Figurines on a bonsai are an interesting topic. Some people love them, others hate them. Either way they do exist and it is something you should consider.
They may not be appropriate for all your trees, but do have a time and place within bonsai.
I will go through how they are used and what you can use to hopefully give you some ideas for your own trees.
If You Like It …Do It
The use of a figurine really comes down to one thing … you. If you like it and you think it looks good, do it.
It doesn’t matter what anyone else says or thinks. It’s your tree and you can do whatever you want.
I do feel that figurines are often looked down upon by a lot of people; they are seen as not “pure bonsai” which is just a snobbish view.
If you look at any bonsai shop … they sell them. So that says to me that they are fine to use and if you like how it adds to your tree, then that is all that matters.
They Are Not Popular In Japan
The truth is that you will not really see figurines on Japanese bonsai, which is probably why people think they shouldn’t be used.
You will see them occasionally; it’s just not very common. Traditional bonsai is all about the tree and the pot and that’s it, which is fine.
You will of course see bonsai displays where the tree is accompanied with other things, but this is usually accent plants, hanging scrolls, stones, or even other trees ….but sometimes it could be a figurine too.
They Are Used In Penjing
While you may not see a figurine in bonsai, you will see them used in penjing.
Penjing was started in China and was often more of a miniature landscape which included trees and rocks to set the scene. Ceramic figurines where used to make these seem even more realistic and often included little buildings and people.
Penjing of course found its way to Japan, where it later became bonsai. Early bonsai would have been more like penjing and would have had more figurines, but as they found their own style they moved away from using figurines and the trees started to look like the ones we see today.
Figurines Can Help You Tell A Story With Your Tree
The whole point of a figurine is that can it can help you tell a story with your tree.
Bonsai is an art, which really means your tree is some sort of expression or statement and a figurine can play a role in making that statement clearer.
Bonsai really boils down to trying to make your tree look like a full size tree in miniature and using a figurine can help give that miniature tree some scale and help with the illusion that it is something that it is not. (You could argue this is more penjing, but I guess the similarities overlap at times)
If you use the right figurine with the tree it can help great a great story for the tree. This can be by placing the figurine onto the pot, or using it as part of a display with it off to the side.
I only have one figurine in my bonsai collection, which is of a Bigfoot in my privet forest planting. I got him to help tell a story as I didn’t want this to just be some kind of boring group planting.
I want people to look at it and get the feeling like they are getting a glimpse into a thick dense forest in the middle of nowhere, the kind of place where you might spot the dark figure of Bigfoot lurking in between the trees.
What Type Of Figurines Can You Get?
There is no official list of things you can use. Basically if it is small and works with your tree, then you can use it, but I will go through some common things that you can find being used.
Figurines of people are very popular and the classic type to use are the “mud men” which is just the little ceramic figurines of Chinese wise men or fishermen you can easily find
It can also be common to use a Buddha …I’m not sure if he is a person or what, but that doesn’t matter, he can look good with a planting and that is all we need to know.
You can get all sorts of animals and really what one you use will depend on what kind of story you are trying to tell. It could be a wild horse grazing on some grass, or it could a lion sleeping under the shade of your tree. Animals and trees are closely linked in nature so they are a good figurine to use.
There is also the option of using a mystical creature such as the Bigfoot I use. Chinese and Japanese history is full of mystical creatures and I am sure your culture is too. If you can find a figurine it may be an interesting addition.
Traditional Garden Elements
The traditional garden elements are very popular in penjing, but they will work with your bonsai too as the same type of structures can be found in full size Japanese gardens. These are things like lanterns, little buildings, bridges, pagoda and even little temples.
Having one of these can really help to create some scale to a landscape.
Figurines That Are Part Of The Pot
These are not as common, but you can get pot where the figurine is built into the pot itself.
The classic example is the pot that sort of has two halves and there is a fisherman sitting in the middle. The idea is that you plant a tree on one side, and then the other side is for water. The end result should be that you have a fisherman sat under a tree, at the water’s edge.
You can also get other pots where it is a figurine of a person holding a pot … you then actually plant the tree in pot he is holding, so it now looks like he is holding your tree.
These can look cool, but you will find that they an acquired taste, not everyone is a fan of them.
Any Other Sort Of Figurine
There are no limits or rules here, you can really use anything that will fit and that can often mean kids toys or mini models.
Toy cars, toy soldiers, model railway stuff …anything you think works …you can use it.
Things To Consider When Adding A Figurine To A Bonsai
If you are going to add a figurine to your bonsai you should stop and think about a few things before you do. Basically you want it to add value to your tree, not take away from it, so I will quickly go through some things you should consider.
What Scale Does The Figurine Bring?
The whole point of your tree is that it looks miniature and adding a figurine is either going to help that or seriously ruin that illusion.
Really all you need to ask yourself is the figurine helps with adding scale or not. Does it make sense beside your tree and does it make it look more like a full size tree or not. This will of course depend on what the figurine is and where you place it, but it is something you need to assess.
What Story Does The Figurine Tell?
The figurine should be helping you tell a story, it should be helping whoever is looking at it feel like they are in the scene.
This will of course depend on your tree and your figurine. If we take my example of Bigfoot …I have him in a forest planting. I am trying to say my planting is an old, dense forest and what we are looking at is deep in the wilderness. There is moss and stones and a lot of trees and somewhere in between all that is Bigfoot …hopefully he adds to this scene and people can instantly understand what I’m trying to express.
If I placed him on a different tree, the story might not make as much sense. Let’s say I place him under my portulacaria afra. This is more of a hot climate tree. The tree looks tropical and is also a single tree … why would Bigfoot be anywhere near this one tree in the hot dry weather? He should be hiding deep in the woods, using the multiple trunks to disguise his movements.
Don’t Forget the Soil Surface
The tree and figurine are important, but you should not overlook the soil surface as this all plays a part in the scene and can help bring everything together.
This really comes down to having moss or not. For Bigfoot, he needs moss, it helps make the forest look more dense and forest like.
If you are trying to tell the story of a tree on a savannah and you have a lion as your figurine … you probably don’t want a lot of moss and you want it to look a little sandier.
Does The Figurine Distract You From The Tree?
A huge problem with figurines is that they just distract the viewer. You want it to add to the tree and for it to be subtle.
It can be very easy to over use them, or have them placed in a really prominent position which is not ideal. You want the tree to be the focus and the figurine to compliment this.
If we look at my Bigfoot again …he is kind of hiding in the back. I almost don’t want people to notice him right away. I want them to be leaning in and looking into the forest, as if they are actually there, walking through the woods and as they scan around …they spot him and hopefully they feel like they are actually stood deep in the woods and have caught glimpse of him.
Less Is More
I think it is also important to remember that less is often more when it comes to these types of things. You can easily go over board and end up with too many things going on.
You can quickly make things look cheesy and like some sort of over decorated fish tank. One small figurine can say a lot and will probably work better than having a few different ones.
While you may want to create a landscape type scene, you can do this naturally, just allow what you have to suggest to the viewer what is happening, then the figurine can then accent this.
You don’t need to explicitly make everything look realistic and an actual miniature landscape, it can all be implied which is why less is often more.
Hopefully now you have a bit of a better understanding around figurines and how you might be able to use them yourself.
If they are used properly they can really add to a tree and help tell the story you are trying to portray, as well as help it look more in scale.
It can be easy to over use them, or use them badly, so take the time to decide if a figurine makes sense with your tree and if it can actually add to it, or distract from it.
Hi, I’m Ian. I discovered bonsai in 2014 and I’ve been hooked ever since. I created this site to spread all the knowledge I have acquired over the years. Don’t forget to check out my Youtube videos where I show the progress of my Bonsai