Bonsai is an art that stimulates the visual sense while reaching a deeper emotional level within the viewer. A good bonsai puts us in touch with nature; it makes us think about our relationship with other living entities and consider the forces that shape our environment.
Understanding these forces and their effects is vital because the goal of every bonsai artist is to replicate nature…to create a statement about life and survival with material that is, in itself, very much alive. Often this material is very young, which makes the challenge of creating a sense of great age complex. To accomplish this we often have to resort to tricks. For this reason bonsai is often called an “art of illusion.”
Many of these tricks, or “special effects” that we use to enhance the illusion are part of our basic bonsai education. We tilt the apex of a tree forward to give the viewer a feeling that it towers over them, even though it may only be a few inches tall. We use proportion to our advantage, emphasizing large trunks to give our scaled-down trees the power, mass, and majesty of their larger counterparts. In placing a tree in a pot, we carefully set the tree off center and towards the back to create a sense of foreground that invited the viewers eye into the composition. And we arrange branches carefully to open the views of the trunk, create more depth to the rear, and to give each branch the movement and weight that comes with centuries of growth.
All of this is carefully planned and orchestrated—but must look as if it is totally spontaneous.
As bonsai enters the realm of art, it requires the artist to assume the responsibility to go beyond mere replication and strive to create an ideal. The goal is to improve upon what nature has offered while sustaining its realism.
A guiding principle for creating these “special effects” in bonsai can be taken from another form of visual art: film. It is a concept behind the success of every good movie. It’s what interests us and keeps our minds engaged through plot development, climax and denouement. It is called “suspension of the viewer’s disbelief.”
The same principle applies to the creation of bonsai. When we put a bonsai on display for the public we require viewers to suspend their disbelief that they’re looking at a small tree in a pot. The bonsai on its display stand should draw the viewer in to become part of the scene. We want a viewer to feel like he or she is waling through a forest or viewing a twisted, ancient juniper clinging to life on a mountaintop. Like the filmmaker, we must take care to ensure that we do everything to enhance the effect and avoid anything that will detract from it. Since everything must look completely natural in a bonsai this means that we want to avoid anything that leaves evidence of our work. Since we take natural material and apply unnatural techniques to create these effects of great age or climatic stress, we face an artistic challenge in every tree we design.