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Taking a Step Back: Ikebana Lesson 0

In sharing my Ikebana learning experience via my first and second lessons, I basically jumped in with vocabulary and positioning. Along the way, I made various comments on refinements, but as my class has progressed I realize there are some details to share that really make the difference. We recently had our midterm lessons and Spring Break this week, so it seems like the perfect time to take a step back and cover some nuances.

Besides just naming the tools, it helps to be specific on how to use them. Besides naming the materials, it helps to know how to choose them. Knowing what you’re looking for in your plants is key. Knowing how to manipulate the materials is key as well. No material goes into an arrangement unaltered. Ikebana, like all floristry, is an art. It artificially manipulates the natural to evoke emotion from the viewer. It can have meaning, it can simply be a colorful decor tie-in, it can be symbolic figuratively or literally.

The classes I’ve taken so far have been on basic styles, and sticking to the stricter rules and regulations of Ikebana. This is what I’ve been passing along. As a student progresses we gain more and more freedom of expression and the rigidity of what is expected lessens. But first we have to learn the formal basics. First we have to experiment with materials. As we experience how to use materials we can begin to imagine how to use them differently, and mastering the basics keeps our mind focused on the framework that taps into the deeper human connection with the arrangement, the triangulation that satisfies the mind on a subconscious level.

If you do a Google search of Ikebana images you’ll notice that you appreciate some more than others. What is it that makes you like one more than another? Is it the colors? The branches or leaves or flowers used? The container it’s in? The shape? Likely, it’s a combination of these things. The most appealing arrangements will be framing something. That something is space. There will be some sort of focus within the center of the basic triangle, a floral focal point, but the overall sense of appeal comes from the spacial framing. The branches and flowers of the triangle are angled such that your focus is within them. If they point outward from the center, your eye is sent in that direction and you lose focus on the intended center.

Choosing plants and containers is a bit of a chicken-or-egg situation. Do you choose plants and get a container to go with? Do you choose a container and pair it with plants? Depends on the sitch. In class so far, I know what type of arrangement is expected of me, so I’m picking plants for a particular type of arrangement. In the “real world”, however, you will have different considerations. You could have a bunch of cuttings from your garden that you just want to put together. You could have a space that calls for an arrangement, and have to pick the style to fit the space. Learning all the styles helps to open the repertoire of what you can do to rise to the occasion.

You can see on this Pride of Madeira how the upper flower spikes would be great for Shin or Soe, and the few at the bottom are naturally shaped to be Hikae.

Choosing Plant Materials| Our first two lessons have been in the basic upright style, using both Moribana (arrangement in a dish) and Nageire (arrangement in a tall vase). I’ve begun the series of classes venturing into the next step of the basic slanting style, which opens up the arrangement’s frame to create a wider triangle vs. a tall narrow one like the upright style. I’ll go into deeper detail on that after the series of classes. Stay tuned. 🙂 With either style, it’s important to look at the shape of the branch or flower you’re cutting. Is it suited to one or the other style? If the flowers are an upright spike, downward-drooping heads, a ball of tiny flowers, or a solid mass will determine how they fit into a piece. Hold the materials at different angles and decide which side or angle of a cutting looks best. You want to be able so see into a rose almost head-on, but a spike of gladiolas head-on loses its depth. Take notice. Is this one wanting to be Shin, Soe, or Hikae? Does it want to slant or be upright? Does it stay in the position you want it to, or does it flop and become difficult? Sometimes the arrangement has to come from the materials at hand.

Remember that you want your Shushi, those three pieces that make your triangle, to work together. The three points can be all the same plant material (Isshu-ike) or more, but all need to be harmonious. Combinations of shapes and textures and colors define the piece. Using all spiky materials creates a busier (exciting to the eye) piece that can be toned with softer materials in the Jushi (supporting pieces). Using all round, soft shapes creates a challenge in forming the points of the triangle but can be great if done well. Best balance is to have a variety of shapes to choose from to keep the finished arrangement from appearing boring. Grab your materials together in different combinations in your hands. Lay out different pieces and juggle them around until you’re satisfied with your combination, with the color interactions, with the shapes. If you feel your colors don’t quite go together, and have no formal background in color blending, try taking one away or adding a color that’s similar or contrasting to your others, until you like with what you have to work with. The internet will have plenty of great links about complementary colors and hues, and can be an excellent resource if you’d like to put more effort into understanding color interactions.

Choosing Containers| Generally, the container is simply a vessel to present the arrangement, but it can play a more focused role in a piece. Black or white containers effectively “disappear”, putting the focus entirely on the plant materials. Containers with color or texture need to be paired with plant materials that complement the vessel, not detract or override it. It needs to become as one. (Watch the Coliseum/chariot scene from Braveheart so you can holler out “As One! As One!” with real conviction whilst arranging.) Clear containers will come into play more as we go down the road of classes, because they present the challenge of either needing to hide unsightly cut ends of plants or making them a design focus.

The shape of the container dictates the type of arrangement. A shallow dish of water (Suiban) means you’re using Kenzan (a floristry frog) or doing a floating arrangement (Ukibana). This is better for centerpieces where you need to see over them, and also is great for underneath a hanging picture or such. A tall vase (Tsutsu) holds a Nageire arrangement. This style is easier to create (no special hardware required) but makes a poor centerpiece at a dinner table. Better for side tables and buffet arrangements and that sort of thing. Be aware of where the finished arrangement will be spending its days, and make it suit the space.

Almost anything can be a vessel for Ikebana. If it holds water, it works fine. Be conscious of how porous a material is. Dishes that are not glazed inside or otherwise waterproof will evaporate faster and possibly also damage what they’re sitting on. Keep that in mind when selecting. Might not be a problem for a short-term arrangement, necessarily.

Scale of the vessel is important, too. Generally speaking, your Suiban should be about a foot in diameter. About. And the same is true of height for your Tsutsu. The larger the container, the larger the plants need to be, and vice versa.

Using the Tools| There are some specifics to the basic tools that I left out in that first lesson. In using Kenzans, the cut of the materials can really make a difference when you’re trying to jam something into a bed of needle-sharp nails. My knuckles did not like my first arrangement much. Not much at all. They suffered greatly because I wasn’t cutting right, and then was not paying attention to how to position the branches, at that. I bent and damaged my Kenzan, and those things can be expensive to replace. Really, they should last for many generations if used carefully. I still had a successful arrangement, and my Kenzan still works, but it could have been easier all around…

Kenzans are sharp brass or steel, but the needles are embedded in pure lead and can easily flex at the base and misalign. Stiff, woody branches are hard to jam into the bed, especially if they’re thick. Cutting them at a 45 degree angle makes them easier to poke into the bed of nails. You insert the point vertically, then you lean the branch into its final position. You don’t try to jam the branch into the nails with it already leaning at the final angle, because it will settle and drop below your intended position. Or it’ll suddenly pop into the nails, bringing your knuckles with it. Ikebana for Beginners requires bandages when you’re working with Kenzans! 🙂

Flower stems are different. They aren’t woody. If you cut them at an angle, you have less mass to hold in place in the nails. Cut flowers stems blunt, but still insert them vertically, then tilt into position.

Skinny stems and leaves make great Jushi, but sometimes they are too skinny for self-support. Sometimes you have to cut a snip of something thicker to use as a pedestal of sorts. Cut a piece the size of a pencil-end eraser, and insert the skinny plant piece into the snippet. Then you have something that will get a grip in the Kenzan. You also sometimes can make a stilt to hold something up, a little one-to-two-inch cut of branch jammed in the Kenzan to prop up a leaning flower.

Lastly, the plant materials get placed in the Kenzan in specific places. The three lines of Shushi should never cross each other. They should be inserted in a triangle, leaving a clear perimeter around the outside of the Kenzan. All the supporting Jushi are to be inserted within the triangle of the inserted ends of the Shushi. If the arrangement wants to fall over because the lean is too much for the Kenzan, you can use a second Kenzan to weigh it down: just put the second one upside-down on the edge of the first, the nails interlocking.

Manipulating Plant Materials| I mentioned that, basically, no material goes into an arrangement unaltered. A branch of English laurel covered in leaves and flower spikes, for example, is lovely. It’s difficult to fit into an arrangement, though. You want to snip off leaves and flowers and side branches to bring the focus where you want it, to make it less of a natural branch and more of an artistic presentation of the plant.

This English laurel bush is too bushy to be used as it is.

A branch ending in a cluster of flowers needs to be thinned. You’re wanting to narrow it down to, basically, one flower. A smaller supporting flower or bud is acceptable, and a strategically-left-behind leaf is lovely. The cluster of flowers is too busy to the eye to best present their form. Thinning lets you see the beauty of the individual by allowing your eye to focus on the detail and removing the “static” around it.

Same holds true with a branch. All the twigs sticking out the sides can be a distraction from the graceful curve of the branch you’ve selected. Take off all or most of the twigs and forks, taking away anything that breaks up the space you’re trying to frame with your branches.

Thinning out some Ceanothus.

Sometimes you have to physically reshape a material to make it more pleasing within your composition. Lots of classmates are using French broom from a florist’s shop. It’s a rigid, vertical cluster of tight green branchlets. A broom, in other words. Unless they are designing a rigid, vertical arrangement, they generally flex and bend the branches to give them some curve. In some cases, dry plant materials (cane or kiwi vine, in particular) will get soaked in water overnight so they can be shaped and dried into shape. That’ll come with our future lessons, though.

Other Details| Besides the selection and tool guidance, there are some other details that make or break an arrangement. The fineries, if you will. One of those things is numbers. We’ve been working off a triangle. That’s the shape that forms the basic framework of our arrangements. Triangles are, naturally, a base of three. In Ikebana, and indeed among many Asian cultures, three and five are good numbers. They are appealing, soothing, and offer the opportunity to create asymmetrical symmetry. Four is to be avoided. On one hand, four is too rigid to work into a triangular structure. But more specifically, four is a number symbolizing death. In some countries, it signifies completion of a cycle (the four seasons) and is the end of the cycle, the death of it. In China specifically (and others?) “four” and “death” are literally the same word, and the number is avoided like the number thirteen in European based cultures. Superstition aside, sticking with threes and fives soothes and satisfies the viewer.

Lesson I also covered cut lengths, but just a recap: your plant materials should be cut to a length that “fits” with the container. The basic ratio is to start with the “size” of your container. The size is the diameter plus the height. Shin should be 1 1/2 times the size of your container, Soe should be 3/4 of Shin, and Hikae should be 3/4 of Soe. That’s basic size. You can get a bit more exuberant with your design by going up to large size (Shin at twice your container size, the others at their same ratios) or make it more demure with a smaller size (Shin the size of your container…) Mostly we just go with basic size, though.

Midterm arrangement number 1: Basic upright Moribana, with Echium (Pride of Madeira) and Leucadendron ‘Safari Goldstrike’.

Midterm arrangement number 2: Basic upright Nageire, using Grevillea ‘Long John’ with Ceanothus.

Well, in class we have moved on from basic upright style to basic slanting. Stay tuned for the next post, highlighting these next lessons!

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2 responses to “Taking a Step Back: Ikebana Lesson 0

  1. Pingback: Variation #2: Ikebana Lesson V | boZannical Gardens

  2. Pingback: Variation #4 and Freestyle: Ikebana Lesson VII | boZannical Gardens

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