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The Five Main Bonsai Styles (part 1)


The five basic bonsai styles are formal upright, informal upright, slanting (or windswept), semi-cascade and cascade. All have their own individual beauty and serenity. I will now attempt to explain the basic principles of each style. Click on one of the links below for an explanation of each style.

Formal Upright

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A tree with a style such as formal upright occurs when it has grown in the open under perfect conditions. The most important clip_image002requirement for this style is that the trunk should 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. It is quite a demanding style to achieve.

Recommended Species: Larches, Junipers, Pines and Spruces are all suitable species. Maples can also be used, but are not as easy to train into such a conformist style. Above all, fruiting or naturally informal trees are not suitable for formal upright.

Processes/Techniques Used: To achieve an effective formal upright, make sure that about one third of the trunk is visible from the front, either from the base to the first branch or cumulatively, as seen through the tracery of its branches. Generally, the placement of branches follows a pattern. The first branch up from the bottom is the longest and in proportion usually is trained to grow to an equivalent to a third of the total height of the tree. This is the ‘heaviest’ branch almost making a right angle to the trunk. The second branch directly opposes the first branch and is higher on the trunk. As the branch structure ascends, they taper assuming a somewhat cone-like form. The top of the bonsai is usually very thick with foliage – so full and tightly ramified that it is difficult to see its internal structure through the mass of leaves or needles. The tip of this style of bonsai also has a slight curve, to lean forward and effectively ‘look at the viewer’. 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. (I personally prefer this, as the former seems too regimented.)

As mentioned earlier, the branches and trunk of a formal upright bonsai always take on a very distinctive taper. This is achieved by cruelly cutting off 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

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In nature, such trees bend or alter their direction away from wind or shade other trees or buildings, or towards light. In an informal upright bonsai the trunk should slightly bend to the right or left – but never towards the viewer. (This applies to all types of bonsai. Neither the trunk or branches should be pointing towards the viewer when the clip_image003bonsai is viewed from the front.)

Recommended Species: Most species of plants are suitable for this style, mainly the Japanese Maple (Acer palmatum), Trident Maple (Acer buergerianum), Beech, practically all Conifers and other ornamental trees such as the Crab Apple, Cotoneaster and Pomegranate.

Processes/Techniques Used: 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 at an early age. 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 crown of the tree is mainly very full with foliage and despite the informal trunk, is most always located directly above the base of the tree. (This is an attribute of the informal upright style, if not done like this, the tree would be slanting.)

Jin (carved remains of dead or unwanted branches to look like dead and rotting limbs of a tree) is also more appropriate and effective with the informal upright style.

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