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Bonsai Containers as Ceramic Art

American Bonsai Society


Bonsai containers as ceramic art

By  Fred Aufschläger

The Concept of Bonsai as Art


While it is not our intent to explain the full history and philosophy of the art of bonsai,  without some background this article on bonsai containers may be intellectually. An essay by the much respected Japanese bonsai master, Kyuzo Murata, differentiates between bonsai and Hachiuye, or potted plant.

"Bonsai is a living plant transferred to a pot or tray or rock or stone so that it can continue to live semi-permanently. It has not only a natural beauty of the particular plant but the appearance reminds people of something other than the plant itself. It could be a scene, a forest or part of a forest, a lone tree in the field, a seascape, a lake, a river, or a stream or a pond. It is also possible that a certain appearance reminds a person of the wind blowing through the branches.

In Japan, the meaning of bonsai is to create a natural scene on a tray, using plants as the main materials. When you take a Hachiuye, or potted plant, you can only see "prettiness of the plant or flower". It does not remind you of anything else...

Bonsai should not be a mere sketch of a scene, or a three dimensional exhibit from a photograph of a scene.

It is perfectly all right to use nature as the subject, but the goal should be a sketch which has been refined and trimmed in your mind before you start creating. Only then can you call it art...

Bonsai is a strange art wherein one can produce a feeling of the reality of nature by manipulation, over a long period of time, of trees, stones, rocks, trays or pots. And every bonsai is original. It goes on for ever and ever." 1

It is important to note that the bonsai container, be it ceramic or stone is an integral part of bonsai. The tree cannot be called bonsai by itself. Nor can the container alone be bonsai.

The Tradition of the Bonsai Container

The Japanese term "bonsai" means literally "pot" (bon) and "living tree" (sai), or "tree in a pot." Thus the container, whatever its form or composition, is absolutely necessary to complete the bonsai whole. In modern bonsai, and in penjing as well, the container or pot is almost always ceramic. The few exceptions are when certain bonsai styles call for use of stone slabs or trees clinging to rocks.

Unlike most ceramic containers, designed to create an "internal space," 7 the ceramic pot is rather designed to clasp its partner, the tree. The pot is always secondary to the tree, the former selected to complement and enhance the latter. The relationship is likened to that of a frame to a painting or clothing to people.8,9  In bonsai, however, the relationship is much more symbiotic, as "the pot for the tree is naturally an integral part of a bonsai10. . .  The choice of container is very much an aesthetic matter, inevitably governed to a large extent by taste and fashion." 11

According to Jerald Stowell:

“Although the form and color of the container are important, neither should detract from the expressiveness of a bonsai. The container should harmonize with the bonsai - complement color and mood --and be in pleasing proportion to the tree.” 12

We have with bonsai pots the possibility of great variation in shape, size and color, all the while complementing variations of bonsai trees. But unlike ceramic art in general where the medium is the artist's only limitation of expression, the bonsai potter's expressiveness is limited somewhat by the traditions of bonsai art. A sampling of these traditions follows (See Appendices B-F for detailed descriptions):


1. Colors acceptable for the majority of trees are brown, gray or terra cotta. 13

2. Dull unglazed pots in subdued colors are best for most evergreens, but also may be used for deciduous bonsai.14,15

3. Glazed pots are used mostly for deciduous or flowering trees, the color dependent upon the color of leaves, fruits, flowers, berries, seed pods, etc.16,17  Glazes may be whitish beige, chestnut, willow green, cobalt blue or even black, 18  but there is great leeway here for the bonsai potter. Containers with bright glazes will complement brightly colored trees, while smoothness or roughness of bark point toward a corresponding pot surface. 19

Harry Tomlinson writes:

“Very bright or pale colored pots are usually inappropriate, but sometimes a well chosen color creates a striking complement to a tree with distinctive coloring. Glazes can produce very subtle color combinations  . . .and there are some discreet but lustrous effects in more subdued hues that correspond well to the colors of nature. There are interesting effects of color and texture such as speckling and crackle glaze.” 20

4. Shapes of trees (styles of bonsai) determine height,,width, depth, length and overall proportions of pots. 21,22

5. The value of pots ranges as follows:

·         poured - least expensive

·         press molded and thrown - medium to high priced

·         hand formed- high priced

·         antique- most expensive and difficult to identify. May be of Chinese, Korean or Japanese origin. 23 (See Appendix G)


 There is a budding movement among some U.S. and European bonsai potters to open up the traditional concepts mentioned above. To the traditional observer these pots, if not the entire bonsai created with them, can seem truly bizarre and uninviting. Some, however,,seem to have a creative spark worthy of further explopation (See Appendix H).


Practical Considerations

Because bonsai containers, whatever their composition, must be able to support the living tree within, some practical considerations must be taken into account by the bonsai artist, and, by inference, the ceramic artist who makes the pot. The following recommendations are taken from an excellent article on bonsai pots selection by Vaughn Banting: 24


1. The pot must have at least one drainage hole, usually more.

2. The pot should have at least three feet, providing for drainage, air circulation and stability. Footed pots are preferred over arched cuts in the base.

3. There should be minimum warpage of the clay body, although some warpage is desirable for uniqueness or for complementing a particular tree.

4. The bottom of the pot should be level without raised dams around the drainage holes, so as to facilitate rapid drainage and prevent water from accumulating in the pot.

5. The pot should be made of stoneware because of its durability. Earthenware is susceptible to breakage by spalling due to ice in the clay body, and porcelain is too fragile and usually too ornate.

6. The pot should not have a chipped or cracked clay body so as to avoid distraction from the tree and the destruction of the roots of the tree growing into the cracks.

7. If the pot is glazed, it should be only on the outside and just inside and below the rim, not down the inside of  the pot or the bottom of the pot.  This provides porosity for water retention and some air circulation.

8. The thickness of the walls of the pot should be in proportion to the overall dimensions of the pot.


There is much to consider by the artist who is creating a bonsai container. This branch of ceramic art has deep roots in ancient cultures as does the ceramic vessel in general. In addition to deep roots, the whole bonsai, tree and pot, is enveloped in the two fundamental Chinese and Japanese zen concepts of art - sabi and wabi. The ceramic artist who would pursue the creation of bonsai containers should become familiar with these concepts and their characteristics.25 These concepts, when applied in the completed bonsai pot,  will add an enhanced appreciation of the bonsai. The pot will communicate to the viewer in its own right, but never at the expense of the tree.




The approximate length of the container can be determined in one of two ways. If the main feature of a tree is its height, the pot is often chosen to be about two-thirds to three- quarters of this height. On the other hand, if the main feature is the horizontal spread of the branches, the pot is chosen to be approximately two-thirds to three-quarters of this length.


The depth of the pot is sometimes chosen to be the same as the thickness of the base of the trunk. This last dimension is often difficult to apply exactly and is obviously does not apply to cascade styles where greater depth of  pot is needed to balance the mass of foliage. As a rough guide, a pot depth that is 1/2 to 2-1/2 times the thickness of the trunk would be suitable. With a full cascade, the depth of the pot should never be the same as the length of the cascade.





Pots may also be active or passive in feeling. This is a slightly different feature to the visual strength of the pot as it is possible for a pot to be light and delicate while also being active in design.


Generally, the more conspicuous the rim and legs are, and the more ornamental the shape of the container is (e.g. flower shape or greatly flared) the more active the pot will be. Containers that are passive in feeling are usually more self-contained having the rim and feet included in the basic design of the pot.




 A horticultural note: A pot that is much wider at the top than it is at the base is more frost resistant than a pot with perpendicular sides or incurved sides. Incurved pots are also more difficult when it comes to repotting. The root system would have to be sliced around the edges with a sharp knife in order to lift the tree out of the container.



Unglazed containers are most often used for the conifer family of trees, however, being more subdued than most glazed containers, they are suitable for many different varieties of trees. Glazed containers may be used for many deciduous trees or flowering and fruiting varieties. Unless the tree is placed in a different container each season, the pot would be chosen to look well with the major colour in the favourite season.



 Think carefully before using pots with very bright or harsh colours.


From: Koreshoff, Deborah R., Bonsai, its art, science, history and philosophy  (Brisbane, Australia: Boolarong Publications, 1984), pp.44=6.


















From: Chan, Peter, Bonsai Masterclass (New York: Sterling Publishing Co., 1993), pp. 18-19.






                                                                                       R    = Recommended Selection

 RWR = Recommended with reservations

  * Burnished or rough

** Marbleized containers are not recommended with reservation because of the difficulty in using


From: Banting, Donna, "Selecting Bonsai Containers" article written for Greater New Orleans Bonsai Society, 1983, reproduced in Potomac Bonsai Association "Clippings", 29.1,Feb/Mar 1999





Allowance should be made for the vast range of shades within the color bands. This chart suggests combinations, but should not limit your choice.


From: Tacktill, Phil, "Guide to Ceramic Bonsai Containers", in Potomac Bonsai Association "Clippings",  29.1, Feb/Mar 1999.



                               Pot shape                                                                                        Tree styles





From: Tacktill, Phil, “Guide to Ceramic Bonsai Containers", in Potomac Bonsai Association "Clippings, 29.1, Feb/Mar 1999"


All of the above sometimes have potters marks.    * See Chart B for X and Y; and for examples of all

(X) The last two may have artists’ signatures.           styles and details.

(Y) Some fine containers may have no markings at all  

Each additional operation in manufacture will add to cost...


From: Tacktill, Phil, “Guide …”, in Potomac Bonsai Association "Clippings,



  1. Murata, Kyuzo, article written for Brooklyn Botanical Garden, New York, reproduced in Giorgi, Gianfranco, Simon and Schuster's Guide to Bonsai (New York: Fireside, 1997), pp. 15-17.
  2. Koreshoff, Deborah R., Bonsai, its art, science, history and philosophy (Brisbane, Australia: Boolarong Publications 1984), pp.1-4. 
  3. Koreshoff, pp. 1- 4. ;
  4. Choi, Stephen, from lecture notes in course entitled Introduction to Bonsai, Anne Arundel community college, Arnold, MD, September, 1989.
  5. Giorgi, pp. 12-13.
  6. Koreshoff, pp. 40-2.
  7. Illian, Clary, A Potter's Workshop (Iowa City: Univ.of Iowa Press, 1999), pp. 8, 13.
  8. Hull, George, Bonsai for Americans (Garden City, New York: Doubleday & Company, Inc.,1964), pp. 92-3.
  9. Chan, Peter, Bonsai The Art of Growing and Keeping Miniature Trees (Edison, New Jersey: Chartwell Books, 1985), pp. 121,155.
  10. Chan, Bonsai, p. 121.
  11. Chan, Bonsai, p. 155.
  12. Stowell, Jerald P., The Beginner's Guide to American Bonsai (New York: Harper & Row, Publishers, Inc., 1978), p. 30.
  13. Naka, John, Bonsai Techniques I (Los Angeles: Bonsai Institute of California, 1987) pp. 82-5
  14. Naka, pp. 82-5.
  15. Banting, Donna, "Selecting Bonsai Containers", article written for New Orleans Bonsai Society, 1983, reproduced in Potomac Bonsai Association Clippings, 29.1,  Feb/Mar 1999.
  16. Naka, pp.82-5.
  17. Owen, Gordon, Bonsai Identifier (London: Quantum Books Ltd,1990),p 14
  18. Samson, Isabelle and Rémy, The Creative Art of Bonsai (London: Ward Lock Ltd, 1986), pp. 25-4
  19. Gustafson, Herb L., The Bonsai Workshop (New York: Sterling Publishing Co., Inc.; 1994), p. 89
  20. Tomlinson, Harry, The Complete Book of Bonsai (New York: Abbeville Press Publishers, 1990), p. 52.
  21. Naka, pp., 82-5.
  22. Samson, pp. 23-4.
  23. Tacktill, Phil, "Guide to Ceramic Bonsai containers",in Potomac Bonsai Association Clippings, 29.1, Feb/Mar 1999.
  24. Banting.


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