This was written for a club newsletter but I'll have to shorten it for that version. I'll share the entirety of the post here:
Naturalistic vs Realistic Bonsai Art
I spend a lot of time on bonsai forums discussing technique and style. This week I have been contemplating why some artists prefer trees that are abstract and fantastical, and some prefer trees that more closely represent nature. It sparked a decent debate and I wanted to share some quotes and my final take on the discussion. Entirety of the topic can be found here:
I've been seeing these two styles both win competitions and accolades and I was curious if it was personal preference that determined if you were interested in viewing and producing one style or the other. Was it cultural? Was it learned or was it inate? I was especially curious why some of my mentors recommend chopping my newly collected stumps down to a stump and developing a short, squat, sumo style shohin tree; others recommend a taller, more slender design. Why is there such a divide!?!?
Allow me to share some of the more inspiring and educational quotes that were given. I asked permission to share these quotes:
user nathanbs shares:
My vote is sumo, here's why......I like it! I like looking at them as I said earlier, it gets my gears turning. I also mentioned earlier that we can look at trees in nature any day all day unless you are locked up in prison and even then they probably have some to look at when they are out in the yard. Why do a painting of something that is often times right out your window, paint something more interesting or more challenging.
user rockm comments:
"Sumo style trees are often just not looked at correctly They are not intended to be wrote identical copies of trees in nature. They are intended to force the viewer into seeing a much larger tree from a forced perspective.
It is that forced perspective that the better sumo trees convey.
Additionally, some sumo trees AREN'T meant to portray trees at all, but are meant to resemble Mt. Fuji.--all dramatic taper in a symmetrical (but natural) cone. Mt. Fuji figures very prominently in the Japanese psyche and is rife with symbolism of the Japanese culture. It is a constant, ever-present image in most Japanese artforms, including bonsai. the mountain inspired the logo for Infiniti cars, for instance, as well as poetry and painting back to the first century."
Gene Deci chimes in:
"It certainly is personal preference. I personally prfer the more natural looking trees. My appreciation of sumo trees is more learned, a regard for the skill, time and artistry it takes. My appreciation of great "natural" trees is viseral. A gut reaction that after all these years still takes my breath away."
rockm revisits the topic with:
There is no real distinction between "Japanese" and "Naturalistic" trees. It is a matter of degree, like pornagraphy. It's an "I know it when I see it" kind of thing. I've seen some extremely "naturalistic" Japanese trees and some "Japanese" naturalistic trees...
There is definitely a place for both styles in my appreciation of bonsai. As an analogy I think it is possible to equally enjoy the painting of Picasso and Norman Rockwell.
Sumo, and bunjin style trees are more of bonsai abstract art and somehow a little more emotionally charged for me than more naturalistic trees. On the other hand, I think it takes much more skill to create a good natural style tree.
And JudyB offers:
I find the problem with "preferences", occur when people close their minds to another idea, just because they do something that is not what they would choose. And also close their minds and ears to anything that person, tree, or technique may have to teach you.
I like all different kinds of trees. Anything that moves me is good. I don't feel the need to pick a camp, or side, or type. And I think that the conflict that some feel is detrimental to themselves, and to the art in general (sometimes...)
Contributor october produces:
In my opinion, it does not come down to naturalstic vs sumo or any other tree style against tree style. It depends on that one tree. The one tree that is in front of you or any bonsai artist. For someone who is really passionate about bonsai. Styling a tree is a significant, almost intimate experience. You will notice that the people that truly love trees always style WITH the tree, not against it. The tree dictates what it will be. You augment the style. You create the bonsai, but not the tree. Thin trunk, sumo, cascade is irrelevent. What is relevent is how beautiful a bonsai that tree in front of you can become.
"Very often the conflicting advice doesn't have anything to do with one being right and another wrong- but how different people see different things in a tree. It can definitely get confusing especially for a newcomer to show a tree to one experienced person and be told "I think you should do this" then someone else says "I think you should do that" while a third says something else. I've seen people be told to style the same tree 3-4 different ways. It doesn't mean one is right just that each of us see things differently."
I think the lesson in all this is that while there exist different styles of bonsai, just like paintings, they do not have to be separated into camps. Rather, each artist has the goal of making each tree into the best finished product it can be; whether the material dictates sumo or naturalistic, bunjin or cascade. When asking advice on an artistic rendition of nature, it's important to remember that we each see nature differently, and we will represent it differently. There is no correct or incorrect way to style a tree. And while the rules are in place to help us understand form, once we've understood rules, we are granted some lee-way to render our own work of art.
How a tree is designed is as varied as the artist who designs it. There is no better and worse; there is only what the tree wants to be, and can we, as artists, listen and apply the correct techniques to get it there.
Backbuds and Gnarly Branches,