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 Post subject: Bonsai – The True Art of Deception
PostPosted: Thu Jun 05, 2008 2:35 pm 

Joined: Sat Jan 29, 2005 2:11 am
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Location: Michigan USA
Bonsai – The True Art of Deception
by Russell Marchant

Deception, according to Wikipedia, "is the act of convincing another to believe information that is not true, or not the whole truth as in certain types of half-truths."

"Bonsai, noun, 1. the art of dwarfing and shaping trees and shrubs in shallow pots by pruning, controlled fertilization, etc, 2. such a tree or shrub." - Your

So, are there any significant parallels here? Please respond to the preceding question with your most enthusiastic declaration of the obvious; Yes!

Trees are plants that grow out of the ground. Typically they are large; some are even labeled as massive. Bonsai on the other hand are small and live in pots. One has managed to live and survive on its own as an individual specimen for decades or centuries, and as a species for millenniums, while the other is dependent on a man or woman for its day-to-day survival. The differences, the deception, could not be greater.

In this case, however, acknowledging that deception is part of bonsai design does not require its practitioners to take a trip "to the dark side". There is no propaganda (a key concept of deception) in bonsai only the creative use of distraction, camouflage, and concealment; the tools of the magician.


The purpose of distraction is to divert the viewer's attention away from something. In the case of bonsai that "something" is most likely going to be a negative element or feature that detracts from the overall design. In essence (just like a magician's attractive assistant, flowing hand movements, or brightly colored satin shrouds) we are going to distract the viewer by providing them something else to look at.

There is probably no better example of the use of distraction in bonsai than in the creation of forests or Penjing. The saying, "unable to see the trees for the forest" in this case provides our direction. Trees loose their individual identity in the forest (just like humans "get lost in the crowd.") An individual looking at a forest (bonsai or real) sees a unified image, a complete composition. He or she is incapable of viewing any of the trees individually because they have been distracted by a more powerful and compelling image. A collection of trees that, when positioned in mass, relinquish individual identity in order to support a strong, unified composition.

The use of jin and shari present a powerful design element. If carefully employed they can both be used to not only make an impact on a tree's overall design, but also to distract the viewer's eye away from substandard areas like poor taper or weak trunk movement. It should be noted, however, that jin and shari can be very strong and sometimes overpowering additions to a bonsai's overall design. As such, an element of caution or restraint should be used if the sole purpose of these design elements is to provide a distraction. If too much emphasis is given to jin or shari the result is often not the intended mild distraction, but a much stronger detraction in which case the entire design composition fails and a total rework is required.


Camouflage is a more discreet form of deception. Unlike distraction's gentle nudge which diverts the viewer's eyes elsewhere, camouflage rearranges or breaks up the visual boundaries of an object to make it unrecognizable.

The most interesting thing about deception through camouflage is that it functions in plain sight. The common problem of a well placed, but disproportionately long side branch is not remedied by removing it, but by adding several "S" curves to it. The "trunk to tip" measurement is reduced while the overall length remains the same. A similar technique can also be used to camouflage a nice "keeper" branch growing from an inside (concave) curve of the trunk. If the branch will withstand a fairly hard bend, you only need to bend it back behind the trunk forcing it to change direction. Both of these examples couldn't be more purposeful in their intent and obvious in their appearance, however, they appear so natural they often go unnoticed.

Camouflage can also play a role in the decision-making process when selecting an appropriate style. Obviously there is no data to substantiate this, but I would be very curious to know the answer. How many bonsai artists look at rough material in which they see great potential, with the exception of poor branching on one side, and not decide to conceal the lack of branching by creating a Fukinagashi (windswept) bonsai?


Concealment is the ultimate deception. There is no trickery or misdirection in concealment. It takes the direct approach by hiding or cloaking those elements that are not intended to be seen. A large stone placed in front of a bonsai trunk may be there to provide a sense of depth and perspective to the composition. A more probable scenario, however, is that the stone is doing an excellent job of concealing the fact that no legible nebari exists or that the trunk exhibits reverse-taper.

The best example, and the most obvious use of concealment in bonsai design, is in the creation of a Tanuki bonsai, or a phoenix graft. In this style, two different types of plant material – a living juniper "whip" and a large piece of deadwood – are joined together to create a single unified image. The fact that a living tree is basically embedded in the heartwood of another tree (possibly not even the same species) is truly an act of concealment in the literal sense of the word.


Deception is an attempt to convince another person into believing something that is not true. While normally thought of as a wholly negative experience, deception is also capable of being a very positive and useful design tool in bonsai. By using its various forms (distraction, camouflage, and concealment) carefully and discreetly a bonsai artist is given more opportunity to accentuate the positive aspects of a particular tree while simultaneously negating its more weak or poor characteristics.

Bob King scored: 8
"A good account at the identification and possibile solutions to inherent design flaws. A selection of photographs/illlustrations would have helped in support of the three tools of the magician."

Pat Luck Morris scored: 5
"Questionable premise."

Walter Pall scored: 6
"Images could have helped. Where is the point?"

Average score of all judges: 5.66

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