Out of the Woods: Celebrating Trees in Public Gardens
The Third New York Botanical Garden Triennial

Black Pine Half-cascade Style Bonsai

Pinus nigra
Omiya Bonsai Art Museum, Saitama, Japan

What is the difference between a bonsai and a a tree in a pot? I am on the way to discover the answers to the thrilling question - currently reading a book about bonsai, Bonsai No Tanjyo (The birth of bonsai) by Toru Yoda, which tells you its history and secrets.


My grandpa had several azalea bonsai in our tiny backyard. When my sister and I would come back from school, we would find him cutting the bonsai tree and giving water there. He admired his plants, and I loved his semi-dark backyard with many, many bonsai. Yet, according to the book, it pains me to say, but my grandpa's bonsai were probably "potted trees."

In the book, the author himself asked a question "is bonsai art or non-art?"  It is designed to represent "natural beauty" in a small world, but the process creating the "natural beauty" is not exactly natural. One of my friends mentioned that bonsai trees are like a pet giraffe in your living room. It isn't meant to be in a small pot. After the brief comment, I felt guilty liking bonsai trees.


Standing in front of this beautiful old pine tree, I just felt in awe of the aging dignity.  Every single detail of the tree is breathtaking. The thick layered trunk is bold and strong, and it tells you the long but calm life the tree has had. The green leaves are so bushy and lively, which means the tree is very healthy. The tree looks like it was freshly trimmed, but none of the leaves are cut - it simply grows in that way. I was amazed! How come the trunk, branches, and leaves grow in this perfect manner NATURALLY! It is not growing naturally, and many, many human assistances are mandatory. However, if the tree with plenty of verdant leaves is so healthy and enjoys longevity with people's intervention - or I should call it a good helping hand - it shouldn't be a giraffe in a small living room longing for a vast grassland.


Seeing the bonsai and pondering what I am looking at leads me to a deeper question of how we interact with nature in a manmade setting. Gardens are a typical example of this. We set a stage for admiring nature - plant, flowers, trees, and the surroundings like sky and air, and we even admire more. I feel a long, long tradition or maybe instinct of human nature to create a certain kind of frame to "the found beauty in nature", to separate it from a confused world. It hits me! That's exactly what I am trying to do!


Let us go back to the question "Is bonsai an artwork?" The author of the book, Toru Yoda concluded "no." I agree. I cannot summarize his highly educated contents, but I think it is more like helping to grow following a tree's will to live, rather than the creation of something following a creator's own will.  I stepped back a little at the beginning, since painting bonsai may be close to portraying a statue. Well, my answer was "no". Bonsai is also a living tree, so the moment I capture in my painting is the brief moment of its life. I portray the momentary figure of the tree, documenting NOW.


Choosing bonsai as a subject gave me so much to think about, not only because it was an interesting subject, but also it took a long, long time to complete. First of all, I couldn't take the bonsai to my studio. I rarely work from sketches and photo references. So, to portray the tree, I took about 700 photos and a few videos. It is against the rules to take even a single leaf from the tree, but I was allowed to take one dried leaf that had fallen from the tree. That was my only actual specimen from the tree. I have a black pine tree in my backyard. I could cut leaves or a branch freely, and I had it in the studio all the time. 


The first rough life sized sketch was done at the site with little color samples. Coming back to the studio and laying the sketch underneath a big sheet of tracing paper, I started to make an underpainting. It was extremely hard, since I had 700 photos - each photo captured a different detail. Imagine switching so many photos back and forth finding a tiny part of the tree! A photo looks good at a glance as a reference, but it doesn't show the depth. A tiny shift of your eye level, and a subject changes its shape. That's how we study and understand its true structure, but a flat photo won’t show much. So, video helped to solve mysteries of distorted shape in a photo, which turned out to be pure agony. I stopped video to take another reference for my study, but it created more photos to switch back and forth.


Secondly, even though watercolor is my best familiar medium, my usual approach didn't work at all. After several miserable attempts, I decided to switch to oil. 


When I finished a line drawing on paper for oil and was ready to start building the figure, a year had passed since I felt awe at the Bonsai museum.


Then for about the next 6 months, from morning until evening, I kept sitting in front of the tree every day. I almost entirely painted this big tree with my favorite 3/0 sized brush. Oil dries slowly.  Switching reference photos, checking the color with samples and real leaves from the backyard, and once a while stepping back to make sure how the big picture looked, all the process caused me to slow down. I had to be patient. Yet, it is very hard to describe my joy when I realized that the tree emerged little by little. It was a mixture of torture and bliss. Torture, because it seemed to take forever to reproduce all the details. Bliss, because the invisible frame I am setting for the bonsai tree is coming to light. The beauty in nature is always there in front of us, but whether we see it or not is totally up to us. I believe what I am trying to achieve is indicating the beauty through my painting, as a bonsai master assists a bonsai to reveal its beauty. 

Read more about this artist’s work: 20th Annual International
  • © 2015-2017 Asuka Hishiki
    Black Pine Half-cascade Style Bonsai
    Pinus nigra
    Oil on paper
    28-1/4" x 36-1/2"