Initial Styling in the “Grey Area”

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.

Here’s is an interesting branch with some nice movement

Here is some shari on the trunk.  Not the most interesting shari or trunk in the world but it’s okay.

I thought this area was a nice feature to the tree.  There is some very nice  curvy aged weathered wood here.

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.

Here’s a shot of the whole tree cleaned up.

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.

Here’s a little jin work I did on a branch I didn’t need alive.  Making jin and shari are always easiest when the wood is fresh.  You can grab a little bit of the wood with pliers and peel it back.  When doing this, the wood will peel along it’s own grain and give you a very natural effect.  Cutting against the grain with a tool will look man made forever.  Cutting with the grain will always look natural.

This curvy branch was killed off to make an interesting jin.  I like how it somewhat mimics the larger lower jin.

I added this big shari per the instructions of Mr. Tanaka.  Junipers always look better when there are more deadwood then live wood on the trunk.  As the tree matures the live area will bulge out making it look even older.  The dead area will start to weather and too will look older.

After I finished wiring the tree, Mr. Tanaka sat back and looked at the overall tree.

Here is the results of the initial styling.  The tree was coming forward to much so we tilted the tree back a little.  I also did a quick pot transfer because the pot it was in was a Japanese antique pot.  I told Mr. Tanaka I wanted to buy it and he said, “how come you always want to buy my favorite pots?”  I guess it’s not or sale…  I put the tree by the house because the area is protected from the hot summer sun.  After bending or cutting a tree in the summer, we always put it under shade for a couple of weeks.  This entire project took me about 2 1/2 days to complete

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.

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7 thoughts on “Initial Styling in the “Grey Area”

  1. Peter Tea says:

    Thanks for reading Benny!,

    The vein questions is a difficult topic. They way I learned was just by experience looking at live and dead areas on many many trees. Of course, when the bark is off, it’s a lot easier to see. If you decided to keep the bark on, sometimes you can’t tell where things are going, you can only get a ballpark estimate to where the line goes.

    My suggestion is to study more trees and start to pick up on the subtle differences from live to dead. They do show a slight color difference and sometimes looks flat compared to the lives veins around it. You can also look at the bark pattern lines and if you see it going from the root to a dead branch, that will tell you that some part of it is dead, but not necessarily all of it because the flow of the vein can shift to feed another branch.

    I’ll be honest though, sometimes with the bark on, you just can’t tell and you have to slightly peel a safe area just to check out what’s underneath.

    As for creating shari on a live area, again, gotta look at the lines on the vein and figure out where it is going and understanding if it’s feeding something major. There is a fine line between cutting enough and cutting too much. If the vein goes to a weak area, cut less. If the vein goes to a strong area, you usually can cut more. Always cut with the grain of the vein and not across it. Just like if you cut deadwood across the grain, in the future it will always look strange.

    That’s about all I can really say about the vein. It would be easier and more informative if I could show you instead of writing it. I hope this helps you somewhat thought.

    and yes, the screw in the branch should work just fine on Junipers.

    Take care Benny

    • Benny says:

      Thank you Peter. Your explanation clears things up just a little. I understand that some things must be shown in person and I greatly appreciate your effort trying to explain it. I guess I will have to find myself a teacher.

  2. Benny says:

    Hi Peter,
    First off, a big “thank you” to your willingness to share the knowledge. Though this is my first comment, I’ve followed your posts for a while. Now comes the question – (think you can get off that easily?)

    Would you elaborate a little more on how to identify the ‘live vein” on a juniper if it has bark all around and no obvious bulge or flat area to indicate the active and inactive parts? If the tree has no dead vein to create shari, can we create it without killing the tree or a critical branch?

    On your post on JBP, you showed us a new technique of bending a branch by anchoring a stainless steel screw to the underside of it. Would that technique work on juniper and other species as well?

    Warm regards,

  3. David says:

    Peter, you do some inspirational work over there.
    I check your ‘go’ almost every day, to see if there is something new to learn from. Education and enjoying is a great combination! Tx 🙂
    Great work!!!

  4. Peter Tea says:

    I thought this was a great comment from Dave on Facebook so I’m posting it here.

    Dave wrote: “Peter, you’ve hit upon one of the biggest things holding back the US from producing truly world-class bonsai. Everyone assumes the tree needs to look good at all times. That’s just not the case. Heck, it’s almost *never* the case. One analogy I use is that training a tree for show is a bit like a world-class runner. They don’t run at full speed all the time – otherwise they’d die. Trees are the same way. Work, rest, work, rest, work, rest. Groom for show, rest, rest, rest, work rest, work, rest. Etc. Thank you!”

    Thanks for reading the post Dave! I agree with you 100 percent!

  5. Thanks for saying all this Peter. Many times I’ve been to a show where freshly styled trees are shown and I wonder why the owner seems to take more joy in a new creation rather than refining an older one.

    I haven’t shown now for several years and people ask me “why not, you have some lovely trees.”, and I reply that I am working to make them better and that process means they don’t look very good right now.

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