Pot Selection: Integrating Artistic Design Principles to Achieve a Balanced Bonsai
by Rob Addonizio
As an artist, bonsai potter, and someone who has destroyed his share of pots and trees in the last 16 years, I have a unique perspective of the art of bonsai. Within these pages I discuss my own personal quest: To inspire others to create the quintessential artistic representation of tree and tray. Or at least, learn something interesting about art along the way!
An effective container is to bonsai as an effective frame is to a painting. The best choice should complete the composition and balance all of its elements. Naturally, the horticultural needs of a tree always come first. That being said, if selected wisely and objectively, the pot can be used to help manipulate the elements and better communicate the artist’s personal vision. The design elements that I have chosen to explore in this article include proportion, contrast, negative space, line and color. Using photographs from Walter Pall, a world-renowned bonsai artist, I will attempt to shed light on these few basic principles.
When selecting a container for aesthetic purposes, the proportion of a tree to its container will make a big impact on visual balance. If the pot appears too big, the tree may seem weak. Conversely, the same is true. A container that appears to be small gives the main subject too much visual importance, thus rendering it out of balance. Here are two photographs of the same tree:
Both containers are a traditional style for a maple tree. They are both relatively shallow and serve to help the trunk and nebari gain visual attention. Now observe the difference between the two containers in terms of balance. The tree in Figure 1 has foliage that overpowers the design. The shallow container becomes ineffective and the trunk becomes lost under the top-heavy crown of the tree. Akin to wearing an undersized pair of spandex shorts, the small pot is too small in proportion of the rest of the design. (Okay, a bit much, but you get the point!) The same tree in Figure 2 appears better proportioned with a better pot and a small change in the foliage. The top lip of the pot provides an oval frame around the soil line, giving emphasis to the trunk and its base. Similarly the outside curve of the pot helps to validate a sense of great strength that is visually apparent in the trunk and base. Both tree and container are effectively combined to give the viewer a sense of balance. Thus proportion should always be considered when designing a balanced bonsai.
Another concept to consider when selecting a pot is the principle of contrast. In two-dimensional art, when an artist wants to emphasize a particular part of a design, he can make that element appear different by using the elements that surround it: Light vs. dark, static vs. dynamic, small shapes vs. large shapes. When choosing a container for bonsai, the stylist can push and pull different design aspects as well, such as smooth or textured trunks, cool or warm colors, masculine or feminine features. If carefully selected, the pot can effectively highlight a feature to better balance the composition. Figure 3 has a prime example of the effective use of contrast.
The pot serves to offset a masculine feature of the trunk. This composition is mainly feminine with a masculine feature in the fissured bark. Highly regarded in bonsai, fissured bark can evoke a sense of age and character, two features typically seen in more masculine designs. Not letting this beautiful feature dominate, the artist achieves balance with the use of a classically shaped feminine pot. The purse-shaped container, with its feminine quality, has curved lines and a top lip that frames the soil line and tree base. It is this quality that is used to contrast the textured trunk. The pot also has a side profile that unifies with the shape of the trunk. These points effectively contrast the visual weight of the textured trunk, making it more balanced in the composition.
Negative space is the space that exists between objects. Like the empty space between the handle of a mug or the shape that is revealed when viewing the profile of a vase, negative space is just as important as the object that it reveals. When used strategically in bonsai, it can enhance the relationship between tree and container.
The pine shown in Figure 4 is cradled in a primitive, hand-formed crescent. Notice the jagged edges that are visible in both the left and right sides of the photo. This is well placed to mirror the lower outline of needles in the crown. In the well-suited container and the foliage above it, the negative space unifies relationship between both. The dark background serves to illuminate the negative space around these elements.
In mathematical terms, a line is straight, one dimensional, and contains an infinite number of points. In artistic terminology, the element known as line can be represented in various ways, including curved, wide, broken, straight, or freehand. (Don’t try explaining this definition to a math teacher, namely my wife!) In addition, lines can merely be implied by a series of points that the eye will connect naturally. In bonsai, line can be used in a container to relate the pot to the tree.
In Figure 5, both the tree and the container have lines. This beautiful twin trunk sits in a dish container, which has the remnants of a rim - a broken line. Such a line gives visual interest, at least more than one that just moves straight. The viewer notices the rhythm of the broken line and is drawn to it. The line in the intentionally broken edge of the container gives visual impact and even complements the strong trunk lines. This serves to balance the very strong lines of the two trunks. It is this integration of line in both pot and tree that moves the viewer’s eye. The journey begins at the apex going down the trunks, to the front of the container, follows the jagged edge, and then back up the trunks and out of the composition. Next time a line appears dominant in a design, try heightening its impact with an integrated container.
A final, and perhaps the most important aspect to consider within a composition, is that of color. A powerful force in the visual arts, color can be used for many purposes. Color can communicate mood, harmony and balance. The use of color is entrenched in art; without a trained eye it can be very overwhelming to use at first. The basic rule of thumb in pot selection is to use color to highlight a particular feature, such as the crimson highlights in a satsuki, or the pale green undertones in the bark of a buttonwood. Now I am going to use my background of color theory to show how color can correct a sense of imbalance in a design. Unfortunately, this article is printed in black and white. It will be challenging to explain color principles without being able to use colored examples, but I am up to the task. You, my consummate reader, must use your awesome powers of imagination to envision the glorious representation of color provided in Figure 6. Here we go!
The tree sits in a light sienna and cream-colored pot, which complements the color of the foliage. The glazed container completes a magnificent example of an asymmetrical composition. At first glance, this conifer appears to be leaning over. The foliage is predominantly located on the right side of the tree, the same side that the trunk is curving towards. On the lower half of the pot is a thin triangle revealing unglazed ceramic brown-grey clay.
A second, more thorough assessment of the entire composition illuminates Pall’s vision of a tree perfectly balanced yet poised with a bit of tension. The curving trunk and hanging foliage are held up by the strategic use of color on the pot. The wedge created by the unglazed portion gives visual weight, assisting to pick up the tree from its downward trend. In this case the lack of color props up the tree and balances it, while the trunk and foliage bring it back down. What a stunner!
To wrap things up, I would like to conclude with the following: If carefully created, bonsai can become art. Choose a container that balances your composition. Find a detail to embellish, a line to incorporate, or a color aspect to bring forward. Use the five design principles explored to shape your own vision. Create your own masterpiece.
All trees and photographs copyright Walter Pall
Fig. 1 Tokoname (Japan)
Fig. 2 Petra Tomlinson (UK)
Fig. 3 Korean
Fig. 4 William Vlaanderen (Netherlands)
Fig. 5 Isabelia (Slovakia)
Fig. 6 Gordon Duffet (UK)
Rob Addonizio lives in Lake Helen, Florida, with his wife and two sons and is the owner of Taiko Earth Pottery. He makes traditional and custom hand built containers for bonsai. He is an active member of both the KAWA club and Central Florida Bonsai.