Virtual Styling (or Restyling) of Bonsai
Designing with a Mouse

by Thomas L. Zane

BACKGROUND: Three years ago I attended my second university level six day Residential Bonsai Course Residential Bonsai Course in bonsai with bonsai artist Dan Barton in Bristol, England. A small part of that course was an introduction to styling and restyling bonsai using the computer. I was intrigued but did not retain enough of the information to be able to practice it once I got home. So I decided to have another go at it, along with some other specialized instruction that I requested. In May 2001 a fellow member of our local bonsai society and I spent nearly two weeks at Dan's studying some of the complexities of bonsai aesthetic, visiting some of the spectacular trees featured in Thomas Pakenham's "Meetings with Remarkable Trees", doing a bit of sightseeing (Gloucester Cathedral, Stonehenge, etc.) and participating in a bit of local pub life.

I had requested practical instruction on the creation of "ancient style" of bonsai - bonsai that represent the truly ancient trees of the world. We both wanted practical instruction on virtual styling and restyling of bonsai using a computer. We had taken digital photographs of several of our bonsai which we wanted to use as subjects for virtual restyling. With Dan's guidance we did a virtual restyling of several of the trees, saved the images, brought them home, and am using them to enhance the actual trees.

THE PROCESS: I took digital images of several bonsai, photographing all four sides. In most instances I used a neutral colored background to enhance the tree image. (If a digital camera in not available, color print photographs can be scanned into a computer for subsequent manipulation.) The images were saved on a zip disk and transported to the UK to be used as specimens in the study. The same disk was used to bring the manipulated images back home.

On either an IBM compatible or a Macintosh (my choice), the application program Adobe PhotoShop® is opened and a front view of one of the trees is opened. The original image, now on the screen, is saved with a slightly different name and it is that newly saved image which is used in the manipulation so that you can always come back to the original. One or a combination of effects can be applied to the image.

Remove a Branch? If you have a branch, such as a particular low one on a trunk, or one that appears on the two-dimensional screen to be a bar branch, and you would like to see what the tree would look like if the branch was removed, virtually prune it. Using PhotoShop®, lasso the offending branch and delete it. Fill in the blank area left when you removed part of the image by "rubber stamping" adjacent background into the area. Like it? Maybe I should have left a stump of dead wood. Revert to an earlier step, just before you removed the branch, and this time don't lasso the entire branch, leave a stump, and continue as described above. Now you have a pretty good idea what the tree would look like minus that branch. See an example.

Grow a Branch? Want a branch in a specific place. Using PhotoShop®, copy one of the branches on the tree and manipulate it until you have "grafted" it onto the spot where you think a branch is needed. Too long? Erase some of the tip. Not long enough, use the program to make it "grow" longer. See an example.

Repositioning Branches/Foliage Masses: If you are considering moving a branch, or if during a critique it is recommended that a branch or foliage mass be repositioned, the branch may either be cut and pasted into its new trial position or lines can be drawn to show where they might better be located. See an example.

Restructuring the Branches to Complement the Style: Sometimes the branches are just about where they belong, but the foliage masses are incorrect for the style which is trying to be portrayed. The branches of my old Chinese elm, which I am working into an "ancient" style of bonsai, were too long. An ancient tree is more than a mature tree, it is a mature tree which is now on the decline. As Dan Barton said, it is slowly returning to the earth - its trunk is rotting, branches are falling off and branches are shortening and are displaying reduced amounts of foliage. See an example.

Total Restyling: There are times when you might want to consider totally restyling a tree. This is a drastic thing to do and should be approached carefully. By using PhotoShop® to remove all offending branches and to add new branches, you can see a fair representation of what would happen. See an example.

THE RESULT: Styling, restyling and critiquing bonsai using the computer provides another tool for the bonsai artist. You can perform the "operation" on your own trees, or on images of trees sent to you by a friend asking for advice. While I used Adobe PhotoShop®, I suspect most drawing programs will permit you to do most of what I discussed. If you are doing a critique for a friend, only you need to have the drawing program, your friend needs only to be able to open and view the graphic you provide.