I am often asked for advice on which bonsai pot would go well with a particular tree. While I am always willing to assist with selection, I realize that my answers often seems vague to those asking. As a potter and artist I'd prefer that you own the pot that speaks to you. As a bonsai potter I realize that there is more to it than that. You objective is to seek harmony between bonsai and vessel. So, whats the formula? While I've seen the relationship described in mathematical relationships, the numbers neatly arranged in spreadsheet format, there is much more to consider.
I use a very simple principal when matching pot to tree. It involves the first glance at the composition. As in a painting the artist works to control the movement of the eye. A good composition makes an immediate statement. It is harmonious and leaves you with emotion. If your eye only sees a tree that is out of balance with its vessel then the landscape is disturbed. If your eye immediately jumps to the pot then the pot is not correct for the tree. Neither can overpower the other. They must work harmoniously.
That being said, we must deal with the wide variety of experience and taste in making these judgments about a composition. It is absolutely my "potter" opinion that if you like your composition that is all that matters. It is your statement and it is for your enjoyment. No one has the right to question unless… you decide to put yourself in a position to invite critique by competition or showing. Now you have an obligation to follow some level of standards. If acceptance or comparison of your art is part of your enjoyment then you need to understand and follow somewhat general protocol as you will be judged on your adherence. No one is going to recognize you in the bonsai community by placing a bonsai in a football helmet because it is your favorite team. There's a tad more structure to the art than that. Although, I have made everything from a skull to a pile of bones for some clients. I applaud their creativity and the rebel in me says, trip on that!
In reviewing my collection of books on bonsai I find some discussion on the topic of pot selection but rarely more than a few pages here and there. The Web offers more on the topic. I’m not going to recreate the list of “standards”. Pot dimensions relative to trunk caliper, height, and style follow good general advice. They help you move toward a balanced composition. Lists, rules, and protocols just irritate me. If you concentrate on the composition the rules will be met.
We need to keep in mind what our art depicts. It mimics by miniaturization trees in their natural environment. A broom style may mimic the delicate stance of a tree on a pasture hillside. It may be surrounded by a pasture of flowering grasses. This landscape requires a pot that is gentle and natural in design and color. This would be considered a feminine form.
Some create jin to mimic the effects of lightning strike or wind blast on an exposed tree. This image is strong and masculine. It mimics the harsh and rugged effects of nature upon nature. The pot needs to add to this image to complete the landscape. Some compositions depict the rugged existence of an alpine tree surviving in spite of nature. This composition would lend itself to an unglazed masculine or primitive form. Work the landscape you are trying to replicate. Place the tree in it’s natural environment. The composition should take you there, where the tree lives. The pot should compliment that image.
We all keep pictures of favorite bonsai trees and pots we find on the internet and social media. Along with your portfolio of bonsai it is also worthwhile to keep images of interesting trees and tree shapes from nature. These are excellent stimulators of ideas and styling options. I probably have more of these images than I do actual bonsai pictures. I find them to be a wonderful place to go for artistic inspiration. My vacation pictures always include shots of interesting in . If you think about it these are also the images that make human pictures interesting. A pictures should elicit emotion, a bonsai composition the same.
Use these pictures as not only as inspiration for styling but for pot selection as well. Organic combinations of colors are found in nature. The environment in which the native tree lives can lead you toward pot surface, styling, and shape. So here we are again, no specific recommendation, no list of standards, no protocols to follow. Finding that perfect pot/tree combination is all part of the mystique and beauty of Bonsai. It is a work in progress. Its is your expression and creation of art.
I have one more final test of your composition. Does it make you smile? Does it bring you joy? Can you not walk past it without stopping and admiring? If it does, perfection has been achieved, even if it’s a football helmet.
This picture was taken by my son on his 2,600 mile hike of the Pacific Crest Trail in 2011. It is a favorite of mine as a fine example of natural tress in their native settings. These trees can be thousands of years old and could tell tales of centuries past. Pot selection for a replicant of this tree is obvious. There are no smooth lines. There are no gentle curves. There is only the raw emotion of life on the edge. Your pot selection here should carry that emotion.