Page 2 of 3
Visual Weight and The Sweet Spot
In group plantings, more so than in any other style of bonsai, visual weight is one of the most important commodities. It is a means by which we make the viewers eye go to the exact point in our composition that we want them to. They will then see it as we want them to.
In a forest planting this is very important. We must invite them into the composition but control that visit. The best example that I can give for this is that standard old landscape painting that all of us have seen many times. A goodly number of them portray a wooded glen and maybe a couple of hills or a mountain in the background. Almost invariably there is a church steeple or a house with a bit of wispy smoke coming from the chimney. It is usually just a small thing supposedly way off in the distance. Maybe shrouded in a bit of fog.
When you first look at the painting, that building seems to catch your attention. No matter how small it is you notice it right off. It kind of reaches out and grabs you. Brings you almost into the painting. Your eyes keep going back to it again and again.
It is there for a reason. It grabs your eyes and puts them where the artist wants them to be. It forces you to see the entire painting from the view that the artist has selected for you. For lack of a better word, I call this the "sweet spot! A very useful tool in almost all forms of art.
Obviously, in our planting there is not going to be a small house or church steeple. Maybe if we were doing a Penjing but, that is another story altogether.
Painting by Carl Rosner
So how do we put that "sweet spot"in our forest?
Like the painter, we can't scream out "look here" We have to be a bit sneaky about it and just strongly suggest it. The basic construction of the forest will be the biggest hint for them. The biggest and tallest thing in that forest will be the primary tree. Its'trunk is the most massive thing there. Visually it is heavier than all the other smaller trunks. The eyes will naturally wander to that point. But we don't want them to wander, we want them to go straight there. There are many ways to direct the eye of the viewer.
My favorite method is to give just a hint of a winding path through the planting. Not really a path but more of a negative space. This space starts at the front of the forest and gently forms an "S" curve that meanders behind the primary tree, seeming to taper off to nothing somewhere in the forest.
I find that this will catch the viewer's eye and serve as an invitation to enter the forest. That hint of a path going behind the primary tree acts like an arrow pointing to it.The eyes will follow that path. Between the path and the primary tree we have captured the eyes.They will take in the whole forest from there. Just a subtle hint but one that the eyes cannot ignore.
There are many other ways to do this. A bit of strategically placed ground cover. A small piece of jin. Even a high spot in the ground level.Once you have invited them in and shown where that "sweet spot" is, you are basically in control. Now all you have to do is design your forest outward from that spot. Sounds easy, doesn't it? Well, in practice, it is. Just kind of hard to explain using just words.
A few English Elms and a hedge row. A perfectly balanced and beautiful composition. Looking at it one can imagine strolling through it on a chilly winter day in the English countryside.
But what draws you into the composition? How did Colin make your eyes go to the"sweet spot" I have been talking about?
Let's go back to Colin Lewis'planting in figure 2.
Look closely at the ground level just off center to the right. See those cart tracks that meander off into the distance? Don't they kind of hint at "look here?" Once your eyes are directed there the composition seems to take on great depth.The two trees on the right are no longer a big tree and a little tree. They are now a near tree and a distant tree.
Just a little thing, but quite effective, that the artist uses to force the viewer's attention to a point in the composition where he sees the "sweet spot". You now see it through the artist's eyes.
The numbers game. How many trees? Does it always have to be an odd number?
All too often it seems that there is a tendency to see how many trees can be put into the pot. A better approach would be how many trees would look good in that pot.
Most forest plantings have between five and nine trees. Less than five and it looks too much like a clump style bonsai. For the most part these remind me more of a tropical island with coconut trees on it than a forest.
More than nine trees must be done with great care. After nine trees it is awfully easy to overwhelm the viewer with a confusion of trunks and branches.The eyes can get lost in the complexity of it all. It can be done but it does get a bit harder to do after the ninth tree goes into that pot.
Conventional wisdom is to always use an odd number of trees in your forest. One hears all the time that nature very seldom does anything in even numbers.This might be true but I think that it is just easier to compose odd numbers into a believable composition. Even numbers almost always seem to give you a boxy affair.
Less than nine trees in a forest and the eyes can still see individual trees. But once the ninth tree is put into the composition, the eyes get somewhat confused and stop looking at individual trees and start taking them in as a group. For this reason the numbers are less important when more than nine trees are used. Odd and even are just about the same, to the eyes anyway.
The problem is that someone will always count the number of trees in your forest. Good, bad or indifferent it will always be judged on odd vs. even. It's a pity that few can see beyond the numbers and take in the total impact of the composition.
For a little over a year I have been working on a group planting of Bald cypress. Quite a large thing. The pot is a little over 4 feet wide. I was going to put 57 trees in it. A bit of vanity as I was 57 when I started on it. As I was working there came a point where it was just getting too busy and I stopped well short of that fifty-seven. I have gotten a lot of nice comments on that forest. Most everyone seems to like it.
Didn't take too long before the counting started though. Now I hear "Nice forest but it only has twenty eight trees in it". "You need to add/subtract one to make it odd! If it looks good who cares how many trees are in it. Sometimes those bonsai "rules" do get in the way of making a good bonsai.
I may get a lot of criticism over this but here is my best advice on the number of trees to put in that pot. Keep putting them in as long as it makes for an artistically pleasing composition. Stop before it goes past that point. Simple, isn't it?
Let the bean counters count while you concentrate on making a pleasing composition. The numbers will take care of themselves when you have ten or more trees. Nine or less trees make the odd numbers more important but not everything. Aesthetics are really the only real consideration.