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Styling - Developing an eye

If there is one subject that seems to baffle beginners in Bonsai it is the question of styling. While there are many differing views, beneath it all there are a few basic principles that form a foundation. I remember being in the same position myself and know that it can be a daunting subject that can not be summed up in a few sentences but having gone through the learning process I will try and pass on some techniques.

Hopefully you will find this article useful and maybe in the process of transferring thoughts to keyboard, I will realise something that has been hiding in the depths of my subconscious for a while. All the answers will not be here but the questions raised will prove invaluable.

Styling and a sense of good, bad, right or wrong can be viewed in an infinite number of ways and no two opinions will be the same. Ask a group of people to draw a simple object or write a short descriptive sentence and the results will differ greatly. The same applies to Bonsai and it is the way that you view the world that will determine and influence your taste. Thus the answer to your styling dilemma lies within. It can not be defined in any written form and what you need is the stimulation to unlock those dormant creative processes. Along with this comes the confidence to make decisions that seem right to you. Whether the finished item looks good to anybody else depends largely on basic rules of aesthetics and it is here that we will begin.

An introduction to Perfect Proportion.

The highest compliment that you can receive is for someone to look at a picture of your Bonsai taken against a black background and not know how big or small it is. This is known as perfect proportion and applies to almost everything that has been designed with good aestetics in mind.

Forget trees for a moment and consider the human race. It is undeniable that certain individuals are more "attractive" than others. Why? Think of your favourite film star or television personality. How many times have you been watching an award show or chat show where people you don't normally see standing together appear in comparison. How often have you heard said "I never realised he was so tall" or "She's only tiny isn't she". These are usually the more attractive ones and part of their appeal is there qualities of perfect proportion. Several spring to mind but yours will undoubtedly differ. Now move away from the good ones and you will find examples of people who are less than perfect in some way. You immediately know they are taller or shorter than average because something in the overall impression betrays their scale. They lack Perfect Proportion.
Taken to extremes, persons of restricted growth at one end of the scale and gigantic basketball players at the other demonstrate this point. It is this sense of perfect proportion that separates Bonsai masterpieces from the would be works of art and while ideas of perfection differ, there is a fairly broad band that can be considered acceptable. So how do we achieve this magical quality in our trees. Well the first step has to be to recognise it. Look at everything around you and ask yourself whether it exhibits perfect proportion. It could be anything you like, cars, people, furniture, even trees because though nature is supposed to provide the inspiration for Bonsai, not every tree is perfect. As much, if not more can be gained from looking at bad examples. What you consider good or bad is up to you but be critical and ask yourself if objects look right.
Take away the lessons learnt from this exercise and lock them away in your sub-conscious. Before long they will surface as you try to make those critical decisions as to whether a branch should stay or go, be bent or straight. Pick up on the shapes and forms that you automatically consider good or bad. Try not to think too hard, rely on your instincts. If they turn out to be wrong then your instincts need more training. Knowing where you went wrong is all part of the process.

That's enough beating about the bush. You've done your homework, you know what you like and your head is bursting with ideas and concepts that can be used on your trees.
So lets run through the process of styling an actual tree.

When I first look at a tree and begin to explore the possibilities as Bonsai, I try to break down the process into stages. The final result will depend on the raw material available and how much you have to work with. The term "finished" should not necessarily be viewed as how your tree will turn out when it reaches the show table. Look at what you have and consider the limit of what you can do with what you have. Not every piece of raw material can be fully styled in one go so look to go only to a position where the next stage can proceed unhindered. This may be growing extra branches, thickening certain areas, or increasing ramification so your work on the tree should prepare it fully for this process without jeopardising future prospects. It may be that the only thing that needs doing at present is chopping the trunk down to a desirable height. Then nature must be allowed time to produce new growth or it may be that you have all the right ingredients in all the right places and need to carve, prune, wire and style a multitude of branches.
Either way the first step remains the same. Look for the trees best feature. Does it have a wonderful root base, or maybe an interesting movement in the trunk or perhaps some interesting dead wood? Whatever catches your eye is usually the best place to start. Use this as the focal point and shape everything else to enhance this feature.

Let us take an example, nothing complicated, and try and apply these principles. This Larch was collected 12 months ago from a shale bank and was growing at roughly the angle you see here. It has been growing in a plant pot ever since and during the growing season it was pinched vigorously and has responded with increased ramification. So what are we going to do with it? Stop for a moment and consider what you might do. Form your own opinions to see if you have learnt anything yet while I go and make a cup of tea.

Ah, that's better. It's nothing special is it. But then it would be easy to style something that possessed all the ingredients. So, what is the best point?

No, not the plant pot!

Well the bend in the base of the trunk and the exposed roots behind it jumped out at me even before I dug it up.
Cascade style shouts at me but this is Larch. Experience tells me that some species do not like growing downwards and Larch is one of them. In general, deciduous species rebels against the anti-gravitational processes involved. It can be done but it means keeping the tree on its side so that it thinks it is growing upwards. Possible, but not entirely practical if you want your display to look good all the time. Compromise pulls me towards semi-cascade. This will allow me to show off the best feature but will alleviate, at least in part, the problems of a full cascade.


At this point it is worth making a quick sketch of what you want to achieve. It doesn't have to be a work of art, just enough to help you see whether you can include all the necessary elements using what you have in the pot. A tree in this style will need an interesting curvy trunk with branches placed on all sides with some elements crossing the trunk line to break up the flow and stop the eye running away and off the end of the trunk. It will also need a crown made up from a branch that is pulled up and back. You can test the importance of any of the elements at this stage. Take your sketch and cover up any of the elements. See what it looks like. Better or worse? Needed or not needed? If the picture is lacking something then obviously that emphasises the importance of the covered part. Still concentrating on the best feature, get the position right so that you know where the front is and mark it with a plant label or chopstick.
At this point I have to insert some more theory into the mix. Don't be tempted to skip over it though because this is the important bit!
The tip of the trunk should always be the closest to the viewer and ideally the middle of the trunk should be the furthest away while the base is somewhere in the middle. In considering the various parts of your tree, imagine each pad of foliage as a triangle and when placing each element avoid straight vertical or horizontal lines at all cost. All elements have strategic points that correspond to the points of our triangles. Never place an element directly above another element and never place two elements at the same level. Lines drawn from the strategic points both vertically and horizontally should not pass through any other points.
Ok you can relax now but take a moment to digest these ideas and bear in mind that the best trees are the ones that bend these rules as far as possible without breaking them!

Next, remove all obviously unnecessary branches. If in doubt leave it for now. Then wire everything that is going to be moved, right down to the tips. Once fully wired shape the trunk if applicable.
Begin shaping with the most important branch. In this case it will be the crown. It should be considered as a triangle and should be placed slightly off centre from the trunk base and the pot.


Having established a pleasing relationship between the crown and the root base, move down to the next branch and repeat the exercise. Place, size and shape the branch so that it forms a pleasing contrast with previously placed elements.
Continue with the rest of the branches, adjusting and standing back often. Work with your instincts. Apply the rules but let the creative juices flow and trust in your perception of what looks right and what looks wrong. At the end of your session you will have started your tree on the road to becoming Bonsai.

So there you have it, the outline comprising of a collection of elements placed in a pleasing arrangement that will form the basis of your future Bonsai.
It's not perfect but then nothing is but I am pleased with the finished result based on what I started with. Ok, there are elements missing that would be beneficial in an ideal world like a back branch, but in this style you can get away with it. When the needles come out it will look totally different and as the pinching starts and the tweeking kicks in it will take on a life of its own.

I hope these few words have helped and inspired in some way and given you the confidence to practice on something else. Even if you don't have a tree to work on, imagine what your ideal material would look like and sketch away. Start with different main features and place the other elements around it. If it looks good on paper then it will be even easier with the real thing.

I know that I have not covered everything so if you have any further questions then please feel free to drop me a line.

Mark Kennerley Jan 2005












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