Feature Article

Feature article

Back to Back

Instant Bonsai

We are pleased to introduce Back to Back, a new feature here at the Art of Bonsai Project in which two commentators present opposed viewpoints on a controversial subject. For our first installment, John Dixon and Will Heath consider the practice of "instant bonsai" as encouraged by internet styling competitions.

The fallacy of instant bonsai
By John Dixon, USA

I’ve always heard to become skilled at debate one must take a subject that one supports adamantly, and dispute the very traits that one likes about it. When the subject of ‘Instant Bonsai’ was brought up by Will Heath, it intrigued me as a worthy article. Now that he has decided to argue for instant bonsai and I against it, I find that I will not be improving my debate skills this time around.

I do not like instant bonsai.

The term itself is quite the oxymoron. Something instant in an art form that historically stresses patience and long-term application? This is just another sign of the times. In the age of the internet, those with dial-up technology are considered slow. Twenty years ago, a "Google" search was accomplished with an antiquated thing called an encyclopedia. Now at the touch of a few keys, we have a plethora of knowledge available instantaneously. Still the information is consistent; we can just obtain it faster. It has spoiled us. Moreover it seems to make us expect other aspects of our lives to follow suit. Well, sorry...it ain’t that simple.

Some things can be accelerated from idea to tangible result at a faster rate than the norm. Microwaveable meals and fast-food restaurants come to mind. Yes, they bring hunger to an end quicker than making it from scratch, but are they better? No, it’s ust a quicker means to an end. They suffice, but don’t really satisfy. Nobody makes a meal like momma can. She can satisfy the hunger, not just stave it off.

Bonsai is about enjoyment. Now I’m not speaking of individuals who are making a living out of bonsai, although I have to believe they enjoy it as well. I’m talking about the individual bonsaist, and the reason they do what they do. A recent contest on another website conclusively convinced me that instant bonsai has become a dangerous phenomenon. Not so much as the material styling, as the comments from those who voted and what they did, and more importantly did not, observe.

14th Place, bonsaiTalk's 2005 Fall Styling Contest. Bonsai and photograph by Ammon Talbot

14th Place, bonsaiTalk's 2005 Fall Styling Contest. Bonsai and photograph by Ammon Talbot

Instant bonsai are almost invariably created from a narrow range of species. I would estimate that over 60% are made from ‘procumbens’ and ‘shimpaku’ juniper. They are also, generally, made from lower cost growing stock. The idea is to take a bush and create a miniature tree with a minimum of effort - I mean instant doesn’t take long, right? Okay, so we have this little tree-like shape in a pot. Is it bonsai? Well, technically speaking, yes it is. But is it what we all dream of as a specimen bonsai that invokes a feeling of the surreal in an actual piece of living structure? Does it move us? Do we look on it with awe and respect? Is it reminiscent of a full-sized tree we have in our memory? Are we enjoying it? Will we get to enjoy it for years to come?

Now I would guess that some would counter with an argument about a collected piece that was styled by a master in a few hours and call it instant bonsai. That is decidedly incorrect. Remember, you only saw what the stylist attempted; you weren’t there for Mother Nature’s and Father Time’s parts of the equation. Same goes for long-term growth of nursery stock and potensai grown in the ground with only rough shearing. It has been styled for quite some time before you saw it.

Look at the attached photo below. This is a wonderful literati-styled tree. The artist made good use of the "less is more" philosophy with the foliage and the shari looks nice, but where did the artist influence the movement of the trunk? It is unchanged by man, except for the shari. Therefore nature has been styling this tree for sometime. How can it be instant now?

1st Place, bonsaiTalk's 2005 Fall Styling Contest. Bonsai and photograph by Mike Konig

1st Place, bonsaiTalk's 2005 Fall Styling Contest. Bonsai and photograph by Mike Konig

No, a three-year old procumbens in a nursery pot is cut-back, branches eliminated, and wired into shape. It may, or may not, be placed into a ceramic pot. A lot of people would conclude this is bonsai. Okay, by definition once it is in a pot, it is. It is also created in a minimum of time so we have concluded the term to use is instant bonsai.

Now to give it a fair shake, let’s look at it from bottom to top.

What are its attributes?

  • Pot is appropriate given the stage of the material.
  • Established roots.
  • Ground covering that is in harmony with the tree.
  • A solid, well-defined base and nebari.
  • A trunk with good movement and taper.
  • Well-defined and ramified branch structure.
  • Branches that lessen in diameter as you go up.
  • Well groomed and compacted foliage.
  • A silhouette that is symbolic of a stately full-sized tree.
  • The perceived image of an aged tree.
  • Very importantly, excellent chances of survival.
  • Satisfaction of the overall effort.

Just as surely as these are attributes; the lack of same are faults. Ever seen a coffee table book full of pictures with bonsai that lack these attributes? The reason for that is they are not representative of true bonsai art. While established guidelines may be followed to the letter, the art quality is lacking.

Techniques that are used to create an instant bonsai that dies, aren't very useful for bonsai you wish to keep in a living condition. Granted, some attempts are risky regardless, but if it is guaranteed to make an excellent initial view, but will ultimately kill the tree, is that a useful skill? I don't see how. The idea should be how to make it visually pleasing and maintain a healthy condition. That concept may require several steps, not just one. In regards to wiring, first and foremost it has to be applied to position woody parts of the material. Neatness is a plus and can be a negligible cost of extra time, but don't be mesmerized by "neat" wiring. If it doesn't position the wood properly, it is merely a superfluous addition to the bonsai. Wire is never meant to be considered in a final display of bonsai, so to place too much admiration in its application is misguided thinking. Wire is a tool. Keep that in mind when you judge an artist's work. The wire will be removed, so it is not a permanent feature. But then again, maybe on "instant bonsai" it is forever.

Understand that instant bonsai is NOT synonymous with initial styling. Yes, with the right material and the right artist, very convincing bonsai can be created in the time it takes to have a workshop, but the material will still only be initially trained. It will take time for it to approach its full artistic value. How many times have you witnessed an artist complete a workshop tree and say it’s completely done? If you have, please inform me of that person’s n ame so I will be sure to avoid them.

Instant bonsai are aimed at beginners, plain-and-simple. They whip up images of Daniel-san (Karate Kid) sitting in front of a juniper, picturing a tree in his mind, and then creating it with shears just as sensei instructed. Sorry, but that bonsai left a lot to be desired. Technically bonsai, but not what we should be aiming for. Now if you are content with having a yard full of similar bonsai, enjoy yourself. But if you want something more, you have to commit yourself to more in-depth and time-consuming techniques. Grafts take time. Ramification takes time. Wire will require time to set the wood. Compact foliage takes time. Reduction of leaf size takes time. As you see every technique I just commented on takes time. Time is absent in instant bonsai when the human factor is considered.

I have never seen a piece of raw material that had all of the aforementioned attributes that fit easily in a finished pot and was immediately show-worthy. I’ve never seen one...not even once. Some were very good, but no matter how good, the quality of the material was not fully realized. It is only the first step. I feel that instant bonsai is a very dangerous habit that some adopt. While there is admittedly some satisfaction in making one quickly, it should not be considered a viable use of bonsai material, because most conclude it is finished as soon as the stylist packs up the tool box. The art will lose ground if we take that approach. I liken it to model cars/airplanes. When you are five, you are proud of yourself for gluing all the parts in the "approximately" correct locations. Later on you see the value of color coordination, neatness of glue and paint application, razor-shaving of excess plastic and exact placement of decals. Next thing you know, you have a very convincing miniature of a life-sized item. Take your first model and set it beside the last one you made. See which one you find more appealing.

Bonsai is so similar in that respect. No bonsai is ever finished until its dead. We have all heard that and I think all, or almost all, accept it as truth. Being so, how can we ever believe one can be made instantly?

The Case For Instant Bonsai And The Contests That Create Them.

By Will Heath, USA

Lately, largely due to styling contests on many internet bonsai forums, there has been a backlash against the practice of trying to create a presentable bonsai from raw stock in a single styling. It is a practice many have labeled "Instant Bonsai."

4th Place - bonsaiTalk's 2005 Fall Styling Contest. Bonsai by Desdemona. Photograph by Christopher 'Pootsie' Conomy.

4th Place - bonsaiTalk's 2005 Fall Styling Contest. Bonsai by Desdemona. Photograph by Christopher "Pootsie" Conomy.

In the following article I will present my ideas and thoughts on why this practice is not necessarily bad and, in fact, why it should be encouraged as an educational tool. I will do this in a step-by-step chronological order, following closely the same steps that usually are taken in these contests. I will also point out why I feel that each and every step provides valuable education in the art of bonsai.

Stock Selection

Generally most online styling contests set a monetary limit and require the participants to purchase an un-styled, un-worked, raw piece of stock within that limit. Stock selection is an acquired skill and a necessary one in the art of bonsai. This single skill could very well spell the difference between an average entry and a winning one.

Learning to select and recognize quality stock within any price range is a valuable and difficult skill for many to learn. These contests give the participants the opportunity to go to nurseries and practice what they have learned on this subject. The participants must select from many pieces of stock and pick the one, single piece that not only falls within the set budget, but also contains all the necessary attributes for creating a presentable bonsai in one styling.

The talent required to select quality stock comes with practice; the eye necessary for this is acquired only though doing. These contests take the participants into the field and force them to see further into the stock than usual. They are no longer looking for what could be in a few years, but what can be now.


Once the stock is selected and the before pictures are posted, the participants now must style their selection into a presentable bonsai within a set period of time. Usually a month is allowed.

This styling is very close to what we see at almost every demonstration by experienced bonsaists at our clubs and shows. The raw material is styled into a presentable bonsai in what is, for all intents and purposes, one sitting.

The object here is not much different from doing the first styling on any piece of quality stock. The participants decide which branches to remove and which to leave; they reduce the height of the tree and length of the branches if needed; they wire and shape the trunk and branches; and they detail wire the smaller branches to define the foliage. They use the skills they have to create a presentable bonsai, within the time period allowed.

2nd place - bonsaiTalk's 2004 Styling Contest. Bonsai and photograph by David Chauvin.

2nd place - bonsaiTalk's 2004 Styling Contest. Bonsai and photograph by David Chauvin.

The participant must choose the best front, based on not only the trunk and Nebari, but also upon the existing branches and foliage.

We all give our bonsai a first styling sooner or later, maybe not as intense as these contest stylings, but the concept is the same. The object is to bring out the best in the stock. This is where the skills we have learned come into play: The ability to see and present the image of a tree within the stock; the ability to wire neatly; to show the best features and to disguise the worst; and the ability to create the vision of an artistic bonsai from a rough piece of stock. This is exactly what we do as bonsaists and the ability to pull it off is one that comes only from experience... experience that is gained by many who participate in these contests.


Once the participant has styled their entry, they need to present it in a manner to maximize not only the vision shown but also to assure survival. Although survival cannot be confirmed in these contests, a participant should have this in mind. We will discuss survival later in this article.

It is usually not required that a entry in these contest be re-potted, in fact, in most that I have been involved with, the judges are informed to ignore the container and judge solely on the bonsai. Thus an entrant must not only style the stock artistically but also find a way to present it in a manner where the container does not distract from the tree. This is done by adding ground cover such as moss on the soil and photographing the bonsai in a manner that shows only the top inch, or so, of the container.

2nd Place - bonsaiTalk's 2005 Spring Styling Contest. Bonsai and photograph by Charles Bevan

2nd Place - bonsaiTalk's 2005 Spring Styling Contest. Bonsai and photograph by Charles Bevan

So the participant not only uses skills relevant to how to select stock and how to style it, but they also must now consider the small things that are important to any presentation in a contest, show, or demonstration. They must consider ground covering, proper placement of such, and the visual effect of the choice that they use.

The participant must also be aware of how the wiring looks to be sure that it does not stand out or distract from the design. The wiring should be as close to perfect as one can get. Guy wires must be thin and placed in such a manner as to not distract.


Once the stock is selected and styled to perfection the participant must now use another skill that must be learned; a skill that does not come easy and must be practiced in order to achieve proficiency.

1st Place - bonsaiTalk's 2004 Styling Contest. Bonsai and photograph by Carl Bergstrom

1st Place - bonsaiTalk's 2004 Styling Contest. Bonsai and photograph by Carl Bergstrom

Properly setting up the bonsai in order to take a quality photo of it that will show off its best attributes takes practice. The background, lighting, angle, and focus must all be considered and experimented with in order to achieve a quality photograph that not only showcases the bonsai at its best, but which also does not distract from the subject with shadows, blurs, or out of focus shots.

The best design and most amazing styling of a bonsai can all be for nothing if one cannot properly photograph it in order to show it. Photography is rapidly becoming another skill a bonsaist must have in their tool box in order to be successful, these contests especially focus this talent and demand that the participants not only show talent in styling, but also in photography.

Peer Review

Once the stock is selected for these contests and it is styled and photographed, the participant then puts their efforts up for public display and judging.

In the internet contests I have been involved in, entries are commonly put up for review by the forum membership who rates each tree and comments on them. These peer reviews come from people of all levels of experience, from the rank beginner to the master. As such they have many advantages for the participant.

3rd Place - bonsaiTalk's 2005 Fall Styling Contest. Bonsai and picture by Rich Hardy.

3rd Place - bonsaiTalk's 2005 Fall Styling Contest. Bonsai and picture by Rich Hardy.

The participant has the opportunity to hear comments and suggestions from a wide range of talent that may very well take away from that some very useful information and knowledge. The participant gets to see how the choices they made on styling, display, and photography are received by a wide audience.

Once the contest is over, many participants, winners or not, will post their efforts into the public forum for critique. Here they can explain how and why they made the decisions they did and explain the techniques used to accomplish their composition. At this time they have the opportunity to receive a wide range or critiques in much greater detail than was given previously.

Judging And Comparison To Like Efforts

In the contests I have been involved with, there is always a world-class artist who has agreed to judge and critique the top five or so entries. Walter Pall has volunteered many times to perform this function, for example.

The value of having such an experienced artist judge and personally critique your bonsai is truly great. For many bonsaists this opportunity may never have otherwise arisen. What is being judged is not if the plant will survive, or what species was used but instead the final image presented. The sum of all the effort put into the bonsai, which contributes to the final image, including stock selection, styling, display, and photography.

7th Place - bonsaiTalk's 2005 Fall Styling Contest. Bonsai and picture by Vance Wood.

7th Place - bonsaiTalk's 2005 Fall Styling Contest. Bonsai and picture by Vance Wood.

The judge compares each finalist with the others and picks the one that stands out above the others; the one whose creator has put all the techniques and knowledge they have learned to best use. Each finalist walks away with a professional critique and, yes, with more knowledge than they had before the contest.

An added advantage to these contests is that the entrant has an opportunity to compare his decisions and efforts with many others who followed the same rules and guidelines. This is also a valuable tool for learning as the paths others take may very well be better than the ones you took.


Once the contest is over and the prizes have been distributed, the learning continues for all the entrants. Aftercare is a topic not often covered in the many bonsai articles and books but it is as much a part of bonsai as any other. Collecting, repotting, and styling all leave a bonsai in the need of aftercare, if the plant is to survive.

Many of these instant bonsai may very well die due to inexperience; too much foliage removal; poor re-potting or other bad choices, but they leave behind experience, knowledge, and a determination to succeed the next time. We all have killed a few trees for the sake of experience... it happens. Just because it happens in a contest does not lessen the knowledge gained.

The successful contestant will nurse his entry though and it will survive to become a better bonsai in time. Some won’t but, either way, this is also a valuable learning experience for all.

In Closing

I think that "instant bonsai", and the contests that create them, have many educational advantages that greatly outweigh any disadvantages they may present. As you can see from the examples I have posted above, "instant bonsai" do not have to yield poor results; they do not have to die; they can in fact be a fantastic tool for teaching and learning.

In a short period of time a person can experience and use first hand the techniques needed to select stock, style, present and photograph a bonsai. They also experience first hand the reviews of their peers and being judged and critiqued by a master.

Certainly, the creation of an "instant bonsai" under these circumstances is an excellent way to learn very much at little cost, when compared to other forms of learning.

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