Simple Styles and Techniques
Every experienced bonsai enthusiast has his/her own personal idea of what bonsai
is to them and what defining factors make them aesthetically appealing.
"Don't be drawn into the trap of taking everything that this person says as
This applies especially if you are using a book as a reference when you are
situated in a different part of the world from where it was written.
If a beginner is unable to have the experience of being taught the important
principles of bonsai by an expert, he must obtain as much material on bonsai as
possible - whether this may be just pictures of trees, discussions on the
different styling processes involved or lists of suitable species to use. This
mass of information will familiarise them to bonsai and help them gain
experience by experimenting on cheap bonsai material. Frequently going to bonsai
nurseries and bonsai shows will also allow the beginner to see true bonsai in
real life from all sides, opposed to the usual 2D format. This will enable the
beginner to see the way bonsai should be displayed and what the end result will
The two basic styles of bonsai are the classic (koten) and the informal or
'comic' (bunjin). In the former, the trunk of the tree is wider at the base and
tapers off towards the top; it is just the opposite in the 'bunjin', a style
more difficult to master.
You do not need to stick strictly to the precise rules of your chosen style:
adapt them to suit a plant's natural habitat.
When you start a bonsai, always remember that you are working with a living
plant. Look carefully at its natural characteristics and you may discern within
them a suitable style, or styles. All conifers are reasonably unsuitable to the
'broom' style, for example, but are very suitable for all other styles,
especially formal and informal upright - to which they are particularly suited.
Often you can train a plant into several styles, even if it is basically upright
like a beech or elegantly slender like a maple. Even if one style only really
suits a particular plant, you still can interpret this in many different ways.
Shrubs like azaleas that are not tree-like in nature have fewer restrictions in
the style you choose, but, generally, it is best to base any design on the way a
tree grows in nature. People that are still learning the basic principles of
bonsai should not try to train a bonsai into a style totally unlike a tree's
natural growth pattern, although this is quite possible as you gain more
Overall, bonsai are something that are quite personalised and there are no
strict rules to abide by if you undertake it merely as a hobby which to gain
enjoyment out of. It does not have to be an expensive commitment, but it is a
commitment that requires a great amount of time, patience, skill and endurance.
Although things may not go to plan, don't give up. Remember that the Japanese
bonsai masters were once beginners too and they have surely had their share of
trial and error.
The Five Main Bonsai Styles
The five basic bonsai styles are formal upright, informal upright, slanting (or
windswept), semi-cascade and cascade. All have their own individual beauty and
A tree with a style such as formal upright occurs when it has grown in the open
under perfect conditions. The most important requirement 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.
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.
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.
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
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 bonsai is viewed from the front.)
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.
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
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
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. The stronger roots grow out on the side, away from the angle of
the trunk lean, to support the weight.
Most species are suitable for this style, as the style does bear similarity to
informal upright. Conifers work particularly well.
As mentioned before, this style does bear similarity to informal upright. The
trunk can be either curved or straight, but must be on an angle to either the
right or left (never to the front), with the apex not directly over the base of
the bonsai. 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.
With formal upright, informal upright and slanted styles, the number three is
significant. The lowest branches are grouped in threes, and this grouping begins
one-third of the way 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.
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. Branches appear to be seeking the light.
The winding main trunk is reminiscent of a stream meandering down the side of a
Many species are suitable, if they are not strongly upright.
If done right, this style of bonsai can be quite aesthetically pleasing. The
trunk which is tapered, grows down below the container and gives the impression
of the tree being forced down by the forces of gravity. The tree trunk usually
also twists as if to emulate a meandering stream with elegant alternating
branches protruding from it.
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). Emphasis should also be kept on keeping the branches
uniform and horizontal to the almost directly vertical trunk. Another major
aspect to remember is that both cascade and semi-cascade should be positioned
right into the center of the pot, the opposite to what you would do for any
The tip of a semi-cascade, like the cascade, projects over the rim of the
container, but does not drop below its base. The style occurs in nature when
trees grow on clifs or overhang water. The angle of the trunk in this bonsai is
not precise, as long as the effect is strongly horizontal, even if the plant
grows well below the level of the pot rim. Any exposed roots should balance the
Many species are suitable, except strongly upright ones. Flowering cherries,
cedars and junipers work well.
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-cascade do not even drop below the
edge of the top of the pot. This style is perfect for Junipers.