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Judging Bonsai

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By Attila Soos

Illustration by Will Heath

Judging bonsai is like judging any other art form: always controversial and highly subjective. And yet, we all agree that certain bonsai are better, or much better, then other. In the following article, I would like to explore the various aspects of judging a bonsai, and also design a judging system that can be used to determine the relative quality of one bonsai, compared to another.

The biggest challenge of such a system is not the difficulty of selecting the right criteria. We all know what we are looking in a good bonsai: innovative design, harmony, visual balance, evocativeness, and quality craftsmanship. We all know that a bonsai needs good taper, proper branch development and refinement, good-looking root base (nebari), and a pot that matches and enhances the overall image.

So, what is then the greatest challenge?

It is, to determine the relative importance of all these criteria, and combine them into a system that is both very simple and practical, but also sensitive enough to cover all the important aspects of what makes a bonsai better than the next one.

Here are the key requirements again: Simplicity/practicality

Relative importance of judging criteria

An example of the simplest, but often-used system is to score the bonsai from a scale of 1 to 10. This form of judging is very informal and intuitive. The judge looks at the tree, and gives 5 to what he considers average quality. From here, he goes up or down the scale, depending on whether the tree is considered above or below average. An experienced judge can easily do this, since he has seen thousands of bonsai, from the highest quality award-winners to the lowliest little tree.

The advantage of the above system is that it is fast and easy, and the judge doesn 't have to disclose every individual detail that influenced his decision.

The drawbacks of such a simple system are:

  1. it completely lacks transparency
  2. it is highly subjective
  3. it makes it hard to the contest organizers to use consistent judging from one contest to another.

Wouldn 't be nice to have a system that gives us some insight into the thought process of judging a tree, and also takes away some of the subjectivity, adding more consistency to the process? A system that tells us in a little more detail, why one tree was chosen to be better than another.

Such a system would also be a great educational tool, giving the student valuable information about the various artistic and technical aspects of bonsai. It would help us to distinguish between aspects that matter most, and those of lesser importance.

I will start the process of building such a judging system by separating the qualitative attributes of bonsai into two major groups: Subject and Technique. When creating a bonsai, we will have some kind of image in our minds, and then we will use our technical knowledge to create that image. So, the subject incorporates all the artistic aspects, as well as the character of the material, and ultimately, the overall image. The technique, on the other hand, includes the technical details, such as branch placement, branch refinement, taper, nebari, pot selection, etc.

So, the first step would be to have two categories on a scale of 1 to 10. Here is an example of a judging sheet with 3 bonsai:

# Subject Technique Total Average
1 5 5 10 5
2 10 2 12 6
3 2 10 12 6

What can we learn from such a system?

Bonsai #1 is average in all respects. The subject matter is not bad, but not too interesting either, thus receives a 5. The technique is also just about average. The overall grade is, therefore 5.

The problem starts when comparing bonsai #2 and #3: both get an average grade of 6, but they are vastly different. Bonsai #2 suggests a superb overall image, and has great character. But the technique used is sub par: poor wiring, unrefined branches, and has some branches that seem to be superfluous. The pot selection is also far from being good. It received a 2 in this area.

Bonsai #3, however, displays perfect wiring, good branch placement, and a nice and a fitting pot. The branches also had good secondary and tertiary ramification. It receives a 10 in this area. But the overall image is extremely boring, uninspiring, and the tree is very young. It has very little character. Overall, it is nothing but a well trained young stick in a pot. It is graded a 2 in the area of subject.

The disturbing thing about the above classification is that both the young stick in a pot, and the old and wonderful, but poorly trained yamadori received an equal average grade of 6. This is simply wrong. The two trees could never be regarded as equals. The yamadori could be a priceless and rare treasure, a world-class material, while the young sapling can be purchased for a few dollars and trained to the current stage in a few years.

So, obviously the fault of the above system is that it gives equal importance to the quality of the material and the technical aspects of bonsai creation.

This is easy to fix by giving the Subject category twice as much weight as to the Technique category.

# Subject (x2) Technique (x1) Total Average (/3)
1 5 5 15 5
2 10 2 22 7.33
3 2 10 14 4.66

Here, in the Total column the Subject is multiplied by 2, while the Technique has the multiple of 1, so the end result is that Bonsai #2 ranks much higher in grading than Bonsai #3. It ranks even higher than Bonsai #1 due to its superior character.

Note, that we could have just used the Total column as it is, without calculating an average grade. But people seem to be more comfortable with a grading from 1 to 10, in which case the total needs to be divided by a factor of 3.

Now let 's expand the above two categories into a few sub-categories. This will help us point out with more accuracy the specific areas where a bonsai excel or lacks in quality.

The Subject category could be further refined into two sub-categories: Character and Design. Character has to do with the quality of the stock we are starting with. Think about an old collected yamadori: it has a trunk that suggests great age; it has mature bark; it also has unique features, such as jagged curves, bumps, cavities, and possibly deadwood. The quality of the material is of major importance, thus it deserves its own category. Design is another defining factor. Design needs to bring the best out of the stock. It needs to fit the material and not to go against it. A good design is imaginative, consistent in every detail, and evocative.

Challenging material offers unique opportinities for the artist
Photograph by Candy J. Shirey

Should we give equal weight both to character and design? I don 't know. Sometimes a material of great character makes the design almost automatic, in which case character would be the driving force and design would be of secondary importance. But there are many examples where, although the material has great character, it poses some major difficulties to the artist. This is what we call "challenging" material. And this is where the talent of the artist can make all the difference: he sees something that nobody else does, and innovative design becomes of utmost importance. So, considering the above examples, I have to give both the character and design equal weight.

On the technical side, we have the option of choosing many sub-categories, but for simplicity 's sake, I will try to select as few as possible. Here are a few important ones: trunk taper, root-base, branch development (placement, refinement, maturity) and pot selection & placement.

Example of great taper and nebari
Photograph by Candy J. Shirey

Trunk taper is very important. It is an important factor in creating the impression of age and the impression of grandeur. The root-base (nebari) adds to the above qualities, and also provides the feeling of balance. It is important to remember that bigger is not necessarily better. A stronger taper or a larger nebari is not necessarily better than a smaller one. It has to be appropriate to the subject. So, when grading taper or nebari, we should not give a higher grade to a nebari just because it is larger. The key word is harmony: it has to be in harmony with the rest of the tree. We can give a 10 grade to

Example of good trunk with immature branches.
Photograph by Candy J. Shirey

trunk taper of a literati tree, even though it has very little taper. That 's because the taper in this case would be in perfect harmony with the literati subject.

Branch development is a large category, and includes several aspects. The proper placement of branches is one of them. The development of a fine network of secondary and tertiary branches is another one. And finally, the branches need to be thick enough and tapered, in other word, in good proportion with the trunk, in order to appear as mature as the trunk itself. All these branch-related aspects can be graded under the "branch development (placement, refinement, maturity)" category.

The last one on the craftsmanship side is the pot selection & placement. One could argue that this could be on the artistic side, instead of belonging to the technical aspect. But I believe that selecting a proper pot, and placing the tree correctly in it is not nearly as difficult as creating innovative design and recognizing character. Anybody with a little imagination can acquire such a skill. Nevertheless, it is a very important part of bonsai, it can enhance its beauty, or it can ruin the whole creation.

Looking at the above sub-categories in the Technique section, should we give the trunk taper, nebari, branch development and pot selection & placement different weights? I don 't really see the reason why. They all look equally important to me.

Now that we have all the ingredients, let 's see how the final system should look like. Here it is:

# Subject (x2) Average Subject Technique (x1) Average Technique Weighted Total Average
Character Design Taper Nebari Branch Pot
1 4 6 5 5 4 6 5 5 15 5.00
2 10 9 9.5 3 4 2 2 2.75 21.75 7.25
3 1 5 3 3 2 10 10 6.25 12.25 4.08

As we can see, the first tree is still an average one. The second tree is the best, due to its superior character and design, although it lacks in technical refinement. The third one has its average technique much higher than the second one, but no character and average design, so it finishes last.

To some of the readers, the above system may seem like having too many numbers and formulas. But it has only two major categories and a total of six criteria. I would be hard pressed to go with less than the above. And yet, I think that we have covered all the important aspects of what makes a bonsai outstanding.

How is the above system different from the traditional grading system, where the judge looks at the tree, instantly decides which one is better, and gives it a grade from 1 to 10? The major difference is that the judge will have to analyze the tree in detail, grading the individual components, and then letting the table come up with the final grade? This may make some judges uncomfortable: what if he finds tree #1 better than tree#2, but after grading the individual components, the result makes tree#2 the better one? Well, this will

force him to take a second look and analyze the tree in more detail before rushing to a conclusion.

In the last part of the article we will have to test the system on real trees.

As a general approach, please note that a 10 is awarded when I cannot find any obvious fault that warrants a deduction. So, I start with 10 and then deduct for anything that could be improved upon.

Here is the score sheet for the 5 test trees. The detailed explanation follows afterwards.

# Subject (x2) Average Subject Technique (x1) Average Technique Weighted Total Average
Character Design Taper Nebari Branch Pot
1 10 5 7.5 10 10 8 5 8.25 23.25 7.75
2 7 8 7.5 10 9 8 9 9 24 8.00
3 3 4 3.5 7 3 3 5 4.5 11.5 3.83
4 10 8 9 9 10 9 10 9.5 27.5 9.17
5 5 6 5.5 7 8 4 7 6.5 17.5 5.83

Tree #1

It has tremendous character, it deserves the maximum grade. The design, however, doesn 't take advantage of the potential of the material. While the trunk expresses a lot of energy, tension, and movement, in other words drama, the branches are designed as if the tree was growing in a peaceful meadow, without any kind of external stimuli that contributed to the extraordinary character of the material. So, I gave a 5 (average) in the Design category. In the area of Technique, everything is flawless except the Branch category, for the reason described above. The tree has well-developed and refined branches, but their placement and shape did not enhance the drama displayed in the trunk. So, I deducted 2 points, to arrive at 8. Overall grade is 7.75.

For comparison purposes, here is the information from the competition judging sheet:

Judge Min Hsuan Lo scored 7. Comment: Nature 's incredible masterpiece, which displays artistic beauty in the amazing crown.

Judge Budi Sulistyo scored 7. Comment: A very nice composition.

Judge Robert Steven scored 4. Comment: No details and movement in overall composition.

Tree #2

It is well designed, although I feel that the overall movement to the right is not supported well enough with the design of the branches. The branches pointing to the right are not powerful enough, and there are some pretty strong branches moving toward the opposite direction (to the left, that is). So, the character of this tree is not as spectacular as in the case of Tree#1, but is better designed. Overall grade is 8.00.

Here is the information from the judging sheet:

Judge Min Hsuan Lo scored 6. Comment: None.

Judge Budi Sulistyo scored 6. Comment: Beautiful and natural. The branches on the left need more tapering to create richer sense.

Judge Robert Steven scored 7. Comment: Nice design, but if the pot is moved a little bit to the left, it will look much better in optical balance.

Tree #3

It is basically not ready to be shown. It looks immature and shows little character. The design looks somewhat unfinished. The taper is good enough, but the nebari lacks the nice radial roots required for maples. The branches are in need of wiring, taper, and more mature ramification. The pot is not the best for this type of tree: too much glaze, that will dominate in a winter display. A more subdued color, less glaze and oval shape would be a better selection, in my opinion. Overall grade is 3.83

Here is the information from the judging sheet:

Judge Min Hsuan Lo scored 2. Comment: None

Judge Budi Sulistyo scored 5. Comment: Just average.

Judge Robert Steven scored 4. Comment: Still young looking.

Tree #4

This tree shows a rather stunning image. I gave an 8 for design because the top portion of the tree seems somewhat separated from the bottom half, for two reasons: the first one is the negative space, that seems just a little too large, compared to the compact design of the rest of the crown. The second is the abrupt reduction of the trunk diameter, right where the gap is, reminding me of a bottleneck. There is little transition between the diameter of the massive trunk and the diameter of the upper portion. That 's why I deducted a point for taper. But the tree is close to perfection. Overall grade is 9.17.

Below is the information from the judging sheet:

Judge Min Hsuan Lo scored 8. Comment: Fresh green crown, white powerful deadwood, strong lifeline, antique Chinese pot, lacquered stand, nice photo, excellent harmony.

Judge Budi Sulistyo scored 10. Comment: Very high quality of a juniper.

Judge Rober Steven scored 7. Comment: Nice design, but the left branch looks separate due to the different foliage shape.

Tree #5

This is a very nice linden and a rather rare subject in the world of first-rate bonsai. That 's because the linden doesn 't respond to bonsai training as readily as some of the widely used material.

The only problem is that it is not quite as refined as it could be. It is not a very old tree, but shows enough character to be interesting. It has good taper and nebari, but the design lacks definition of the various parts of the crown, which could make the tree more interesting. Also, the branches need much more refinement, which, by the way, is not an easy task in the case this species. When that happens, the leaves will also reduce to a certain degree, thus improving the proportions. Regarding the pot, I really like the color, but it is too small for this tree. Overall grade is 5.83.

Here is the information from the judging sheet:

Judge Min Hsuan Lo scored 4. Comment: None

Judge Budi Sulistyo scored 6. Comment: Nice base.

Judge Robert Steven scored 4. Comment: Need further refinement.

CONCLUSION

Looking at the above test results, I feel that this scoring system is simple, but sensitive enough to be used as a judging tool. It can tell the reader a lot about the strong and the weak points of a bonsai. It can give us a glimpse into the judge 's thought process, when analyzing a tree. It gives consideration not only to the technical details, but also to the overall artistic impression, and it gives more weight to the latter. By doing so, it tells us that the technical details are there to serve the overall artistic vision. I hope that it can be useful in the fair judging of future competitions.

Download Attila's judging spreadsheet here for your use. Please let us know what you think of it and feel free to offer any suggestions or comments.

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