Ten sources of bonsai inspiration in no particular order:
1. Dreams (Day Or Night)
Dreams tend to bring about the most abstract images of trees, and often some of the most interesting looking ones. Whether during the day or the night your mind will break down an environment and manifest feelings through a variety of mediums. When you’re looking at a piece of raw material, try allowing yourself to day-dream and see what images come to mind. Then use craft to express that feeling through your bonsai.
Animators are masters at conveying human emotion through non-human images in order to tell a story. When applied to trees the results are stripped down to their bare-essentials needed to convey what the artist felt. The trunk, branches, leaves and roots, all support the same theme. Faces just help to reinforce the message.
The movement of the female tree is drawn with flowing curves and a thin trunk. The male tree is also thin but much more angular. The foliage of the female tree is used to represent hair, but also communicates a tree growing in ideal conditions.
Contrast the happy scene to the one of the evil tree. Everything about it looks evil. Even without the faces the body-language communicates a lot.
Ask yourself what characteristics are given to convey the age of the “Old Tree” compared to the young trees?
Take a look at the way trees are portrayed in paintings. Do the trees appear young or old? Realistic or abstract? What emotions do they convey? What is drawn in detail vs left to your imagination? Every detail that an artist includes must help contribute to the story. If a branch does not help strengthen your bonsai’s story it weakens it.
Most cities are old. The ones on the east coast of the US were founded hundreds of years ago, and trees were planted. Today, depending on the city and its sections, some of those original trees remain. Boston has some great old elms if you’re in that area, in Cambridge outside of Harvard. [http://www.nytimes.com/2009/10/08/nyregion/08tree.html?_r=1]New York City too has its share of old trees. Both cities have parks and arboretums as well.
5. Old Farms
Farms are a great place to see old trees. They used to be used as property lines and to separate fields. Combined with animals eating the competion while providing fertilizer, the trees that remain on old farms are often close to what they are genetically designed to be when not forced to compete. Other times their fortune becomes their misfortune and they become lightning rods, adding to their character. If that is the type of image you want to portray with your bonsai, old farms are a good place to look.
Trees have long been a source of inspiration to authors. From children’s’ books such as the Bernstein Bears to books devoted to the subject such as Remarkable Trees Of The World, you can find images of old trees. If you’re more interested in the growth habit of a specific species you can always pick up an illustrated field guide that will often tell you where the trees can be found, under what conditions, and show you a drawing of a mature tree. Then just assign a story to your pre-bonsai and let your artistic side take over. And of course there’s always books on bonsai!
7. The Internet
8. Historic Trees
As posted before, there are many local trees of historic significance. These trees have stories to be told about the history they have seen.
9. Your Own Backyard
The best inspiration for bonsai are the trees you see yourself! Bonsai is a 3-dimensional art. All other forms of inspiration listed so far are two-dimensional. Take notice of the details, what the details make you feel, and see how you can translate that feeling into the details of your bonsai.
10. Bonsai Exhibits
This one is inspiration for technique. Here you can see what’s possible with time. Ask yourself what technique the artist used to achieve their results. The trees that move you are successful in their mission. Try to figure out what it is that conveys the feelings for you. Then apply them to your own bonsai. A true national treasure is the National Bonsai & Penjing Museum.