Styling Notes: Identifying problem areas and taking action.

When styling trees there are always problems to be solved.  Each tree is a bit like a puzzle.  If the pieces are in their proper place you can see the picture clearly.  Anyone who has ever attempted to style a tree knows what it’s like to completely run out of ideas and still be left with a tree that doesn’t match the expected result.  Usually the solution is just a matter of fine tuning, and to do this we need to identify the problems and do what we can to correct them.  There is no secret to identifying problem areas.  like most things, it just takes practice and practice and more practice.  A bit of guidance goes a long way too!

This is where being a bonsai apprentice really becomes valuable.  As an apprentice, my daily work is nothing but practice, and my technique is critiqued and adjusted regularly by Mr. Tanaka.  By doing so he helps me develop a strong sense of what is holding a tree back from looking it’s best.  Slowly I’m learning to see bonsai and my own work differently, though I’ve got a lot more to learn.  Lately I’ve started craving the critiques.  Every mistake he points out is an opportunity for me to improve.  In this post I’d like to share some of my notes from a small white pine I recently styled.  Let’s get started by taking a look at the material.


This tree has some really nice features.  It’s pretty old and has spent a lot of years in the pot.  The trunk has developed many layers of bark, there are plenty lot of branches to work with and the leaf character is great for a tree of this size.  Coffee mug for scale.

a closer look at the trunk movement and branches.

a closer look at the trunk movement and branches.

The next step is to wire everything, bring the branches down and put them in their proper place.  We like to arrange the branches in a way that provides even spacing between the buds.  This leaves plenty of room for new buds to fill in.

After wiring and styling.

After wiring and styling.

The photo above is after applying wire to every branch, bending them down and spreading them out evenly.  At this point, the tree looks pretty good but we can take a few more steps to make it better.  This is the time where we can really look at the tree closely and determine the good, the bad and the ugly.  Once we know what we don’t like we can think up ways to effectively improve the situation.

my personal notes.

my personal notes.

In figure 2. I’ve identified and labeled the problem areas.  Lets take a closer look.  The first branch is too low.  Informal uprights with a 1st branch extending below the pot is a little bit strange and many would agree that it’s usually in bad taste.  Heres the issue though, we need it to maintain that angle in order to get the branches above it in their proper place.

Additionally, the apex is really round.  Old trees usually have a round apex, but this one is over the limit.  It looks a little bit un-natural and in this situation is causing the tree to look very heavy at the top.

Here is where things get interesting.  The root of both previously mentioned issue is a branch just below the apex.  Clearly marked as branch A. in figure 2.  If we could move branch A down just a little more, the branches above it could come down as well, resulting in a sharper apex.  The trouble is that the branch is already at it’s limit, visually.  Giving branch A more of an aggressive angle would solve one visual problem by creating another.  In some cases, removing a higher branch could allow space to bring the other branches down, however in this case we can not.  All remaining branches are pretty important for keeping the tree balanced and should be used if possible.

So what can we do?  Let’s tilt the tree!

Properly applied and effective angle change.

The angle change technique.  In certain cases such as this, it’s necessary and really helps the tree come together.  The down side of this technique is that it leaves us with a sideways tree until the next re-pot.  So before using it, consider the actual effectiveness.  If it won’t strengthen the design, it should be avoided.  Moving forward…by changing the tree’s angle we can now bring branch A down more without disturbing the visual balance.  Allowing us to bring the branches above it down as well, without having to cut off a branch.  The follow through effect is that all of the branches on the other side then have available space to move up a little.  Bringing that problem 1st branch up to a more tasteful level just about flush with the lip of the pot.  As a bonus the angle change enhanced the movement of the trunk making it a bit more interesting and less upright/static.

And now for a little before/after comparison.

Small white pine.  Coffee mug for scale.

Baseline photo before styling

After wiring and styling.

After wiring and styling.

Fine tuned.  All work is completed for now.

Fine tuned. All work is completed for now.

For now all work that can be done on this tree has been done.  Problem areas have been identified and effective solutions applied.  Thinking about bonsai work in this way really makes it even more fun and challenging for me.  Each tree is a new puzzle to put solve.  Hopefully you enjoyed my notes.

As always, thank you for reading!

Until next time…