Hi everybody,

I like to make/create new things out of everything that lies or grows around in my garden. In early March I planted a small Alpine plant on a beautifully shaped rock from the U.K.  HERE 

A couple off night ago, it must have been around midnight after a long and hot day, I was chilling in the back of my garden, laying on a sunbed listening to some roots reggae. It was pretty dark and because I only had a small lamp burning behind me, only a small part of my garden was visible against a dark back ground. Than I found my self looking for a long time at the rock planting from this post. Because I was lying down, my eyes were on the same height as the rock planting. That stood, only 2 meters away, on my work bench in front of me . There is so much to see in this simple composition, things that are so important in a successful Bonsai design as well, that I could not stop looking to analyse it all! Here are some of the things that struck me, that I would like to share with you all.


Maybe it is a nice idea to look at this picture for a wile for yourself and analyse it before you look further! And remember this is not a exercise in beauty or anything like that, it is more a study of principles that are very useful and of great importance in Bonsai design. If you learn to recognize those principles in any design you look at, be it in Bonsai, painting, sculpture or architecture! It will be easier to create things of beauty your self and you will appreciate and or understand the work of others  much more. I am not a big fan of over analyzing Bonsai, but some times it is very interesting to find out why surtan things work and others dont! Being accustomed with these principles, that you can find in this simple rock planting, will help you in better understanding and creating your own Bonsai aswell as analyzing others their work!


To make things more visible and clearer I have drawn a outline around the supject. Immediately curtain things become more visible and obvius. Do you see them?

But first this: I dont know if there is any proper word for it? But I like to call it “the natural viewing direction”. If you look at the above picture, what do you see first? If you learned to read from left to right, most likely the plant on the left side! Now you might think, so what?! Well, now look at the picture below that is flipped over horizontally. 


Well, what did you see first now? The arched part of the stone on the left, right? We tend to look at everything from the left to the right, but why is that important to Bonsai design? Look at the next two pictures and see how our visual habits play tricks with us.


This above original image of a stunning cascading Pine is a perfect example of a tree that is in perfect balance with the pot it grows in. The table ( in real live longer than in this picture) and the pot on the left, are the first thing we see when we look at this Bonsai. They together occupy about the same space on the left half, as the foliage mass of the tree those on the right side. Even the empty space ( green arrow) on the left,  is about the same size as the empty space under need the right bottom branch. Like I said, perfect balance! Now look what happens when I flip over the image of this perfect balanced Bonsai!


Some difference Huh! The first thing you see now, when you look at this tree, are the now to heavy, foliage mass. And even though everything is the same as in the original picture, the balance seams to be lost. It almost seams like the pot is to small to hold the tree upright! So knowing this phenomena helps us when we decide in what direction we wish to style a Bonsai or what size and style of pot to use to balance the image or when we are working on our Bonsai display for a exhibition. Imagine a tall slanting tree, that can be styled, growing to the left or growing to the right. If we want the foliage of this future Bonsai to be the focal point, from were the eye travels downwards the trunk to the pot. It should be styled growing to the left side. If we want  the pot to be the first thing that is  knottiest, from were the eye follows the trunk upwards toward the foliage of the Bonsai, it has to be styled growing to the right side!

OK back to the rock planting and its empty/negative spaces!


That same night in my garden, but one beer later, I started to admire all the empty spaces surrounding this stone, that make it so special! If you divide this image, from top to bottom in to half , you could see how similar both halves are, yet the left side has a plant growing, were the right side has noting but empty/negative space! Still the empty green space on the right side is occupying about the same space as the plant on the left balancing it out. Even the empty/negative space in the left  bottom side is similar to the one in the right top side. So if you look at all these empty/negative spaces surrounding this rock planting,  you can see how important this often misunderstood and a bit abstract principle realy are! Is it the actual shape of this stone it self or is it the empty/negotive spaces surrounding it, that gives use a true sense of what it looks like? A specially when used properly in Bonsai, these empty spaces will give use so much information about vital things like: size, distance and age of the tree we are looking at, that I dare to say that they are properly the most important part in Bonsai designing.  Picture this: you have just reached the top of a small hill (grean arrow), and in the distance growing slightly below you, you can, despite the fading light, just make out the sillouete of a distance tree. You are looking strait ahead at this distance tree,  and your eyes are looking at a point about 20/25% from the top. Just like we are used  to do, when we look at a Bonsai, only on smaller scale! . 


Above: So what can this silhouette of a distance tree tell use? The empty spaces in this silhouette show use were the branches are placed and how long they are and how the grow and how many there are and from what height they start growing and how much space is between all the branches in comparison with the thickness of the trunk. In a instant all this info is than mailed to the brain. And this brain will compares this to all the memories we have of trees similar to this sillouete we see in the distance. The link is quickly made and than we have a pretty good idea of what kind of tree it might be, so we than know how long it probably is, from witch we can deduct how fare away it is growing from the point were we are standing! Do you get my point? If these similar empty spaces are well used in your Bonsai design, the brain of the viewer will recognise them, just like in the open field and it will tell him exactly from what distance and height he is watching your Bonsai image of a distant natural looking tree! Because they give use important information about the scale the artist is working in, a Bonsai should never be with out some empty spaces among the branches and foliage. The proper use of empty spaces are invaluable for a believable and natural looking Bonsai!

It is not one good branch, nor is it two. It is the space in between them that is importand!

I hope you dont mind me rambling on like this, but I have a lot of time to kill and not much else to do  than think! So why not share my thought with you all! It is half past 3 in the morning now so I will finish my “Screwdriver” and than it is off to bed! I will share some more of my idea with you tomorrow, if that’s OK that is?  

Hans van Meer.


Posted in MY WORK | 3 Comments


  1. Tom Kruegl says:

    Interesting Hans. I would like to hear more.


  2. tom tynan says:

    Hans…When I read your analysis – I am reminded of the work of 2 Dutch Architects…Aldo Van Eyck and Herman Hertzberger…if you get the chance to study their work – I think you will discover more especially…”the space in between them that is important!”…regards and best wishes from New York…Tom

  3. Tom Brown says:

    Great post Hans…but doesn’t your rock planting break your rule of no closed space….just kidding ;o).

    I couldn’t help ask myself while reading the above, how did the Japanese figure out balance. They are trained to read right to left unlike us westerners… I do love the mysteries of bonsai.

    Keep those thoughts coming big guy..we love it.

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