece of music evoke happiness or sadness? Why does anyone find beauty or meaning in any work of art? What gives art this power over the human psyche?

The answers lie largely in what sorts of elements the artists uses in his/her work and how the artist composes these various elements that constitute a work of art. This composition determines how the elements relate to each other and how the work communicates with the viewer. Arts, like painting, bonsai and music, follow certain useful conventions…

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I hope that you find this site useful and enjoy this little project of mine. Please feel free to contact me if you have a comment or question. Thanks for reading. — Andy Rutledge, November, 2003