Initial Styling in the “Grey Area”

Updated: Oct 8

A few days ago I was tasked with doing an initial styling on a Shimpaku Juniper.  We plan on taking the tree to auction in October so we wanted to get it looking good.  My instructions were to get the main branches in good position and give the tree a general shape.  “It doesn’t have to be perfect, just make it presentable for the auction,” says Mr. Tanaka.  I believe this was his way of telling me to not spend too much time on this tree or at least make it quick.

Initial styling vs. Refined styling

Before I get into the meat of this post, I wanted to talk about the difference between an initial styling as oppose to a refined styling. Initial stylings are always the most difficult because it’s up to the artist to figure out where all the branches should go and what to cut.  If the tree was already refined, the branches would already be in a good location and it’s just a matter of fine tuning the foliage and pads.  Not to say that refinement work is not difficult either, it’s just different then the initial styling work.  Initial styling requires you to become creative and forces you to make the tough decisions on what to cut and the overall style of the tree.  In the future I will post something on refined styling.

So what is an initial styling all about?

An initial styling is figuring out what you want to create using the core of the tree.  Core, meaning the trunk and main branches. Deciding what the style is going to be and what you need to do with the branches to achieve that style.  When the work is done, the tree doesn’t always look pretty.  Sometimes things need to grow, sometimes areas are too weak to work on at the moment.  Nobody should be showing a tree after an initial styling.  A tree should be shown sometime after a refined styling.

A little bit of both worlds (grey area technique)

In the case of this tree, I needed to do the initial styling and make the tree look somewhat good for the auction.  This, “grey area technique,” is used when a tree needs to be sold or used for a demonstration to the public.  This is by no means, the correct way to truly develop a bonsai, but sometimes necessary.  The important part is to understand when to use this method and when no to use it. Demonstration and sales, yes, creating world class bonsai, a definite no.  This tree has never been styled before.  A couple of years ago, a couple of branches were made jins and the tree was repotted to the intended front.  The branches were also cut back to promote interior back budding.

Let’s get to work!

First thing I did was looked at the tree and all the features it has.  With Shimpaku, you’re usually looking for nice curvy movements in the live and dead areas.  Those features are what makes the tree look good and interesting, so we try to show as much of it off as possible.

First step: Cleaning

The first thing I do after review the tree is clean the tree.  Shimpaku has a nice reddish bark.  I spent some time peeling off the exterior bark to show the reddish interior bark.  Once the tree is clean, you can really start to see where the life lines are and all the subtle curves in them.

Jin and Shari

For those that don’t know what Jin and Shari is, here is the definition.  Jin is a dead branch, shari is a dead section on the trunk. After I cleaned the tree, I focused on the jin and shari areas.

My work corrections

Mr. Tanaka looked at my work and I believe he was happy with it.  He did make some adjustments though.  Some of the main adjustments was the main branch on the lower right.  It was coming too forward so he pulled it back with a guy wire.  A few of the middle branches were pulled forward slightly.  The top canopy of the tree wasn’t changed too much.  Overall, Mr. Tanaka didn’t adjust too many things.  I think I did okay. :o)

That “grey area technique,” again

In the next couple of months, the tree will grow some and fill in a little bit more.  The tree is by no means, show ready but has a good start.  I talked to Mr. Tanaka about some of the branch work that I did.  Many of the branches were very long and leggy and how I shorted them was by putting a lot of curves in them.  The curves were almost too excessive.  The ideal thing to do was to continue to cut the tree back and allow more back branches to grow.  When a branch is too long, it’s very difficult to use.  The easiest thing to do is to cut it back, grow new branches and get rid of the long branch.  By getting rid of the bad branches, the interior branch structure will be more beautiful and natural.  There are many good branches in this tree but there are also many bad ones.  If I did the ideal cuts to this tree, the results would not look like the finished product.  Since we’re trying to sell this tree, I had to use some of the bad branches to make the tree more marketable.  Again, working in that grey area.

For those that want to produce a high quality tree, stay away from this grey area technique that I’ve used.   Do what needs to be done with the tree correctly and create the best possible tree you can.  Don’t take short cuts just so the tree can look, “pretty.”  The correct way of developing Bonsai takes time and patients, and the result is a great tree.  Always be weary of bonsai articles and demonstrations that show big transformation in an initial styling because they mostly work in this grey area.  It’s mainly used to promote the artist but even the artist themselves, know that this is not the way to create great Bonsai.  It’s just a show and the audience always likes to see a show.  The important thing for the bonsai enthusiast out is to recognize this technique and to learn from an artist that knowns how to turn the show off.  When you find those valuable artists out there, they will help train you to create beautiful Bonsai and I know we all want that…

Thanks for reading.