Choosing Your Ceramics
Choosing Your Ceramics
The most important aspects to consider
Function vs. Aesthetics
Typically the job of the container is to maximize the visual appeal of the tree. The smaller the container, the bigger the tree looks, and vis-versa. And yet, the small the container, the more water it is going to require on a daily basis.
"You need to find a unique balance between aesthetic value, the trees needs, and your ability to meet those needs in your daily life."
In choosing a ceramic, you need to find a unique balance between aesthetic value, the trees needs, and your ability to meet those needs in your daily life. If you work 9-5 and aren’t able to water your garden 2x per day mid-summer, you may need to sacrifice some aesthetic in order to keep the tree healthy.
Glazed vs. Unglazed
Always a big question—glazed or unglazed? Some people prefer the earthy look of an unglazed ceramic, while others are drawn to the vibrancy of glaze. In the bonsai world, there is a tradition of conifers go in unglazed, deciduous in glazed.
Here’s why: conifers are a quieter species of tree; their value is typically derived from the impression of age. Nonglazed containers—lacking shine or bright color—generally have an older appearance and better compliment conifers.
"Conifers are a quieter species of tree; their value is typically derived from the impression of age... For deciduous trees, there is always a notion of seasonality."
Also, on a horticultural level, conifers depend on a greater availability of water/oxygen exchange for microbiotic activity. Nonglazed containers better allow these exchanges to take place. For deciduous trees, there is always a notion of seasonality. The vibrancy of a glazed pot better compliments this notion of change and growth. Deciduous trees also don’t depend on mycorrhiza to survive and can tolerate the lack of air/water exchange allowed in a glazed container.
Complimentary vs. Analogous
The color of your container drives the visual energy of your composition—whether you want it to be striking or zen comes down to complimentary and analogous colors. First let’s break down the terms complimentary and analogous.
On a color wheel, complimentary colors sit opposite each other and are more contrasting in feel, where as analogous are adjacent or next to one another, being more similar. Using a pot whose color is complimentary to the primary colors of the tree makes the tree pop.
"A pine with grey bark in a grayish container would be very analogous and generate a calming feel for the viewer."
For example, the green and white dominant colors of a juniper work best in a red colored clay container. These complimentary colors vibe well together, generating energy and dynamically drawing the eye. Using a pot whose color is analogous to the tree creates a quieter composition—the tree and container meld into a unified, peaceful composition. For example, a pine with grey bark in a grayish container would be very analogous and generate a calming feel for the viewer.
Masculine vs. Feminine
Masculine trees have thick, angular movement, whereas feminine trees are slender and curvaceous. The most basic division of container shape is rectangular vs. oval. Rectangular pots have an increased visual mass—the corners extend your eye. The angles in these pots accentuate masculine features.
"Rectangular pots have an increased visual mass—the corners extend your eye....An oval pot makes the tree feel buoyant."
Trees in rectangular pots aren’t shy about occupying space. The angles in these compositions come out at you, demanding to be acknowledged. On the other hand, ovular shapes typically enhance feminine forms. They are softer, more subdued. An oval pot makes the tree feel buoyant because your eyes aren’t tied down in angles.
Stability vs. Elegance
In bonsai design, it is important to toe the line between stability and elegance. From an engineering perspective, stability in a pot comes from the angle at which the walls of the pot rise from the base. If the walls are straight up—at a 90 degree angle—the pot is incredibly stable. As soon as the walls begin to flair out, you begin losing stability, but you gain elegance in your design.
"From an engineering perspective, stability in a pot comes from the angle at which the walls of the pot rise from the base."
Every container needs to convey visual (as well as physical) stability, but an overly stable container for an elegant tree will overwhelm the design. The sturdiness of the pot will weigh down and dominate the composition. With every bonsai, you must carefully weigh the cost/benefit of stability and elegance to achieve balance in your design.
Convention vs. Innovation
The aforementioned considerations are general bonsai conventions providing a baseline to always come back to. Understanding these guiderails and executing with good reason will always result in an aeshtetically attrative, functional composition. If you are ever lost or overwhelmed with pairing a tree with a container, come back to these tenants, identify the characteristics of the tree, and apply the formula - it will always work.
Once you understand these conventions and you are looking to play or explore, you should continue to use good design reasoning to break the mold. Each individual has to find their justifcation for innovation with design. How can we push the bonsai container to reflect the wildness of the environment or make a statement about culture? Knowing the fundamentals of ceramic-pairing will allow you to tune-in to the more subtle visual messages guiding a bonsai composition.