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STEP 2 – Selecting a Style

Selecting the style of your tree is a rather subjective choice, as what one person thinks is a great tree, may not be for the next person. That said, there are a few basic principles to follow, which I will explore a little later.

There are basically two schools of thought when it comes to styling a Bonsai: the natural style and the recognised Japanese styles that have been formulated over the years. Many styles are evident, as seen in Charles Ceronio’s book “Bonsai Styles of the World”, however they all fall into one of the five basic styles. These are the best styles to start off with as a beginner, and as you become more proficient in Bonsai, you can start exploring the other styles. These more complicated styles will be discussed in another article at a later stage.

Formal Upright Style (Chokkan)
This is the most basic looking style of Bonsai, but don’t let looks deceive you. It is one of the hardest styles to master, but is the most rewarding. The tree that is grown in the formal upright style has to be grown in the most perfect conditions. The most important requirement for this style is that the trunk must be perfectly straight, tapering naturally and evenly from base to apex. The branches should be symmetrically spaced so that they are balanced when viewed from any direction.

To achieve the perfect formal upright, about one third of the trunk is to be visible from the front, either from the base to the first branch or as a whole from base to apex. The placement of branches follows a general pattern. The lowest branch is the longest and is trained to grow to an equivalent to a third of the total height of the tree. This is to be the 'heaviest' branch, making a right angle to the trunk. The second branch is directly opposite the first branch but is higher up the trunk. The third branch is positioned to the back of the tree, higher up and shorter that the second branch. As the branch structure ascends, they taper assuming a triangular shape. The top of the bonsai is usually very thick and full with foliage making it difficult to see its internal structure through the mass of leaves or needles.

Depending on what species of tree you are using, the whole tree does not have to be symmetrical but rather the branches could ascend by alternating on each side. Typically, when viewed from the top, the first branch should be positioned between 3 and 4 o’clock, the second branch between 8 and 9 o’clock, and the third between 1 and 2 o’clock. No two branches should be directly above each other, not only would it not look right, but also the higher branches would be restricting the sunlight to the lower ones, restricting photosynthesis.

The branches and trunk of a formal upright bonsai always take on a very distinctive taper. This is achieved by cutting the growing tip of the trunk or branch with each new year and wiring a new branch into position to form the apex. This is something quite hard to do, however it produces a stunning result when the trunk starts to mature and the taper starts becoming prominent.

Informal Upright (Moyogi)
The informal upright is the most commonly seen style, with a similar branch formation and positioning to the formal upright, except that the trunk snakes around as it moves up to its apex. The apex should also bend slightly forward, as if bowing to the viewer. It mimics what is seen in nature where trees bend or alter their direction away from wind, shade, other trees, buildings, rocks, or towards light. In an informal upright bonsai the trunk should slightly bend to the right or left, with the distance between the bends becoming progressively smaller as it reaches its apex. An informal upright bonsai basically uses the same principles of the formal upright bonsai only that it is informal.

The style still requires a tapered trunk, however the trunk direction and branch positioning is more informal and closer to the way a tree would look when exposed to the elements. The trunk usually takes on an unexpected curve or series of twists and the branches are thus positioned to balance this effect. As with formal upright, the apex is usually very full with foliage and, despite the informal trunk, is to be directly above the base of the tree.

One important fact to remember here is that, as in nature, a branch should never grow from the inside of a bend.

Slanting (Shakan)
Trees that slant naturally occur a result of buffeting winds or deep shade during early development. Whether curved or straight, the whole trunk leans at a definite angle between thirty and seventy-five degrees. The roots are a vital with the slanting style, spread out horizontally to give the illusion of stability. The stronger roots grow out on the side, away from the angle of the trunk lean, giving the impression that they are anchoring the tree. The roots directly under the slant should have the appearance of being compressed as though the growth of the tree has squashed them against the side of the container.

The trunk can be either informal (curved) or formal (straight), but must be on an angle to either the right or left (never to the front), and the apex should not be directly over the base of the tree, but anywhere from slightly left or right to perpendicular to the rim of the container. This style is quite a simple one that can be achieved by many methods. At an early age, the bonsai can be trained to an angle by means of wiring the trunk until it is in position. Alternatively, the tree can be forced to grow in a slanted style by putting the actual pot on a slant, causing the tree to grow abnormally.

The lowest branch should spread in the opposite direction to that which the tree slants, and as with the previous styles, the lower branches are to be arranged in groups of three, starting about one-third up the trunk. The bottom-most three branches almost encircle the trunk, with two branches thrusting forward, one slightly higher than the other. The third branch, emanating from a point between the first two, is set at such an angle as to make the foliage appear lower than the other two. This pattern presents an easy way to tell front from back and sets the tone of the entire composition.

Full Cascade (Kengai)
This style portrays a tree that is hanging over the edge of a cliff. The growing tip of a cascade bonsai reaches below the base of a container. The trunk has a natural taper and gives the impression of the forces of nature pulling against the forces of gravity. The trunk starts growing upwards at an angle of forty-five degrees, and then turns down abruptly and starts growing downwards until it reaches a point below the base of the container.

The cascade can be produced with or without an upper trunk, but this should not exceed one-third of the cascading branches length. All that is required to create this style is a tall, narrow pot, which will enhance the style and accommodate the cascade and a species of plant that will willingly adopt this style if trained. The main trunk should be wired to spill over and down the edge of the pot, with the main focus on the major bend (forming an upside-down U shape). The first branch is always a back branch and the rest of the branches alternate towards the tip, but make sure that it does not start to look like a fish bone. The hanging branch/trunk should not hang formally, but have a fair amount of movement to it, and remember that the branches must not be on the inside of the curves. Another major aspect to remember is that both cascade and semi-cascade should be positioned right into the center of the pot, the opposite of what you would do for any other style.

If done right, this style of bonsai can be quite aesthetically pleasing.

Semi-Cascade (Han-Kengai)
As the name suggests, a semi-cascade is basically the same as a cascade - involving the same principles, however the tree (growing tip) does not drop below the base of the bonsai pot. Many semi-cascades do not even drop below the edge of the top of the pot.

The semi-cascade style occurs in nature when trees grow on cliffs or overhang water. The angle of the trunk in this bonsai is not specific, as long as the effect is strongly horizontal, even if the tree grows well below the level of the pot rim. Any exposed roots should balance the trunk, and as in the slanting style, the stronger roots are to spread in the opposite direction to the slant of the tree and the others compacted under the slant.

This style is perfect for Junipers.

Other Basic Styling Tips Even though selecting the style is a subjective matter, and depends on how the tree looks before hand, there are a few basic principles that must be followed when selecting your style.

  1. All bonsai design is based on the triangle, irrespective of the style, age or type of tree. These three points of the triangle are symbolic of Heaven, Earth and Man. These triangles can be at any angle, however, the formal upright must consist of an equilateral triangle. The triangular shapes should be evident from the front and the top of the tree, and even individual branches should represent this triangular shape.

  2. Select a style that suite the type of tree that you have selected. For example, you will not find an Azalea in a windswept or cascade style, so it is best not to select these styles. Rather use a broom style, or other appropriate style.

  3. Three steps to choosing the style for your tree:

    1. Choose the front: Place your tree on a table and turn it round in order to examine it from all sides. By doing this you will probably find a side that appeals to you the most, based on the arrangement of roots and branches, or the alignment of the trunk. This would then be the potential front of the tree. Alternatively, look for the side that has definite flaws and make this the back of the tree. This would mean that the side directly opposite would become the front of your tree.

      Four important aspects concerning the front of the tree: 1) the rootage should be spreading and well distributed to the viewer, 2) the trunkline should be pleasing, 3) the trunk should be an extension of the root buttress, 3) all the branches should be smaller and thinner than the trunk

    2. Check the silhouette: The silhouette is the outline of the branches of the tree defined by the height of the tree and the arrangement of the outermost branches. This outline should be slightly irregular so as to appear natural, but should be in a general triangular pattern as discussed earlier.

    3. Choose the apex: This could be a horizontal branch, a falling branch or a branch of a branch of a branch somewhere towards the top of your tree. Follow your trunkline to this possible apex and ask yourself, does it taper gradually in size, does it have large branches that can be successfully removed without destroying the overall design of the tree, and does the trunk support an adequate number and variety of branches to form a tree?

      Always examine every large branch. Sometimes the best trunk is actually a branch that needs to be wired into a vertical position. This is often the case when styling a cascade.

    4. After following these 3 basic steps, then the appropriate style should be rather evident to you. If not, do not hesitate to seek advice.
As I mentioned earlier, there are a wide variety of styles that can be used. Here is a list of some of the other styles with their main characteristics (where necessary). These styles will be covered in later articles.

This should be enough information to start you on the road of deciding on the correct style for your tree. Next time we will start to get our hands dirty and actually start working on the tree.

Last updated 2003.10.22