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The balance

Balance between trunk and branches

The movement of trunk and branch setting play a vital role in bonsai design

Ulmus procera, Ronny Vannuten. Photo: Willy Evenepoel
Juniperus chinensis, Ludo Goeyvaerts Photo: Willy Evenepoel.

Static and dynamic designs

Look carefully at these trees. The one on the left, an elm; is in static balance. In the juniper on the right the balance is dynamic. Let’s see whether this dynamic concept of balance is significant for the aesthetics of our bonsai. First take a look at the rules that govern the well-known concepts of balance and dynamics. You already know about static balance. It is where the balance of the branches is such that the weight is distributed equitably around the tree and especially on the right and the left; but dynamic balance? What is this?

In the case of a tree, the branches located outside the curves grow towards the trunk and as a result of their power action of the tree is upwards. In fact, the tree is like a spring ready to be unfolded. It will leap towards the sky. Obviously, the tree is actually rigid because of the texture of its material — wood — and it is motionless because it is fixed to the ground by its roots.

By placing the foliage as close as possible to the trunk (compaction), it gives the same visual impression. The visual compaction — that is, making the smallest possible tree — is not a problem of dynamics, but of coherence and proportion in order to make the tree credible. The artistic side of our hobby therefore consists in imagining this spring and making it perceptible to the viewer, even if unaware of its existence. Of course, this doesn’t mean that a completely balanced tree is to be rejected.

Avoid symmetry

The branches need to be located outside the curves of the trunk.
Foliage should be placed close to the trunk to create a compact image.

Why can’t one place a branch inside a curve?

Imagine two segments fixed on a kneecap (1). If you grow (arrow) towards the angled interior (the curve), the two segments will draw closer and the interior angle will become more acute. It is as if you receive a blow in the stomach from a fist. You will bend over sharply! It is a movement of compression, of crushing (2). On the other hand, if you reverse the blow by placing it outside the imaginary knee, the two segments will move apart, and the interior angle will increase.

The position of the character branch changes the movement of the tree

First and
character branch

First branch

Character branch

As explained earlier, the placement of the branches enhances the movement of the tree. The character branch, however, plays a major part in the overall design since it enhances the direction of the main movement of the trunk. The main movement is set by the first curve in the trunk, or the curve that is most dramatic or the strongest. This is an essential element and brings us back to the rule that a bonsai should be asymmetrical. The character branch is always the first branch to look for when designing a bonsai. In the example shown above you see moyogi styled bonsai.

Both trees have the same curving trunk; I have simply rearranged the branches. The character branch on the left follows the curve of the trunk and therefore gives the tree a very dynamic look. The tree on the right has its character branch placed to the left. The design has changed completely. The design on the left makes a stronger visual impact and in classical bonsai would be considered the correct way to place a character branch.

This juniper leans towards the right. Now where would you find its first branch? In this case, the long jin, or dead branch, serves as the element that enhances the direction of the tree Juniperus chinensis, John Hanby Photo: Willy Evenepoel.

Same trunk, different branch setting

Another example shows how a first branch coupled with a different branch setting can change the design of the tree. The trunks of both examples lean towards the left — which do you prefer? Example A has its first branch facing the right. In example B the first branch follows the most obvious movement to the left. Both options are pleasing designs. Option A creates an interesting empty space with the lowest branch to the right and the deadwood at the base. Option B is a more traditional example enhancing the slanting movement of the trunk to the full.

Pinus sylvestris by Alain Arnaud.

The tree is leaning towards the right. The open spaces between the branches at the right enhance the leaning character of the tree. The lowest right hand branch serves as the first branch, but in this case is not the dominant factor in the design. The second trunk on the left counter balances the design

Good and badly placed branches

Wrong because it starts
inside a curve

No ‘S’ curves in trunks
and branches

Good
position outside
the curve

Naturally
formed branch

A very clear example of a bonsai where the first branch enhances the movement to the right. Juniperus chinensis, Ivo Ruiter.

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