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 of nights 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 background. Then I found myself looking for a long time at the rock planting from this post. Because I was lying down, my eyes were at the same height as the rock planting. That stood, only 2 meters away, on my workbench 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 while for yourself and analyse it before you look further! And remember this is not an 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 sometimes it is very interesting to find out why certain things work and others don’t! Being accustomed to these principles, which you can find in this simple rock planting, will help you better understand and create your own Bonsai as well as analyse others’ work!


To make things more visible and clearer I have drawn an outline around the subject. Immediately certain things become more visible and obvious. Do you see them?

But first, this: I don’t 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’s design? Look at the next two pictures and see how our visual habits play tricks on 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 life 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 the same space on the left half, as the foliage mass of the tree 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. As I said, perfect balance! Now, look what happens when I flip over the image of this perfectly balanced Bonsai!


Some difference Huh! The first thing you see now, when you look at this tree, is the now too-heavy, foliage mass. And even though everything is the same as in the original picture, the balance seems to be lost. It almost seems like the pot is too small to hold the tree upright! So knowing this phenomenon 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 an 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 where the eye travels the trunk downwards 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 where 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 into half, you could see how similar both halves are, yet the left side has a plant growing, whereas the right side has nothing but empty/negative space! Still, the empty green space on the right side is occupying the same space as the plant on the left balancing it out. Even the empty/negative space on the left bottom side is similar to the one on 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 really is! Is it the actual shape of this stone itself or is it the empty/negative spaces surrounding it, that give us a true sense of what it looks like? Especially when used properly in Bonsai, these empty spaces will give us 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 (green arrow), and in the distance growing slightly below you, you can, despite the fading light, just make out the silhouette of a distant tree. You are looking straight 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 doing, when we look at a Bonsai, only on a smaller scale! 


Above: So what can this silhouette of a distance tree tell us? The empty spaces in this silhouette show use where the branches are placed and how long they are and how they 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 an instant, all this info is then sent to the brain. And this brain will compare this to all the memories we have of trees similar to this silhouette we see in the distance. The link is quickly made and then we have a pretty good idea of what kind of tree it might be, so we then know how tall it probably is, from which we can deduce how far away it is growing from the point where 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 us important information about the scale the artist is working in, a Bonsai should never be without some empty spaces among the branches and foliage. The proper use of empty spaces is 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 important!

I hope you don’t 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 then 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.



  1. 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


  2. 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.


Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s