The Application of Art Principles in Bonsai Part Three: Foreshortening



The Application of Art Principles in Bonsai Part Three: Foreshortening

fore·short·en (fôr-shôr’tn, for-) pronunciation
tr.v., -ened, -en·ing, -ens.

1. To shorten the lines of (an object) in a drawing or other representation so as to produce an illusion of projection or extension in space.
2. To reduce the length of; curtail or abridge.

The Use of Foreshortening in Art

When an artist paints a 3-Dimensional object onto a flat 2-Dimensional canvas, it is necessary for the artist to illustrate the depth of the object to the viewer.
The artist must use visual effects or ‘optical illusions’ to allow you, the viewer, to see an object as having depth and perspective.

Vitruvian Man Bonsai

This famous image by Leonardo Da Vinci ‘Vitruvian Man’ is a study of the ‘perfect’ dimensions of the human figure. The figure has outstretched arms and legs of ‘ideal’ dimensions. Both arms and both legs have been rendered as being of equal length, as you might expect. And at a glance, it is possible for the viewer to tell instantly (and without thought) that the figure has his arms and legs stretched out sideways.

Leonardo’s ‘Mona Lisa’

Study the image of Leonardo’s ‘Mona Lisa’ above. It appears perfectly natural. But look at the arms closely; the right arm is distinctly shorter than the left.
Is this because the Mona Lisa had one arm shorter than the other? Or did Da Vinci make a mistake in his rendering of this 3D dimensional subject? Of course not! Da Vinci used ‘Foreshortening’ to create an illusion of a third dimension; a sense of depth.

Leonardo’s ‘Mona Lisa’

This optical illusion has been employed by Da Vinci to illustrate to you, the viewer, that the Mona Lisa’s left arm is folded across her body while her right arm is placed coming forward, towards the viewer. By shortening the length of the right arm, the artist creates the illusion of the arm coming to the fore.Foreshortening in art is something that we, as viewers, can all see and subconciously ‘understand’ immediately.

However, as an artist, working in 2 dimensions on paper or canvas, foreshortening (as well as other techniques that create perspective) is a technique that can be difficult to apply and must be well thought out to create realistic depth in an image.To quote the dictionary definition above, when an artist works in with 2 dimensional media, foreshortening is used “ 1. To shorten the lines of (an object) in a drawing or other representation so as to produce an illusion of projection or extension in space.


The Use of Foreshortening in Bonsai

Bonsai is a 3-dimensional art form; a bonsai artist does not have the same problem of creating depth that the 2 dimensional artist does. However, a bonsai artist can still utilise foreshortening and use it to his advantage.“2. To reduce the length of; curtail or abridge.”There are often situations when styling bonsai where a branch or a trunk is too long and the foliage on the branch is too far away from the trunk; this is where the principles of foreshortening can be used to our advantage.

long Pine branch . long Pine branch

In the images above, a long Pine branch is shown, seen from the front of the tree and from above. The branch is bare apart from some foliage at its tip; ideally the branch needs to be made shorter so that the foliage is closer to the trunk. Whereas with deciduous species, that will produce new growth from bare branches, there is no possibility of pruning this Pine branch so that it is shorter without the entire branch dying.

This is where we can employ the technique of foreshortening to our advantage. Rather than leaving the branch as it is and waiting for a number of years to trying create back budding (so that the branch can be shortened back to the backbudding) or even removing the branch, we can simply wire and foreshorten it. We create depth to shorten the length of the branch when seen from the front of the tree.

branch from above

In the image above, we can see the branch from above. It has been wired so that the branch has more depth; along its length it moves toward and away from the viewer. Much of the length of the branch is ‘lost’ as the branch line meanders towards and away from the front of the tree.

front view of the tree

Now when seen from the front view of the tree, the branch looks shorter and the foliage is closer to the trunk where the bonsai design requires it to be. Though the branch is exactly the same length is it was before but we have created an illusion of a shorter branch. The branch has been foreshortened.

This example of foreshortening the first branch of bonsai would seem quite obvious; however, it clearly illustrates the benefit of foreshortening. This principle of being able to visually shorten the length of a branch or shoot or even a trunk, can be used in many situations in bonsai, particularly when styling coniferous bonsai that fail to backbud easily such as Pine, Juniper or Spruce.

Always consider foreshortening when wiring and styling your trees; can the apex or top section of the tree be reduced in height by foreshortening (tipping the top of the trunk forward, towards the viewer)? Can the foliage mass of a tree be made denser and tighter by foreshortening the secondary branches?

There are limitations of course; there is a point where excessive foreshortening of a branch (or branches) will look unnatural or even ridiculous.On the other hand, field-growing trees do have branches that meander backwards and forwards; a branch that grows straight outwards from the trunk without any depth is more unnatural and ugly. It is for you the bonsai artist to decide how far you can use this illusion!

Sign up for the Bonsai4me newsletters

Our newsletter brings regular news from Bonsai4me. Updates, new articles, forthcoming events and exclusive content. Sign up for your copy!


November 16, 2022


Related bonsai articles