Unpacking structural bonsai jargon
If you put a tree in a room, walk someone in, you can watch their eye read the tree. It happens in a matter of seconds—there is an objective path that our eyes typically take to digest a bonsai design.
First, we look at the silhouette of the foliar mass—our eye focuses immediately on the green, an indicator of life. We then will look to the base of the trunk to find stability, an anchoring point. Our eyes continue, following the primary line of the trunk up through the branches.
And then we will acknowledge the different components of the apex, and the interplay between the defining branch and counterbalancing branches. We take note of the depth of the design with foreground and background branches. We will notice the indications of age by examining the tree’s features.
This is the highest point of living foliar mass on the tree. When you come to observe a bonsai, you eye will naturally go to the green, living foliage first. And the peak of this visual mass, indicating life and health, dictates our response to the overall shape and feel of the tree.
The apex is not necessarily the highest actual point on the tree; it is common for the trunkline or branches to continue above the apex as this contributes to the feeling of age. A traditional-style apex would be more symmetrical, presenting with a dome-like or triangular shape. A more progressive or avant-garde apex will embrace asymmetry—dramatically offsetting the highest point in the apex to create a definitive direction.
The shape of an apex should work with the trunkline and defining branch, culminating in a unified design. It is that point of finality, the apical shape, size, and length in proportion to the tree are incredibly important in contributing to a believable representation of a natural tree in miniature form.
This is the primary line of the design, created by the trunk, inciting movement and interest through the composition. The trunkline is the most dominant and informative component of the tree, educating all aspects of branch placement and overall direction.
When bonsai artist speak to movement in their design, it really begins with the trunkline. Whether the trunk is more feminine— tall, with slender, gentle turns— or masculine—short and thick, with aggressive angles—the character in the primary trunkline, starting from the base and rising to the apex, is the backbone of the overall bonsai design.
This is the longest branch extending from the foliar mass of the tree. If you take all of the foliage, wrap it up in one bubble, the longest portion of that mass going away from the tree is the defining branch. This branch is important to form asymmetry in the design.
It gives direction and flow, referencing not only the primary trunkline, but also the direction of the apex. These three core elements of a bonsai design provide the viewer a visual map to interpret the tree’s story.
This is typically the widest point of the trunk as it meets the ground; it is all about stability. A wide base holds the visual mass of the tree, anchoring the design. A large part of successful design hinges on a base that can support and facilitate all of the choices that are taken in the creation of the tree.
An amazing base for bonsai would look like a flaring buttress with mature, woody roots gripping the ground, and immediate movement, as opposed to a straight line out of the ground. Aspects that can weaken the stability of a base are inverse taper, negative space, or a lack of flair in the roots gripping the ground.
Character in the base is a fundamental starting point for approaching a tree’s design as it will inform the length of branches and overall height of the composition. Often when styling the first iteration of a bonsai, the practitioner will choose an ideal front of the tree and this is very dependent on finding the angle or plane that provides the best possible base.