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
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
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
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
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
||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
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