How Many Dimensions Does a Bonsai Have?

How Many Dimensions Does a Bonsai Have?

In the December 2020 Zoom-hosted meeting with BSSF and Andrew Robson, there's one message from Andrew’s presentation that has stuck in my brain.  Andrew covered a lot of great points but this one thing had me thinking again and again. More on that later.

Rewind to March of 2020 when I was cleaning up one of my favorite juniper bonsai – a tree that I have had for many years, first grafted with Kishu foliage on an urban yamadori trunk, then grown out and repeatedly re-styled. Over the years I have Boon to thank for the initial work, and Matt Reel to thank for a thoughtful re-design. The latest refinement involved a reduction in foliage and further separation of pads in the crown area. I posted the result to Instagram and was surprised to find that the image of the tree garnered more attention than any of my prior posts.

In May, my wife Dory bought a print for my birthday from Kelli MacConnell, a talented Oregon-based printmaker who I had been following on IG for a while – loving her work with tree shapes and natural landscape prints. Dory then had the idea to ask Kelli if she would be interested in making a print from one of my bonsai. After some discussion we arrived at using this recently re-styled tree that was so popular on IG.

Printmaking is a two-dimensional representation that requires a lot of simplification because in Kelli’s work, there is either the color of the paper, or the color of the ink, but nothing in between.

Based on my photograph from March, Kelli started with a pencil drawing on the surface that she would later carve to make the block for the prints. I was intrigued that the drawing had to be a mirror image of the final desired image. After a few modifications to the drawing to balance the size of the container and foliage Kelli sent us a couple progress photos of the start of the carving.

At this stage it was really exciting to see the progress, and Kelli’s work etching away the irrelevant bits of the block.

Kelli explained to us when she sent the first artist’s proof that with block carving, you can always take more away, meaning less black in the final print, but you can’t add it back. I looked at the first print for a while and thought about how the tree looked. We had addressed the pot size issue in the sketch, but now I was finding myself faced with the detailed silhouette of the tree and seeing a couple flaws…flaws that were not because Kelli had mis-carved the block, but because I had not fully studied the tree in two dimensions.

Below: From Top left the first proof, then top right the second. Bottom left my crude modifications to the second proof using Photoshop and bottom right the final proof. Some of the key differences were in the jin at the upper right, and reducing a few stray bits of foliage that seemed distracting.

Proofs drying on the drying rack prior to sleeving.

The block and a final print side by side.

And the final prints look like this. It’s a hand-carved, hand-printed limited edition of 50 available for sale.

Andrew’s point in the Dec 2020 BSSF meeting was that we should study trees in two dimensions, and in three dimensions separately. I normally shoot photos of my trees once I’m nearing completion of the design, but I rarely do more than minor tweaking to satisfy the look of the two-dimensional image. This exercise in flattening a juniper to a block print was interesting because two-dimensions and two-colors allowed my eye to pick out the parts of the foliage that didn’t work for the design.

Unlike block prints, bonsai are not two dimensional, nor really just three-dimensional; they are four-dimensional with the added element of time. It will be interesting to see how this tree looks in ten years compared to the lovely prints that Kelli made, one of which will be hanging on my wall until then.

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