Principles of Aquascape Design
Aquascaping based on the Principles of Design
Every Aquascaper has a set number of Materials to create their layouts; the tank, equipment, background, substrate, hardscape, plants, and animals. Each of these materials contribute five basic Elements towards an aquascape design; color, line, form, texture, and scale. These elements can be adjusted to create a desired aquascape based on their effect upon the eight Principles of Design; Balance, Focalization, Transition, Proportion, Unity, Rhythm, Repetition, and Simplicity.
The Elements of Design
Scale – Scale is the size of the material.
Line – Line is the “movement” a material contributes.
Form – Form is the overall shape of a material.
Texture – Texture is the “feel” of the material.
Color – Color is of course the material’s color.
The Principles of Design
Balance – Balance refers to the “equality of visual attraction”, or equilibrium of materials used in the layout.
Focalization – Focalization is the leading of a viewer towards a feature by placing this feature along the vanishing point between approaching or radial lines.
Transition – Transition is the “flow” of a viewers gaze from one part of the design into another part. The transition should be smooth and uninterrupted.
Proportion – The design’s proportion is how the size of each part relates to the rest of the design.
Unity – Unity is how well the design expresses an idea through a consistent application of materials.
Rhythm – The design’s rhythm is how well the layout creates a feeling of continuation. A good design feels like a part of something larger.
Repetition – Repetition is the creation of motion through a series of different materials.
Simplicity – Simplicity is the use of a limited number of materials to create a successful design. The excessive use of materials is monotonous and confusing to the viewer.
Effect of the Elements of Design upon the Principles of Design
Balance – Balance refers to the “equality of visual attraction”, or equilibrium of materials used in the layout. Different material components have a sense of “weight” within a design and care should be made to consider their effect and how to counteract them on the opposing side of the layout.
Scale – Large components “weigh” a great deal in a layout and should be opposed by equally “weighty” components or open space.
Line – The viewer’s gaze should flow through the entire layout. If the viewer’s gaze doesn’t pass through a section of the tank, that part will be “lost” and thus, unbalance the entire design.
Form – The overall shape of a material component forms the “weight” of that piece in a design. For example: a bunch of stem plants can “weigh” as much as a rather large stone.
Color – Warm colors (yellow-orange-red) “weigh” more than cool colors (Violet-blue-green). For example: a sprig of bright red stem plants needs to be balanced by a large planting of green plants or a large piece of driftwood.
Texture – The “feel” of a material component creates a sense of weight. Smooth, fine, or thin materials are “lighter” than rough, coarse, or thick materials. A large coarse stone would need many fine (pinnate) stem plants to create a sense of balance.
Focalization – Focalization is the leading of a viewer towards a feature by placing this feature along the vanishing point between approaching or radial lines. Every layout needs an object or plant to “draw in” the viewer’s gaze and give them a comfortable place to begin their visual journey through the aquascape. These objects are called Focal Points. Any design that can be “taken in” by the viewer in one look can only have one focal point (< 4 ft). If the design can be seen from multiple angles, only from very close, or is too large to be seen in one gaze - more than one focal point can be used – carefully. The most comfortable location for the focal point is off-center with a ration of 1 : 1.618 of space on either side This is commonly referred to as the Golden Ratio.
Scale – An object (or plant) that is larger than anything else in a layout is an immediate focal point. Care should be made to make a large object appear smaller (plants on a big piece of driftwood) if that object is not desired as the focal point. A focal point surrounded by large plants/objects with shorter objects around them will “frame” that focal point and make it appear closer to the viewer. A focal point surrounded by short plants/objects with taller objects/plants around them will emphasize the focal point.
Line – The focal point is the natural starting point of a viewer’s gaze through the design, so the focal point needs to intersect with other natural lines of sight in the layout – such as driftwood limbs, the “skyline” or ascending/descending heights in plants.
Form – The overall form of the focal point should be carefully maintained. If the focal point grows to overpower the layout, the balance can be lost and the aquascape would be ruined.
Color – Contrasting colors demand immediate attention. Aquascapes are predominantly green and the inclusion of a red focal point is very dramatic. Red focal points create depth by “pulling towards” the viewer – increasing perspective. A drastic change in tone (intensity) can also create a good focal point (think stand of anubias). Complimenting colors “push away from the viewer” which also creates a sense of depth. Surrounding a red focal point with the lightest shade of green in the layout increases the intensity of that focal point.
Texture – Sharp contrast are very dramatic and a focal point surrounded by a drastic change in feel can make a better focal point. An example would be a plant “framed” with driftwood branches or stone “mountains.”
Transition - Transition is the “flow” of a viewers gaze from one part of the design into another part. The transition should be smooth and uninterrupted. Gradual changes from one area to another are natural and soothing. Proper transitions can emphasis areas or diffuse sharp contrasts.
Scale – Scale is a very easy to use to make transitions. Large objects placed next to slightly smaller objects, placed next to even smaller objects, so on and so on create a smooth transition. Think of this like placing a large rock next to a medium sized on, next to a small on, and then having a “trail” of small pebbles and then sand. The viewer’s eyes would easily flow through such a design.
Line – The line of objects used in a layout can be used to create simple transitions. An arching limb of driftwood going from the focal point into a group of plants creates a natural shift of view even if something drastically contrasting was in between, like a stone. Keep in mind that all objects used in the tank should have flowing lines to keep a sense of naturalness and peace. Straight lines are unnatural and out-of-place in a good layout – hide that equipment!
Form – The shape of a material component can lend itself towards transitions. A bright red rosette-shaped plant, with its splaying leaves, easily transition into the plants next to it. Hardscape items, like a leaning stone, “point” to the next section in a design. Materials with similar forms (like rows of stem plants) are conducive to transitions as well as are materials with only slightly different forms (large ocelot-shaped leaves, small oval leaves, round leaves, etc.).
Color – Color is the hardest transition to create, but perhaps the most powerful, because aquascapers are limited to the number of colors that are available to us. A change in one tone to another (dark green, lighter green, lightest green) is perhaps the best way to create a transition with color.
Texture – Textures in our materials is perhaps our best way to create a transition with our designs. We can change from coarse to fine, round to ovate, rosette to “strap-like” to make a good transition. As long as each component is different (but not drastically so) a good transition can be made. However, how we place these contrasting textures can subtly influence our overall design: coarse to fine textures emphasize the beauty of the next specimen while fine to coarse textures make the next object “jump out” at the viewer.
Proportion – A design’s proportion is how the size of each part relates to the rest of the design. The aquascaper should carefully consider what they want the overall design to become. If they want the layout to appear like it is very far away (a mountain scene perhaps) or if they want the layout to appear larger than it is (a fallen log maybe) then the components that they select should be proportional to that design.
Scale - The aquascaper should determine the impression of size within the layout that they are trying to create (small, medium, large) and chose materials that fit. If they want the design to appear larger, they should only use small materials. If the designer wants the layout to feel like it is only part of a whole, then large component should be carefully considered.
Line – The flow a particular component has should be in keeping with the desired proportion of the design. A driftwood branch that reaches all the way through a layout would make the design look like a small piece of a large design but if a “far away” landscape was the goal such a piece of driftwood wouldn’t work.
Form – Each component should have a form suitable to the layout’s proportions. A big pointy stone would make a good mountain but a poor river pebble in a small tank.
Color – The color of the chosen components have different proportional “weights.” Warm colors simply demand more attention and thus, feel “heavier.” A design that is predominantly red will feel like a (very) small part of a larger piece – predominantly red aquascapes are notoriously difficult to pull off.
Texture – A material’s texture should also be in keeping with the proportion of the design. Coarse textures “feel” large while fine textures “feel” small.
Unity - Unity is how well the design expresses an idea through a consistent application of materials. Every designer should begin with a general idea of what “theme” they want to represent. Aquascapers have their choice of many themes from miniature mountain ranges and wide open plains to deep, thick jungles, riverbanks, islands, or any number of scenes found in nature (or our imagination). The material components that the designers chose should always “fit” with the desired theme (no wood in an Iwagumi layout!).
Scale – The scale of chosen materials creates a sense of unity. If the layout theme is supposed to look like a far away landscape the components should be correspondingly small unless they are intended to represent something enormous in size.
Line – The flow of materials should come together with the other materials to create a harmonious design.
Form – Repetition and consistency in form is the key to good unity in any design. If a layout is supposed to be triangular in overall shape, all the component pieces should fit “within” that triangle of plantings.
Color – The color of a layout should unify the theme of the design. If the scene is to be natural then greens and browns should be predominantly used. Reds are only found sparsely in nature. Garish colors (colorful gravel for example) should be abhorred by the aquascaper. Unnatural background colors should also be avoided.
Texture – All the textures of components should “fit” the design. Unnatural textures, like straight lines from cut ends of driftwood or cut stones, should be hidden. Textures that don’t belong in a desired theme should also be avoided. For example: if a layout is supposed to represent an overgrown jungle then craggy rocks shouldn’t be used – only smooth ones.
Rhythm - The design’s rhythm is how well the layout creates a feeling of continuation. A good design feels like a part of something larger. Think of the design being “taken” out of another design. It should represent that larger design while maintaining its own integrity.
Line –The overall line of the design should not stop within the aquascape. The viewer should feel like if the tank was larger, there would be more to see.
Form- A very powerful way to create a sense of rhythm in a design is by effectively using forms within a design. If a “bush” of stem plants touches the side of the tank, it should stop somewhere along the top part of the form – like the “bush” got stuck in the glass. Care should be taken to ensure that hardscape components like driftwood and/or large stones don’t touch the sides of the tank because they cannot be “cut” apart and made to appear like they continue off into the distance. Their ends should be hidden by plants or in the substrate only implying their continuation.
Color- Color contributes to the tank’s rhythm by naturally creating a sense of continuation through color schemes. If the tank leads from a bright red focal point to progressively darker shades of green, the viewer can assume that the area beyond the tank would naturally be darker.
Texture- The textures of materials can contribute to the rhythm of the design by contrasting with each other and creating a natural sense of continuation.
Repetition - – Repetition is the creation of motion through a series of different materials. A good design should “flow” from the focal point throughout the layout. Repetition is a good way to express this flow. However, repetition should be limited to only a few components repeated a few times. The continuation of repetition should only be implied. Too much repetition is monotonous, busy, and appears cluttered – one of the major difficulties in Dutch aquascape design.
Scale- Components can be arranged in ascending or descending size to create a sense of repetition in the design. A triangular-shaped design would be a very good example of this.
Line – The repetition of line in a layout is usually only implied with aquascaping – leading the viewer to feel like the design could be repeated if it was larger. However, the line created by individual components, like stones in an Iwagumi layout, can be repeated a few times to imply a larger design – like a mountain range.
Form- The repetition of form is one way to use this principle in your design. A series of “bushes” or a cluster of stones would easily lend itself towards repetition. Too many “bushes” will make the design look too busy – commonly referred to as “collectoritis.”
Color- Color is often repeated in an aquascape layout. A focal point of red, followed by light green, green, and dark green repeated a couple of times successfully creates a sense of repetition.
Texture- Textures are the most common form of repetition. Coarse-fine, fine-coarse, coarse-fine… is an often found repetition – it works.
Simplicity – Perhaps the most important and hardest to conform to principle is that of simplicity. Simplicity is the use of a limited number of materials to create a successful design. The excessive use of materials is monotonous and confusing to the viewer. Beware the overpowering tendency towards collectivities. A general rule of thumb is to keep all components limited to 3-5 pieces.
Scale- Never use more than 3-5 different sizes in any design.
Line- Don’t use more than one continuous line of movement. More would be confusing.
Form- Don’t use more than 3-5 forms within a layout.
Color- Limit yourself to no more than 3-5 colors. Including the background, substrate, and hardscape items you should only have one or two colors in plants. If you use more colors, limit yourself to hardscape items – this is one key idea to successful Dutch designs (although they have never been accused of being simple). Luckily, our plants only really come in green and red. Subtle changes in color tone have a lesser effect on simplicity. Do not forget that your fish/inverts will also contribute a color to the design. The simplest designs only have one hardscape item, one substrate color, one background color (or none), two plants, and one type of fish.
Texture- Limit the number of textures that you use in the layout. If you conform to a limited number of plants and hardscape items, this shouldn’t be too hard.
By keeping in mind these eight principles of design and how the five elements of design affect each principle you too can create an excellent aquascape.