The following progression article was a Non-Professional – Pre-Bonsai entry in the “2007 Knowledge of Bonsai Progressive Styling Contest” and was entered by John Geanangel of the USA. This entry received a score of 20 out of a possible 30 points from the judges.
This entry took first place in the Non-Professional – Pre-Bonsai category.
We feel that by featuring these progressions, which contain the thoughts behind the decisions made as well as a photo-journal of the various stages of design, a better understanding of not only the “how” but also the “why” of bonsai design can be shared.
Thank you John for deciding to enter the contest and for providing us with an excellent article that will be read and learned from by many over the years to come.
The following article has been modified for clarity.
John Geanangel – USA
Category: Non-Professional – Pre-Bonsai
Shimpaku Juniper (Juniperus chinesis sargentii)
Beginning height 27 inches (68.6 cm)
Unglazed, Oval Chinese pot
Hello, my name is John Geanangel and I have been playing with bonsai since the early 90’s. I live in South Carolina, and I am entering in the non-professional category. The tree I have chosen for this is a Shimpaku Juniper. I have selected this tree for its superb trunk, featuring nice curves, a small amount of natural shari, and a reasonable root base. It also has an abundance of branches to choose from and I feel that with careful planning and execution this plant will make a very nice slanting style bonsai. I estimate that it will take 25-30 hours to complete the total transformation. Although this is perhaps one of the nicest pieces of material that I have ever worked on, it does present perhaps the biggest styling challenge I have ever faced. This tree has two excellent trunk lines. One offers a slanting tree from left to right and the other offers a slanting tree from right to left. Both lines offer many positive characteristics and have limited drawbacks other than the presence of the other line. Although traditional styling would dictate that a single line should be chosen, I am going to forego what might seem to be the advised approach and attempt to use both lines to create a tree that will present well from at least two views. This will be a huge challenge to pull off effectively, especially given the limitations of 2d photography.
After much thought and self-debate, I have decided that this tree really should be entered as pre-bonsai. Although it has never been in a bonsai container, nor has it ever had any wire training, it has been pruned and maintained with an eye on bonsai its entire life. Therefore, I cannot in good conscience claim this tree to be raw stock and by the rules it was not in the ground long enough to be considered as collected material.
As I read the rules for this contest I see that I need to divide the styling process into 4 parts. The first part will involve lifting the tree, potting, and general cleaning up in preparation for styling. Since this will be the first I am able to closely examine the trunk line and branch placements I will also use this section to determine and discuss the styling of the tree. The second and third stages will focus on wiring and any jin and shari work that may need to be done. The final stage will focus on detailing the tree and getting it ready for its final photos. In terms of time, I do not think that the four stages I have laid out will coincide exactly with the quartering format laid out in the rules, but I think that it is the most logical way for me to undertake this process and will produce a reasonably comprehensible outcome.
Although this is the first time I have ever entered a contest of this nature, I am really looking forward to and excited about the opportunity. I am not terribly optimistic about my chances to do well in light of the many outstanding bonsai artists that are already participating, but I think this is a great chance to contribute to what should be a tremendous resource of knowledge and information for all folks interested in bonsai. I appreciate the efforts of KoB, Bonsai Focus Magazine, the judges, and the other contestants.
Since this tree has been lifted twice in last 3-4 years I was comfortable in knowing that it had a nice compact root ball that would allow it to go into a bonsai container right away. During the lifting process no major roots were cut and only a few long feeder roots were pruned. I chose an oval, unglazed Chinese pot for the first container (17″x12″x5″). I selected this container for two reasons. First it was roomy enough for the tree to be comfortable, and second I felt the curves of this container complimented the natural feeling of the tree. This pot is by no means the final container for this tree and since the focus of this contest is not about the container I will not mention it further.
After lifting this tree I was finally able to get a good look at this material. It became apparent right away that there are two potential lines for this tree. The first line, as shown in the pic, Quarter Progression Image 3, offers a muscular and twisted trunk and a reasonably clear choice of branches as it moves toward the apex. The foliage on the lowest branch to the left is much to far from the trunk and seems to be best suited to be jin. The distance between the trunk and foliage is also a significant challenge to overcome with the other branches but I feel this will be easy enough to surmount through wiring.
The second possible line, which is viewed from the opposite side of the tree, Quarter Progression Image 2, also offers a muscular and twisted trunk with some natural shari. From my perspective, the nebari is better from this view but the branching is not as ideal as the other line. Like in the other line, the first branch is not proportioned well and will need to be jinned.
In both cases, the other trunk line could easily be jinned leaving just one line to style. However, both lines are so nice it would be very difficult to pick one. So once again after much internal debate, I have made the decision to style both lines and create a tree with two fronts. Ultimately my reasoning for this decision is two-fold. First, at any point in the future once the tree is better established I can easily pick a side and create deadwood from the other. The second reason stems from the often discussed but little implemented idea that a tree could, and maybe should, be viewable from several directions. Although overcoming this challenge does not necessarily involve complex or difficult techniques, it does present an interesting focus/challenge for the styling of this tree in terms of branch placement.
Now that the major outcomes are clear it is time to begin readying the tree for wire. After getting the tree potted, the first task was to clean out the foliage, removing unnecessary branches and foliage. During this process I cut back the first major branch, removed the bark, and broke back some of the smaller branches in preparation for creating the deadwood. I also used this opportunity to clean the trunk and remove the flaking bark. In the final image the bark will be prepared to expose the beautiful cinnamon color of this species. Since I am not sure exactly where it will be necessary to wire this tree as of yet, I felt it was important to clean the trunk in advance of the wiring.
This completes the first quarter of this process. I am anxious to get started with the major wiring and placement of branches but I will give the tree some time to adjust to its new home and the quarter proceedings.
A very good bonsai buddy started this plant from a cutting. He then grew it in a nursery container for several years and when he realized it was not what he hoped (ready to be a bonsai) he put in the ground to grow out. After 5-6 years in the ground the potential of this tree was still hidden. Due to uncontrollable circumstances, he was forced to move his growing beds. At this time, he graciously allowed me to select a number of plants for myself. After digging this tree, and many more, I placed this tree in the ground next to the bog filter for my Koi pond. Little to my knowledge the bog garden was leaking and in spite of my best efforts it continued to leak periodically for nearly two years. As a result of the “naturally fertilized” water, this tree tripled in size in that time frame and the potential began to emerge. I moved it once more to a site near the top of the waterfall on my pond, thinking that I would just enjoy it as a landscape plant for a while longer. From here, I really began to see that this plant was going to make a very nice tree. In total, this tree was in the ground for some 10+ years and was container grown for 3-4 years prior to that, making it somewhere in the neighborhood of 15 years old.
The facts that it was growing so well in the ground, and that I have numerous other trees to focus my attention, made it easy for me to just let this tree get better by staying right where it was. That is, up until I decided to enter this contest. At that point, I knew this was the tree I wanted to use!
I guess it is time to speak of inspiration. I study books and magazines, spend more time lurking on bonsai forums than should be allowed, at least that is what my wife thinks anyway. I have participated in many workshops, gone to a reasonable number of conventions and expos, made a two week bonsai trip to Japan and have spent countless hours “doing bonsai” with friends over the years. This experience has allowed me to learn and cultivate an invaluable set of bonsai skills, techniques, and knowledge that I utilize during the course of styling a tree.
However, for me when it comes to really creating a work of art, and not just a “cookie-cutter” bonsai (if I am really capable of that?), I let two principles guide me. First, is the inspiration I get from viewing natural trees. As much as I love bonsai, especially creating them, at best the trees I create will never be more than inconsequential imitations of Mother Nature’s hand. There is no substitute for her styling and aging techniques. That is what also makes her the ultimate source of inspiration. In the case of this bonsai, the junipers and pines of Southern Utah and Southern Colorado have provided the inspiration (see photos above). Visions of twisted trunks, dense pads of foliage, gnarly deadwood stubs growing in the midst of uniquely carved sandstone sculptures permeate my mind. If you have ever visited or have seen pictures of this area, I think you would agree that it is manna from heaven in the eyes of a bonsai enthusiast. The second guide for my inspiration is the material itself. I never want to force a style on a tree. The outcome is usually contrived and lacks that natural feeling that is so important to a successful composition. I often find it difficult to convincingly wire a trunk with natural looking curves. Whereas, it is much easier to wire branches into shapes that complement the existing characteristics of the trunk. Therefore, I much prefer to let the material speak to me and guide me. My goal is to emphasize and reveal the existing beauty, not to force my hand on the tree trying to make it something it is not.
In my mind’s eye, this tree has endured growing on a slick rock plateau in Canyonlands National Park for an eon of seasons. The inherent character of this tree imitates the natural features of the Utah junipers and Piñon pines. I feel comfortable that the branches can be shaped to enhance these features and mimic the aged appearance of the natural trees. Now it is time to begin!
In my opinion, copper is the only wire to use for a project such as this one. I typically use copper on all but the most delicately barked trees. In the initial, or rough wiring, my intent will be to place and shape branches. The placement of the foliage will come during the fine wiring and pruning of stage 3. I primarily used 10, 12, and 14 gauge wire. I opted against using raffia as none of the branches were so large that bending would be an issue. I chose to wire side 1 first. I applied wire to all of the branches before beginning the shaping. After completing the first side and shaping all the way to the apex, I wired and shaped side 2. The challenges to overcome here were two-fold. First, how to blend the branch placement of each tree so that each side could benefit from the placement of some branches from the other side to improve the overall image. The second challenge was bringing in the leggy branches so that in their final placement, the pads of foliage could appear to be closer to the trunk.
With respect to blending, or sharing, branches between the trees, I found as I went that there were 2 branches from each line that conveniently filled in the holes of the opposite side. All four branches were in the top third of the trees. In addition to filling in holes, these branches will also help to hide the line of the opposite tree when viewing the proposed fronts. In order for this composition to be successful, I feel it is going to be very important to use foliage to hide as much of the opposing tree’s line as possible.
Dealing with the leggy, and often straight, branches became more of a challenge than I first anticipated. Basically my objective was to use wire to shape the branches with multiple curves thus decreasing the distance between the foliage pads and the trunk line. Another focus of this process was creating branches that followed a similar theme as the main trunk. Regardless of how much “curving” I do with this composition, it is still going to be fairly wide due to the leggy branches and slanting style. I have learned from this tree that I need to do a better job of pruning other field-grown junipers to maintain inside foliage growth. It will be well worth the efforts in terms of the quality of the future material.
Although I am anxious to begin the fine wiring and pinching, overall I am very pleased with the outcome of the rough wiring. The branches fell into place well and the two-line approach is looking more and more like it might actually work!
This was certainly my favorite stage as the trees really began to take shape with the detail wiring and pinching. Typically, I would have waited for approximately 1 year before detail wiring and pinching a new Shimpaku composition. However, it was quite rewarding to go ahead with this stage soon after the rough wiring was completed (I think about 2 weeks passed). I started wiring and pinching about 8am on a Saturday morning and did not stop until 2am the next morning. And, there was still more to complete the following day after I got over the stiff neck and shoulders. Once again, I used only copper wire including sizes 14, 16, 18, and 20. After wiring the first side, I was pleased with the results but frustrated because the other side was still rough and complicated the view. This explains why I continued working so long. Overall I was very pleased with the results. In my opinion, the challenge of blending the branches of both trees was successfully overcome. Each of the foliage pads of the four branches filled the appropriate spaces, filling and concealing where needed. Moving the foliage pads closer to the trunk worked reasonably well. In several cases, I was forced to shape the branches a little unnaturally in order to place the foliage in a pleasing manner or so that it filled the right void. Of course these bends are hidden from view by the foliage and can be corrected with future development.
Overall I am very pleased with the results of the wiring and pinching. I am also reasonably satisfied with the alternative twin-tree design. My preferred front is rotated about 5 minutes clockwise from the Side 1 pot front. I like the other side rotated and 2-3 minutes clockwise from dead-on.
The final stage of the styling of this tree focused on the details. Although this stage was less timing consuming than the other stages, I believe it was essential to producing a quality final image for this contest.
Several areas of the composition were addressed during the final preparations. The bark was brushed with both soft wire and nylon brushes. A very, very light application of vegetable oil was applied to the bark to enhance the natural cinnamon color. The jins and shari were lightly carved and sanded using a Dremel tool with various bits. I prefer to let the deadwood age naturally for the first year or two. Therefore, I have not applied any preservatives yet. I added some moss with lichens near the base of the trunk and fine sifted gravel as a top dressing. The pot was cleaned and prepped as if preparing for a show. Finally the foliage pads were checked one final time for straggling and out of place strands. For the health of the tree and particularly the new roots, I opted to leave on the three guy wires that helped to stabilize the tree during styling process for the final photo op.
Another preparation I made was to my photo setup. I purchased several yards of black micro suede to serve as a backdrop. This drastically improved the photographic images. This was an inexpensive solution that I would recommend to anyone trying to improve their bonsai photography.
After nearly 40 hours of work, this tree has reached a completion point. That is at least for the sake of this contest. This is by far the most time I have ever spent creating a single bonsai composition, but my feelings now are that it was worth every minute! The Side 1 front, as referred to in the previous posts, is my preferred front. In my opinion the photos of this side reveal a tree with much interest and aged appearance. The opposing line is disguised and well hidden from this view. The Side 2 front is also pleasing, exposing a little more character in the trunk and deadwood, but suffering some from leggy branches. I have also discovered a third viewing angle which appeals to me, one that clearly shows both apexes. When viewed from this direction, the tree has much more depth and breadth. The focus becomes the layered pads of foliage and twisted branches as the trunk is slanting at an angle that makes it less obvious to the viewer, but intriguing nonetheless.
In the future, I hope to reduce the number of branches and increase the jin and shari. As the tree adapts to the impact of this styling I expect the live veins of the trunk to become more pronounced and the shari to increase. I guess time will only tell whether or not I choose to maintain this tree with two apexes. But for now, it is something a little out of the ordinary that I can enjoy.
As an elementary school teacher, it is nearly time for me to go back to work. This project has been one of the highlights of my summer. Regardless of the outcome of the contest, this experience has been very rewarding and something that has significantly impacted my bonsai persona. I want to thank everyone involved in conceiving, sponsoring, implementing, and participating in this event. How often is it that the average person can participate with folks from around the world in an event that promotes the artistic growth and knowledge of the passion we know as bonsai?