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Principles of Good Bonsai Design

American Bonsai Society


Principles of Good Bonsai Design


By Robert Steven


Editor’s note: The following article was judged the best overall in the recent 2008 Art of Bonsai/Knowledge of Bonsai Article Contest. This revision has new photographs and illustrations from the original. In fact, it is now included in Robert’s new book, Mission of Transformation. ABS is pleased to offer our readers a glimpse into this wonderful follow up to Robert’s first book, Vision of My Soul.


Nature is a Masterpiece truly created by art and science…


I have been strongly influenced by the book  How To Think Like Leonardo da Vinci  by Michael J. Gelb.This book describes the seven Da Vincian principles, curiosita, dimostrazione, sensazione, sfumato, arte/scienza, corporalita and connessione. The most impressive principle of these to me is arte/scienza, the development of balance between science and art, logic and imagination; it is a concept that requires thinking with the whole-brain. This concept can be incorporated into our daily life, including our creative thinking on bonsai design, in order to combine our artistic sense with scientific fact.


Imagine while you are learning to cook, you cook chicken curry and your wife comments that it does not taste as good as the one you had in the Indian restaurant last weekend. You know exactly what she means, yet you have no idea how to create the exact same taste, because you do not know what each ingredient does to the taste or how combinations of ingredients work together. Cookbooks are no help, as they all give different recipes of curry with no explanations as to the role each ingredient plays in the finished product. It is easy to say that whatever you cook, it must taste good; but to create a dish that tastes good, one must first learn what each ingredient adds to the taste and how multiple ingredients work together in order to create something that tastes good. Cooking is art as well, but it is also a science, the science of chemistry, in which we need to learn the contribution of each ingredient to specific tastes. This knowledge should be describable and learnable, even if one has intuitive cooking talent.

Beethoven composed his famous masterpiece Ninth Symphony while he was losing his hearing; and in the legend of the first female royal physician of the Joseon Dynasty of old Korea, Jang-Geum who won the royal cuisine competition while she was loosing her ability to taste. These stories and many other like examples are all about mastering science and the senses.

Since Bonsai is similar to other visual art forms, such as painting, sculpture or photography, the same design principles used in these forms can be learned and applied to bonsai. Many bonsai artists use these principles intuitively and subconsciously, unaware that they are doing so. The results from intuitive and subconscious application of artistic principles might be good, but if these principles are implemented consciously and constructively, the results can be even better and more convincing.


Good bonsai design should be artistically beautiful, with convincing horticultural clues and should convey a thematic message. While examining horticultural

clues, we have discussed plant physiology, tree morphology and environmental factors.

In this chapter, we will discuss how to design good bonsai using design principles to achieve artistic beauty. If we can successfully integrate these two aspects, the thematic message will easily be created and communicated to the viewers. Designing bonsai is all about composition using the composition components of bonsai. The composition omponents of bonsai are the roots, trunk, branches, foliage pads, crown, container, accessories (rock, grass, moss, soil etc.) and even the negative space. Composition is the placement or arrangement of these components in a unified manner within the work, which results in a creation that is aesthetically pleasing to the eye and which gives a sense of harmony to the viewer.


All the design components of bonsai have certain characteristics of line, form, texture and color, which I have discussed in my first book Vision Of My Soul . Now we will go further and bring these elements together while managing the work in order to create a good composition using the principles of design.


Before beginning to work on a design, we should always start with an idea. In bonsai, we should not be overly obsessive with a certain design in advance, yet a general idea should be found within the bonsai material we are going to work with. This is because our task is to explore the tree character through the transformation process in order to obtain an image of a mature or post-mature tree. With this in mind, we use the existing physical features as the available design components and then create other new components to be arranged for the composition.


Bonsai material offers us the roots, the trunk, and maybe a few branches as the basic available design components. These components each have their own basic characters in line, form, color and texture. Through careful observation, we can find the design idea that best fits the material and then take the next step, which is to train new branches that will form the ramification and foliation. The design idea must include considerations of natural phenomena, horticultural clues, plant physiology, tree morphology, and evironmental factors.


In order to create good bonsai, horticultural aspects, as mentioned before, should be incorporated into the composition by using the principles of design.


This bonsai has an unpleasant outlook because it lacks of major design components, plain and boring; and the color of the pot does not fit in aesthetic sense.


The principles of design are:

  • Balance
  • Movement and Rhythm
  • Emphasis
  • Simplicity
  • Contrast
  • Proportion
  • Space
  • Unity



Balance is the equal feeling of weight and perception. Balance in an art form may not really have actual or physical balance, but rather an illusion of balance,

which is referred to as optical balance or visual balance. In bonsai, the shape and position of the roots, the trunk, and the placement of branches, the configuration of foliage pads, the crown, and the container will determine the visual balance of the overall pose of the bonsai setting. However, the container acts more as an anchoring illusion in order to give visual stability to the tree so the tree does not appear to be in danger of tipping over or falling down.


Asymmetrical balance is believed to be the best in composition because it suggests a more dynamic feeling that is less boring. The same belief holds true for bonsai styles with the exception of certain styles like formal and informal upright.


Courtesy of Rudy Julianto, Indonesia This is an example of bonsai material with all the necessary design components to work on the composition.





 This tree shows a perfect composition in harmony.











Courtesy of Budi Sulistio, Indonesia

This bonsai has poor composition setting. The horizontal branch lines do not integrate to the trunk line, the character of the crown shape does not support the character of the trunk character; and the pot is too small. Consequently, it does not look interesting and lacks visual balance.









Courtesy of Gunawan Wibisono, Indonesia The basic dynamic movement of this bonsai has been designed into a boring symmetrical balance composition. If the left branch is taken out, and simply put in a smaller container the whole composition will look much better.






Although the trees on both sides are set in mirror manner, the overall presentation looks interesting because this design applies the approximate horizontal balance principle.

There are horizontal, vertical and radial balances in design. In bonsai, we work on approximate horizontal balances. Vertically, we give more weight to the bottom part, especially with the container, to create the image of stability. Radial balance is important in bonsai as well, in which all the components are distributed around the center point or spring out from the trunk line.



This is an example of radial balance with the branch movement springing out from the center point.













Asymmetrical balance can be achieved by several methods:



Balance by value

Smaller darker colors can balance larger lighter colors.









Courtesy of Soekimto, Indonesia

The small black rock is balancing the heavy crown and giving the firmer image to the trunk base in the vertical balance.









Balance by color

Smaller bright colors can balance larger more neutral or duller colors.













Although the rock is very bulky, but the bright green foliage can give a good counter balance.









Balance of Shape

Small, complicated shapes can balance larger simpler shapes.















Courtesy of Walter Pall, Germany

The small deadwood on the right is balancing the tree composition. Although the deadwood is lighter color, due to the ‘complicated ‘ line movement, it plays the balancing role better

than if it were a straight line.










Balance by texture

Smaller, rougher, and complicated surface textures can balance larger, smoother textures.











Courtesy of Nick Lenz, USA

The  rough contour of the container is balancing the heavy foliage.









Balance by position

A smaller object farther away from the center can balance a larger object that is closer to the center.













Courtesy of Rudi Julianto, Indonesia

The smaller canopy placed farther away on the left is balancing

the large object on the center.








Balance by eye direction

Certain edges or pointing shapes, which draw a visual direction, can transfer weight from a heavier side to a lighter side.











The pointing branch tips draw our visual direction and transfer the weight from the apex to the lower right and reduce the over-weight image of the crown..












The pointing tip of the deadwood on the top is transferring the weight of the canopy and pulling the whole composition to the left side to balance the leaning the motion.



Movement and Rhythm

Movement is the directional path of our eyes or the viewing flow when we look at a work of art. By arranging the design components and elements in certain way, can create a force of movement or control the direction the viewer’s eye travels along the visual path of the design. In bonsai, this movement can be created with the trunk line, branch direction, foliage shape, or even the position of the container. Movement can also be achieved by repetition and action. Repetition of similar elements will create movement or a path that the eye travels and if the repetition leads the eye through a periodical or alternating regular and irregular flowing path or in staccato movement, then it will create a rhythm. Certain lines and forms can also create the illusion of  freeze frame motion or action such as the twisting trunk and branches used in bonsai.



The irregular flow of the similar elements creates a movement path for the eye to travel.











The repetition of similar foliage pads creates the movement of the tree.














Courtesy of Cien Lung, Indonesia

The single line curve and the pointing tip create a dramatic movement of the tree.














The twigs line arrangement creates the illusion of the wind blowing motion in freeze frame.











Movement can be created with three kinds of lines:


Actual line. A real line such as the trunk or branch.


Implied line. Not a real line, but a visual path created by the arrangement or shape of the components for the eye to travel along the design. Examples would be the configuration of foliage pads, the position of the trunk, or the placement of branches.


Psychic line. This line is invisible to the eye and is a psychological line created to draw and direct our viewing. One such example would be the pointing tips of foliage that may direct our eyes to move from one side to the other side



The trunk and branches have the actual lines to show the tree movement, the shape of the foliage pads creates the implied line to enhance the movement to the right; and the overall composition creates the psychic line to drive our visual flow from left to right. Consequently, the tree shows a very dynamic motion.








Movement in bonsai is so important to give a directional path of our eyes to travel along the viewing flow when we look at it; so there should not be any contradictive drive in the overall composition which give the sense of competing power, because such condition will not only go against the natural rule, but will also create a feeling of discomfort to the viewers.




Courtesy of Budi Sulistio,Indonesia

The movement of this bonsai is suppose to flow to the left, but the placement of the crown fails to suggest the rhythm and the crown shape creates a competing directions. The shape of the crown should be an irregular form to fit the trunk character and drive the viewing movement to the left.



Emphasis is the intended focusing or highlighting of a particular characteristic of the design, which has the purpose of creating a focal point or point of interest. In bonsai, this emphasis can be on over-sized roots, the trunk, deadwood, or any other unique feature that stands out for one reason or another. It could be the most complex area or simply a sudden change in line direction, size or shape.



The over-sized rock is emphasizing the theme of a tree that grows on the rock .










Courtesy of Honggo Jiwa Saputra,Indonesia

This bonsai has an emphasizing feature

on the root base.




Simplicity is the elimination of non-essential elements or details. Some features that are not contributing to the essence of the design, or which may distract from the interest, can be eliminated. Such features may distract from the focal point or lend a negative impact to the overall beauty. This is the reason we need to refine the foliage of our bonsai and focus on the structural ramification.




Courtesy of Suthin Sukosolvisit

This is a good example of simplicity in bonsai that shows a very clear focal point. Only the important components are exposed in very efficient and effective way.



Contrast is the difference between or opposition of various elements. Contrast can create visual interest and add variation to the design. Too much similarity

will make the design monotonous and uninteresting, but too many contrasts will be confusing, so contrast must be used properly in order to enhance the beauty.


Contrast in bonsai can be found in the lines and form of the trunk and foliage; the color of leaves and flowers and bark; the color and texture contrasts between the deadwood and live veins, between the rock and the tree, or even in the color of moss against the soil surface.





Courtesy of Walter Pall, Germany

The contrast color of the leaves to the trunk, and the neutral color of the pot that makes this bonsai so charming and interesting.



Proportion is the relation or ratio comparison of elements in size or quantity. In bonsai, proportion can refer to the anatomical condition of a mature or post-mature tree; this is what I call anatomical balance, which is the size proportion of the trunk, branches, tertiary branches and twigs. It can also be the relationships or comparison among other components, such as grass, moss, rock, container, or accessories.


One proportional issue, which is never completely solved in bonsai, is the size of the leaves, but using simplicity can minimize this issue, as with the refinement of the foliage pads. The size of flowers and fruits in bonsai might be an issue as well, but only to a certain extent. Due to genetic pre-dispositions, flowers and fruit are impossible to reduce substantially in size; however this is generally accepted for decorative purposes or accentuation. Generally, we must remember that if there is any component  ‘out of proportion ‘, it will seem to be unrelated to other components and the overall design will not appear to be in harmony. Proportion in bonsai can create perspective and dimension; it can also emphasize the chosen focal point. Good proportion in bonsai can also influence the comparative size illusion of the tree in relation to the total presentation. Among others, one of the most important components that must have good proportion.



The comparative proportion of these two trees enhances the monumental image of the large tree.
















The selection of accessories used in bonsai is crucial in proportion.













Courtesy of Erik Wigert, USA

The disintegrated shape and placement of thecrown creates a feeling of  ‘out of proportion ‘ on the main trunk; and the two elements seems to come from different sources with different characters.
















Courtesy of Bill Valavanis, USA

The small fruits on this bonsai fit proportionally to the tree to portray a big tree bearing fruits.


Proportion in bonsai can create perspective and dimension; it can also emphasize the chosen focal point. Good proportion in bonsai can also influence the comparative size illusion of the tree in relation to the total presentation. Among others, one of the most important components that must have good proportion is the container. The success of a bonsai creation may depend very much on having the ideal container to tree proportion. The size of the container can create different nuances, mood of the theme, and it can affect the focal point.



The ideal proportion of the broken shallow container enhances the focal point, emphasizing the theme of big trees growing on rocky hill, and creates wider dimensional view.



Space is the interval or distance between the elements. Negative space or empty space in bonsai is very important because emptiness is also a very important part of any composition. It does not merely represent an absence or void; negative space can play an important role in bonsai design, which is to create mystery, illusion, movement, contrast, simplicity, dimension, perspective, balance and nuance. Intelligent use of negative space in bonsai will give a very important impact to the illusion of depth; it can draw a visual distance between the foreground, middle ground and background. The best method to achieve this effect is by overlapping the components; by doing so, our mind will perceive there are gaps of space in-between the components and create the illusion of perspective.


Negative space has weight and mass and it creates a balance with the positive space by giving the eye a place to rest. It provokes the viewer to interpret the visible within invisible, the tangible within intangible, and the presence within the absence. A concave shaped space in front of the container, especially in grouping or landscape bonsai, can create a curvilinear perspective and an illusion of wider view, while certain space arrangements at the rear of the container can create an illusion of infinity.


As negative space is also one of design components with its weight and mass, so we can apply the principles of balance to compose the negative space to obtain visual balance. The balance principles used for negative space can be either symmetrical balance or asymmetrical balance; horizontal, vertical, diagonal or all together in terms of overall composition. And, in all cases, the negative spaces should be implied in all means to integrate with other components to obtain the best result of the bonsai as main design object.


Symmetrical Balance :


The negative spaces on the two sides are set in similar manner which gives a symmetrical balance. Such composition normally will create a static contrast to the main object.








The negative spaces on the two sides are set in approximate symmetrical manner with more space on one side. Such arrangement will give better dynamic balance to the composition.





Asymmetrical Balance :



The negative spaces on the two sides are set in different distance which emphasizing the asymmetrical balance to the main object.








The negative spaces on the two sides are set in different distance with more various arrangements, yet there is one dominating. Such composition normally will create better movement to the design.





Horizontal Balance :


The negative spaces are set in approximate symmetrical manner to obtain the balance on left and right side. Such composition normally will suggest stronger focal point.








The negative spaces are set in asymmetrical manner to obtain the balance on left and right side. Such arrangement will create more dynamic composition.




Vertical Balance :


The negative spaces are set in approximate symmetrical manner to obtain the balance on upper and lower side. Such setting seldom found in bonsai composition because this arrangement normally will create an unstable balance to the main object.






The negative spaces are set in asymmetrical manner to obtain the balance on upper and lower side. Such setting is normally to obtain good anchoring result of the tree and good visual balance.




Diagonal Balance :


The negative spaces are set in approximate symmetrical manner to obtain the balance on the two diagonal sides. Such setting suggests certain posing movement of the main object.






The negative spaces are set in asymmetrical manner to obtain the balance on the two diagonal sides. Such setting creates very dynamic movement to the overall composition.








This is an example of good negative spaces setting in approximate symmetrical balance, horizontal, vertical as well as diagonal. Consequently, this bonsai design shows a very dynamic movement, strong focal point with perfect visual balance.


One should keep in mind that negative space is simply a complementary component of the whole composition’s means which works in our subconscious sense; so the objective is NOT to obtain the exact balance of the negative space, but the objective is to obtain the

visual balance of the overall composition between the negative space and other components with the bonsai as main object.


In another word, negative space is an illusory tool to help us in emphasizing the composition in order to obtain the best result of the bonsai as the main design



Courtesy of Bill Valavanis, USA

This is a good example of how to give sufficient negative spaces to a bonsai design which makes the tree look very natural with clear

volumetric dimension.










The concave shape of the negative space in front draws the object farther to the back and creates foreground, the overlapping land contour creates the illusion of perspective gaps between the islands.










Courtesy of Jim Smith, USA

Different setting of negative spaces will create different visual movement of composition.






Unity is the hallmark of good design. All elements and components should be composed with integrity, in a consistent manner, and successfully applied with the principals of design in mind. Unity will give a sense of visual pleasure if all the elements and components are arranged in harmony, complementary to each other, and with an appealing focal point, instead of competing for attention. When unity is achieved, the thematic message will be more clearly communicated.

In bonsai, unity is not only achieved by the implementation of design principles, but also by the integration of horticultural clues. When unity is achieved, the creation will be aesthetically beautiful, logical in nature, and the thematic message will be well perceived, because the tree will speak for itself, conveying a silent description of its life history.


Good visual balance, rhythmic movement, emphasis of focal point, simplicity, contrast in color, anatomical proportion and effective space arrangement will make a bonsai design look harmony in composition.












Unity in bonsai design can be achieved by several methods:


• Consistency. The repetition of elements and components should show certain similarities in character, either by the lines of the trunk and branches; the forms of the foliage pads and crown; and the shape and color of container. They should all combine to create a visual relationship that speaks of the same source.


Courtesy of Santoso, Indonesia

This is an example of bonsai design with consistent characters on all elements especially on the foliar pads form that fits perfectly to the trunk and branch line.










Courtesy of Bogdan Pociask, Poland

There is inconsistency of lines character on this bonsai between the straight trunk line with the curving branch line, which makes

this bonsai looks unnatural.












• Relevancy

The character and arrangement of all elements and components should be relevant to the concept and idea of the design. In the case of bonsai, they should all refer to the horticultural clues, the plant physiology, the tree morphology, and the environmental factors that fit to the pose and character of the tree.


Courtesy of Bobby Gopiao, Philippines

The arrangement of all elements and components of this bonsai show perfect relevancy to the design concept and theme.



• Integrity

All elements and components should be arranged to show a logical relationship and connection as an uninterrupted union. Sometimes we need to use the third element to bridge the connection between two or more elements which are placed apart or seem to be unrelated.


Courtesy of Peter Thali and Enrico Savini, Italy

The deadwood on this bonsai looks separated from the tree as a whole design. If there are some deadwoods which can  ‘bridge ‘ this element to the tree, then it will look better integrated.









The main tree and the rock are two separated elements, but they have been connected by the small tree in the middle.


Unity without variation is boring, but too much variation without unity is chaotic. Do not apply the same principles equally to all bonsai designs, as one may be more important than the other, depending on the mood, the nuance, the character, and the idea we want

to convey. One creation may be strong in balance, another may be strong in movement, and yet another may be strong in emphasis.


Lastly, do not hesitate to incorporate your own personal touches as a signature of your personality. Without this, the creation may well suffer from lack of character.

Robert Steven was born in North Sumatra and presently lives in Jakarta, Indonesia. By his own account he started creating and collecting Bonsai in 1979. He has a permanent exhibit centre with a collection of more than 500 bonsai in wide variety of species. He is a prolific writer on bonsai topics and his first book  Vision of My Soul , published in July 2005, has been a best seller. He is presently publishing his second book  Mission of Transformation , which will be available by the end of 2008 or early 2009.

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