The Aquascaping Design Checklist
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Old 06-15-2012, 08:06 PM   #1
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The Aquascaping Design Checklist


Hello friends,

I wrote this article about aquascaping techniques for another forum. It is geared toward noobs, but I find that even some experienced aquascapers can benefit by some of the points made. Even though I wrote it, I use it myself from time to time, and it has helped me to find some clarity during some of my misadventures.

I made a Noobie Shrimp Keeper Guide that was well received and that some of you may have already read in the invert forums, and this is just a second installment to that, #2 in a series.

Let me preface this article by saying that I've never won an aquascaping contest, and I don't claim to be the Da Vinci of planted tanks. Further, aquascaping does not need to be turned into a contest to be successful. Simply creating your humble but inspiring art in the privacy of your own residence is often all that's required to reap the benefits of our art. That said, I have managed some successful scapes, and I feel like loosely following this checklist may help many aspiring aquascapers to reap the occasionally elusive benefits from our sometimes modest aquascaping subculture.

- Do I have too many varieties of plants?
You see this all the time, and I've certainly been guilty of it. Let's face it. Plants are awesome! Especially if you only have one tank, it's easy to get carried away and want to grow every species of plant in the same tank, even if the flora you plant seems to have no obvious cohesion. If the rise of Iwagumi taught us anything, however, it's that often, less is more, and that you don't require a dozen different varieties of plants to be successful. In fact, you can make a terrific scape sans any flora at all. Don't get me wrong though... I love a well taken care of Dutch scape!

Here is a great example of a very successful minimialist tank.

by George Farmer



- Do I have enough repetition of elements?
Often, I see this really terrific element in a scape, be it rock, branch, or plant, and the author does not bother to repeat this element in other areas to tie it all together. For example, an erios is a beautiful bit of flora. However, one erios in your tank looks contrived. 7 erios in your tank, however, can be a beautiful repeating element. One red plant? Unless it's right on a huge focal point stone or branch, it may look artificial. Repeated many times over, strategically? It can look amazing. No matter what element you've created, think about mimicking that element in your tank several times over to bring out a particular theme. Can you claim that your tank has a theme? If not, you may want to rethink that scape.

Notice the repeating peaks which really set off this scape.

by Peter Kirwan

- Can I identify a real focal point?
Most but not all successful scapes feature a distinct focal point. Is it that huge piece of manzanita in the corner? The rotala forest that's the same height as the manzi? Or is it the huge Maten stone on the opposite side of the tank? If your eye can't easily land in one spot or the other in your scape then there's a fair chance that you haven't created a strong enough focal point.

Here is a terrific example of a simple, but really strong focal point which is accented by similar, but much smaller rocks. Also notice the terrific flow from left to right.

by Josh Sim KH


- Do I have a distinct flow, from one side of the tank to the other?
If, after finishing your scape, you can't identify a direction of flow then you've likely missed this element. Some tanks may feature several directions, but you should be able to feel the flow. Simple techniques like placing the pointy end of hardscape all in similar directions can lend a hand to this narrative.

The flow of the rocks leads the eye distinctly to the left.

by Ngo Truong Thinh

- Does the scape vary in height?
This is a big one. Often, you will see scapes where everything, the wood, the stones, the plants, are all the same height, from one side of the tank to another. You can literally draw an imaginary line and they will all touch that line and not extend past it. It's as if the designer had horizon tunnel visioin while they were placing their flora and hardscape. Height creates depth, but only if you have other distinct elements which will counter-balance that height as well as transitions which lead the eye back and forth between the elements.

Here is a lovely little scape with a caption of "Not Quite There". It has so much going for it, but it suffers from same height syndrome at the moment.


- Have I created depth by playing with the placement of the foreground, midground, and background plants?
Most scapes, even the nicer ones, follow a very distinct aquascaping principal. They use foreground plants in the foreground, midground plants in the midground, and background plants in the background. Absolutely, you can create a stunning scape using these principles. However, if you are willing to step outside the box and break the rules a little bit, you may end up creating something much more dramatic in the end. Ask yourself, for example, how you might highlight a foreground plant in the background or a background plant in the foreground. Once you have answered those riddles successfully, you will likely end up with a layout that features great depth.

Notice the foreground plants in the background, giving depth to the focal point element. Part of the focal point wood creeps right up to the front of the glass.

by Michael G.W. Wong

In this Amano scape, background and midground plants make a splash in the front corners of this tank while the foreground plant is focused on the little hill top in the rear creating an inspiring bit of depth. Notice the limited plant species, the matching rotala on both sides, the repeating elements of the moss on wood. Amano incorporates so many successful elements making this an intriguing scape.


- Is my spacing of elements too uniform?
Too often, new scapers place one element here, one there, one there, one here, etc., with little thought to the distance between each of those elements. They space each element out about the same distance apart and then hope it will all grow together into a cohesive scape. Or worse still, they create a hardscape that looks like Stonehenge. That's not how nature works though, and so this scaping recipe will most often yield lots of artificiality.

Instead, think about bunching elements together like you would a flower bouquet. Stack rocks together. Stack branches together. Stack several species of plants together like you would in a wabi-kusa for example.

Here is a lovely, well grown-out scape that suffers from too many varieties of plants, most of which seem to all have their proper place, spaced out with about the same amount of real estate. In turn, the depth is unfortunately lacking, and the design elements, also lacking in repitition, create no compelling patterns. The foreground plants are in front, the background plants, in back. Where is the focal point? Did I mention that the plants are terrific and healthy? So much potential here.


By contrast, here is a fine wabi kusa, with varying elements seeming to grow out of the same location/foundation. If you contrast this wabi kusa style with negative space in the rest of your scape, your focal element will really pop.

by Aquascapedesign.

And here is a hardscape of stacked rocks that really gets the point across. Even sans flora, this one is already a stunner.

by Piotr Dymowski

- Is this element something I might find in nature?
Some scapes follow all the right rules, but still just miss. Similarly, some scapes seem to break every rule, but they instantly and instinctively captivate us anyway. What do these scapes have that others seem to lack? Sometimes, it can all be found in nature.

Just walking outside can provide us with endless blueprints for creating stimulating aquascapes. Snapping photos of elements you see in nature to use as scaping reference points is a great cheat that many aquascapers employ.

This is a simple scape that's already been drawn for you by mother nature.


Or, for something more elaborate... Saihō-ji (Kyoto) Moss Garden, Japan


A rainbow fish habitat in Australia courtesy of Dave Harasti.


I invite all of you to post both good and bad aquascaping design elements on this thread so long as you are willing to comment about what makes those elements successful or just miss the mark in your estimation. If you are of the "been there, done that", "too cool for school", "aquascapes these days are all so lame" crowd, I am going to thank you in advance for just glancing at but ultimately failing to comment in this thread. I can't even begin to hold a candle to your knowledge or expertise so thanks for your restraint in this case.
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Old 06-15-2012, 08:18 PM   #2
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Great thread! Very informational!!!! I'm sure this will help both noobies and oldies!!
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Old 06-15-2012, 08:23 PM   #3
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Well done!

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Old 06-15-2012, 08:33 PM   #4
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Great thread! Very informational!!!! I'm sure this will help both noobies and oldies!!
Glad you like it! We have such a huge pool of talent among us so it makes sense that we do what we can to see this hobby grow in more dynamic directions. Similarly, there is nothing quite like finding satisfaction in one of your first aquascapes as it's such a compelling medium.
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Old 06-15-2012, 08:33 PM   #5
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Great write up. I think the last point is the most important; stick to nature. Even a pile of weeds in the corner of your yard can be an inspiration as to how nature places her plants in a artful manner.
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Old 06-15-2012, 08:48 PM   #6
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Can you say sticky?!

This is awesome. Love it. Very well done.
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Old 06-15-2012, 09:14 PM   #7
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I second (or third, or forth, etc) the level of awesomeness. And thank you for sharing your experience. I sometimes feel like the key to shaping the perfect scape is a secret those in the know wanna keep secret.

Any comments on the "rule of thirds"? I know what it is, but how is it put into practice on the tank? Is the tank actually measured and the intersecting points carefully plotted out or is it approximate? Ive heard some use graph sheets, but how is that used?


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Old 06-15-2012, 09:39 PM   #8
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Originally Posted by Cento View Post
I second (or third, or forth, etc) the level of awesomeness. And thank you for sharing your experience. I sometimes feel like the key to shaping the perfect scape is a secret those in the know wanna keep secret.

Any comments on the "rule of thirds"? I know what it is, but how is it put into practice on the tank? Is the tank actually measured and the intersecting points carefully plotted out or is it approximate? Ive heard some use graph sheets, but how is that used?


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I feel the same way about both shrimp keeping and aquascaping. Folks in this hobby seem to love their secrets.

I think that the rule of thirds is the most common design and photographic element known to man, and that it applies to almost any art form, so of course it also applies to aquascaping. I think that any designer, photographer, or painter has a distinct advantage over those without such a background when it comes to scaping because those basic design ideas have been drilled into them over time.

Most definitely, I would not dream of using graph paper or a ruler. Your eye should be able to tell you what's right or what's wrong. And truthfully, there is no right or wrong, but merely ideas that tend to make a scape stronger or weaker instead.

And as you develop your eye, you will also know when to employ the infamous rule of thirds, and when to break that rule and leave it out all together. It certainly isn't required to make a great scape, but if you do follow that rule then your odds are increased.

Lately, Amano has taken to literally dropping small rocks into his hardscape pre-flood to mimic nature and get the point across that randomness and nature is a better designer than your mind's eye ever could be. If you contemplate some of the more beautiful focal points in nature, they often contain a very strong element wrapped and surrounded by either newborn growth or decay. Either way works.

For example, think of a cliff on a beach. Here is a photograph of beach rocks in Australia. Notice the flow of the rocks out into the ocean? That part is obvious. But as the "scape" has matured, small rocks have fallen off of larger rocks and dribbled down below to the beach representing a decay element. In that sense, they are the same element but in miniature form, and they lay close to the main element, the rocks.



Then, think about your flora. You may have trees, and right at the base of those trees are smaller elements and various shrubs. For example, there are ferns right at the base of these trees just like there are smaller rocks right at the base of large rocks in the previous image. This time, we have the newborn growth element.



So, your job is to find a focal point you enjoy and then tease out the nature of that focal point by adding accents that truly contrast the magnificence of your focal point, but also compliment that focal point by contrasting enough in size, and sometimes in nature.

***Extra hint on rock work. Most rocks enter the substrate not in a perfectly even pattern, but in a place that creates dramatic points or lines, much like the rocks above. If you dribble smaller rocks right from the base of these points where the rock enters the substrate then it tends to look less artificial and more natural.

Here is a perfect example in nature.
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Old 06-15-2012, 09:41 PM   #9
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this is great, thank you. I will enter IAPLC next year. my tank wasn't ready in time for submission. I am planning on entering the aquabotanic nano contest though...
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Old 06-15-2012, 09:55 PM   #10
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I have suggestion for this thread. It would be helpful to have some sort of guideline to prepare your tank for the contest shot. Like setting up lighting, removing equipment, etc....
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Old 06-15-2012, 10:00 PM   #11
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this is great, thank you. I will enter IAPLC next year. my tank wasn't ready in time for submission. I am planning on entering the aquabotanic nano contest though...
I too am contemplating entering some sort of international or national contest... Though, I will be representing Canada, eh?

As far as stones are concerned however, although most substrate more or less look the same and are easily attainable, as well as most pieces of driftwood or even plants, that is not the case when it comes to rocks. At least here in Toronto Canada.

The rocks that Amano uses have incredible micro-detail and are FAR FAR different from the Utah ice or granite slabs you find at your LFS. Sometimes you find nice petrified wood, or even that black rock with the whitish-grey veins, but it seems the kubu basa, wiki tiki, or akriro kirusawa stones are like a $100,000,00 per pound (number may be slightly exaggerated) and available only online shipped to you for a price exceeding e amount of the stone....


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Old 06-15-2012, 10:10 PM   #12
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Credit where credit is due! Huge time and thought went into this and you can tell for sure! A write up like this deserves to be a sticky.
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Old 06-15-2012, 10:19 PM   #13
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Originally Posted by Cento View Post
I too am contemplating entering some sort of international or national contest... Though, I will be representing Canada, eh?

As far as stones are concerned however, although most substrate more or less look the same and are easily attainable, as well as most pieces of driftwood or even plants, that is not the case when it comes to rocks. At least here in Toronto Canada.

The rocks that Amano uses have incredible micro-detail and are FAR FAR different from the Utah ice or granite slabs you find at your LFS. Sometimes you find nice petrified wood, or even that black rock with the whitish-grey veins, but it seems the kubu basa, wiki tiki, or akriro kirusawa stones are like a $100,000,00 per pound (number may be slightly exaggerated) and available only online shipped to you for a price exceeding e amount of the stone....


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I think stones are a very big problem unless you happen to live in Japan or right near a fantastic source. Exquisite stones do make a night/day difference, but they are prohibitively expensive. I actually have a very cheap source for seiryu stone, which is nice, but since I tend to focus on inverts, I can't use them very often. Otherwise, just like you, I am very jealous of the stones I sometimes being employed in aquascapes.

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Credit where credit is due! Huge time and thought went into this and you can tell for sure! A write up like this deserves to be a sticky.
Thanks. I just wrote this up in an hour, but certainly I have invested a lot of thought into aquascaping over the last many years.
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Old 06-18-2012, 03:00 AM   #14
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Default Niiiice!

Thanks man! Very generous to take the time to share this info!

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Old 06-18-2012, 03:20 AM   #15
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that last picture is amazing!
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