Drawing from Real Life at a Bonsai Exhibit

I had found out about the exhibit from one of my best friends. 

Last October, my friend’s dad and his fellow hobbyists had organized the exhibit with others from the city. Since we were having dinner nearby we decided to visit after eating. It was a simple set up but it was my first time to ever see so many bonsai trees in one area.

Seeing them with my own eyes and not just through a photo was such a different experience that I was determined to visit again during the day to do some studies.

Before the Exhibit

By coincidence, I had been practicing drawing trees a few days prior (drawing below). I was using photos from Pintrest as reference. I thought I did okay with capturing the shapes but there was missing though I didn’t know what at the time.


A photo posted by Kara L. (@renka002) on


At the Exhibit

I first introduced myself as an artist and got permission to sketch as well as take photos and videos of the plants. I started to chat with some of the members of the Bonsai Association of Bacolod, the group who was behind the show.

I learned from them how the shape of the branches, formed by training each branch as it grows, becomes a signature style for a particular artist. This is much like how with illustrations you can tell who made the artwork without even looking at the name because of their distinct style. Some gardeners also add details like pebbles and driftwood which also adds to each tree’s charm. 

It was almost as if each pot had it’s own character.

Some gardeners had also claimed to know every single branch of their trees. This was easy to believe after hearing how much work and effort is put into each pot. Caring for these works of art requires a lot of time and discipline as the plants need constant care as they grow.

There were nearly a hundred trees displayed there so I took a bit of time to walk around the area before I settled down for my first sketch. This was the first sketch I timelapsed on the video above. I wanted to loosen up first and get more familiar with the forms I was trying to capture.

Initially, I wanted to do a few watercolor/gouache sketches but I had forgotten to bring my brushes. I also soon realized it was too hot to stay on one spot for too long so I needed an alternative. Since I wanted to be able to capture as many silhouettes as I could, I decided to switch to pen and paper.

It was time to sketch.

Below are most of the sketches I had done that day.

A photo posted by Kara L. (@renka002) on

A photo posted by Kara L. (@renka002) on

What I kept in mind as I sketched was the following:

  • Silhouette/Shape. I consider an object’s shape to help the viewer recognize it at a glance.

  • Energy. A plant begins it’s life from the ground sprouting upwards. I want to capture the energy of how the branches and leaves stretch up and out towards the sun.

  • Texture. This is where the details lie. Texture helps the eye see the way the tree would twist and turn. This helps show its volume and form.

Now, if I compare the sketches I did prior to the exhibit with one of the sketches done during my time there… I noticed how much more life the latter sketches had. The first set had the simple silhouettes that were enough to be recognized for what it was. But the details like how the leaves grew out of the branches or how the bark would make intricate patterns was lost.

Now, I am aware that my mindset during those times were different but so was the amount of visual information I had before me. Let me expound on this a bit.


This is one of the most repeated pieces of advice I have encountered over years of attending seminars and talking to different professionals in the field. These are people who are artists at Disney and Pixar, famed illustrators and painters, teachers, and many more. Whether or not they had the opportunity to go to art school or were self-taught, one thing they always stressed to young artists was the importance of building our visual library.

And how do we do that? By drawing and observing real life.

Senses vs. Camera

Cameras have come a long way. We have HD cameras that seem to capture every detail imaginable. But no matter how advance technology there are still things that you miss out on when you only see it on your screen. 

When we only rely on photos, we only feed our visual senses. To go out and actually “be” where your subject is, gives you access to so much more sensory information For instance, you can watch a concert from your tv. You’ll get the visual experience but you would not be able to feel contagious energy of actually being there for yourself amidst the screaming audience. How loud the music actually is or how your heart beats strongly as you jump with the beat.

There are still things photos and videos fail to capture and though Google is rich source of information, it’s still possible not to find the reference you were hoping for.

This exhibit was a goldmine of reference for me. I would not be able to express, even in photos, the amount of information my eyes were able to capture by just seeing these with my own eyes. 

Close up of the driftwood used as decoration

It was the first time that I truly felt how inadequate relying solely on photos could be. To be able to have your subject in front of you is priceless because you you can then study it 360 degrees or while it’s moving. It wasn’t allowed but I would have wanted to touch the plants for myself as well. Colors were actually richer but softer than what I saw when I just looked at a photo. The changing light was also giving me more visual cues as the day went on.

There was a feeling of calm contentment I experienced that would be something that I would love to express through my art and something I would keep in mind.

Overall, cameras and photo references are still valuable when you have no means of traveling to see the subject you wish to study but whenever possible, go out and take your own photos. You gain more inspiration from that was as well.

For those in the area, I heard from the organizers they are hoping to host another exhibit or maybe Bonsai Competition next year. I’m hoping it pushes through so I can visit them again!

As my art is very much inspired by nature so this exhibit was a treat. To be able to spend the afternoon just being around the bonsai trees and sketching was a refreshing experience. I hope you gained something from reading! I know I have some things I would love to expound on further in another post one day.

But until next time ~

Kara L.

You Might Also Like...

No Comments

Leave a Reply