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Welcome to this edition of the Bonsai At Pasiminan Newsletter. This newsletter will give you valuable information related to growing, styling, and taking care of your bonsai projects. We are constantly introducing new tools, techniques, and additional methods for getting the most out of your bonsai world.

Feature Story - Trunk Lean

There are a number of bonsai rules which have been handed down to us to help us create the look of the real tree. Some of them remind us what the look of the real tree is. There are also rules which show us how to see a real tree in the bonsai even more than if we exactly duplicated the look of that tree. For example, we often create thicker and more tapered trunks than you would likely see in every tree. Then there is the old Japanese rule that a bonsai should be bowing, welcoming us in. In other words it must be leaning towards us.

Itís a lovely sounding rule, and a nice way of helping us to remember to bend the trunk forward, but what is behind the rule? How important is it really? Any other reasons to do it arenít necessarily obvious, so itís worth exploring. Of course, when the bonsai bows a little forward, it does look more inviting, so the rule works to increase the pleasant experience of seeing the tree. But there is another very important reason. If the tree were perfectly straight up, we would see it as leaning away from us. We should be shown the tree in a way that most of the tree is above our eye level; we should be seeing it from, perhaps 1/3 of the way up the trunk, Thus, in a bonsai, seeing it from perhaps 3 to 6 feet distance, the top of the trunk would in fact be farther away from the eye than the point on the trunk that is at eye level.

To create the effect of a large tree being seen from a greater distance, we want to see all parts of the trunk as equidistant from the eye. Therefore we have to bend the trunk forward to create that appearance. Of course, a difficulty arises if we are styling a formal upright tree. We canít guarantee the viewing angle will be from the very front at all times, and with each differing angle the ?formal upright tree style would not remain apparently straight if the tree leaned toward the viewer. Therefore the formal upright is an exception and we have to accept an apparent slight visual lean away from us so it will remain straight up, more or less, from all directions. Any other form of tree can be bent, or planted at an angle, leaning slightly forward, and should be.

This will create the effect of equidistance if done correctly, no matter what other shape of tree it may be. Preferably there will be a slight curve to the lean to further effect the look of equidistance from the eye along all parts of the trunk. but it isnít easy. Sometimes it may be impossible if the material is very old and thick trunked when we start its training, but then no bonsai is ever perfect. However, if done correctly, there will be a point at which the tree will bend forward to maintain the look of equidistance of every part of the trunk. Below that point, the trunk should even be more or less straight or could actually lean away a little. Above that point, it must (perfectly) lean forward in a curve along its whole length.

Bend forward to make the trunk look straight. A correct angle for every size and distance

Now let’s look at a fascinating corollary. As you can see from the accompanying diagram, there is an exact distance for viewing the tree at which the eye will be perfectly aligned with the curve of the tree and all parts of the tree trunk will in fact appear to be exactly equidistant from the eye. Further away or nearer, that relationship won’t exist. Thus somehow we must arrange for the viewer to be at exactly the correct distance for this relationship to work. Fortunately it isn’t hard; in fact it’s almost impossible to avoid. By a fortunate tendency of a viewer to want to see the real tree; to ―suspend disbelief‖ as it were, we find that the viewer will have a tendency to come to the correct distance from the tree for it to happen, almost automatically. Amazingly, the viewer will do the work for us. I have seen this many times at many bonsai shows: where with any tree, small or large, which has a forward curving lean to the trunk, the viewer will move to approximately the correct distance to see all of the tree trunk as equidistant from the eye, This also creates the largest apparent height of the tree as well. After discovering this point, we now can play with the viewers’ perceptions more powerfully, to make them see what we wish them to see more precisely. Here’s how.

Suppose you have a large tree whose outline or massive trunk or full branches shows up very well from a distance, but whose small detail is either lacking or not very engaging. Knowing what we’ve just found, we can move the viewer farther from the tree to see only the outline and greater aspects of the tree’s parts, but not its small detail. With a bonsai with fine and interesting details, but lacking some aspect of overall appearance, we can cause the viewer to come up closer to the bonsai. This is so, no matter what the height of the tree is. Of course, with a very small tree it will be difficult to cause that more distant view if we don’t want to focus on detail, and probably not very desirable since small details of a smaller tree will in all likelihood be more interesting.


Hornbeam with curved trunk, from the side Front is obviously
on the right


Thus the small bonsai will usually best be styled with more forward lean to bring the viewer much closer in. Whatever the lean, the effort will be to make the viewers think they are seeing the big tree from a much larger distance. In other words, we are fooling the viewersí eyes to make them see something which isnít there: the real tree, rather than a miniature. In that sense, bonsai is the art of learning how to visually cheat, as it were. Knowing this we have a tremendous control over the viewers, to make them see what we want them to see... and thatís just the beginning. There are so many ways for the artist to control what the viewers see, how they see it, and the order in which they see it. In fact, the primary role of the artist these days is no longer merely to faithfully recreate a pleasing scene, but to use that basic raw visual material as a basis for an aesthetically pleasing effect, whether much like the original scene or not. So many ways, in fact, that we canít possibly cover all of them in one article. We will just have to limit this discussion to the trunk and do the branches next time.

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