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Discussion Starter · #1 · (Edited)
Hey! I design & build aquascapes in the Southern USA, and I recently started a website based on Aquascaping at I wrote a little article on Aqusacaping for Beginners, and I figured I'd re-post it here for the forum's use, if anybody should like to sticky it.

If you'd like to read this in an easier format, you can read the same thing here: Aquascaping for Beginners

Here it is:

There are four principles to Aquascaping. If you make yourself familiar with these four principles, and apply them to your tanks, you'll quickly begin to see those ideas in your head turn into aquascapes that attract attention. Let's start with the most important principle first: the Rule of Thirds. (Don't skip this; it's important.)

The Rule of Thirds

The Rule of Thirds has been used since humans first started creating visual objects. For some reason, the human eye is attracted to things that are divided into a grid, and placing things on lines created by this grid nearly always creates a balanced, visually interesting layout. The same is true of Aquascaping.

What's immediately apparent are two things: this guy is good at carpeting plants, and this tank is definitely composed according to the Rule of Thirds.

I've marked two important areas:

1: focal point placement

We'll cover this in-depth later, but I want you to notice the placement of the highest part of the tank: It's placed almost exactly one-third away from the right side. That wasn't an accident. Whether intentional or subconsciously, the aquascaper found that to be a pleasing location for the focal point. Now that you're looking for it, you'll notice it in almost every tank you see.

2: breaking the rules

It's cliché, but it's true: every rule is meant to be broken. However, it's the intentional breaking of it, and in a conscious way, that makes it appealing. If the lesser stone was placed exactly one-third away from the left side, it would make the tank nearly mirrored, and it would look rigid.

Focal Points

Focal points keep your layout from becoming to busy or distracting. In most cases, less is more. In many aquascaping styles, focal points are naturally created by following the style's guidelines. The Iwagumi style, for example, uses multiples of stones placed in a certain pattern, with a central stone being placed on one of the third-lines of the tank. This (by design) creates a focal point according to the Rule of Thirds.

When it comes to your hardscape, when in doubt, don't add, but take away. This ensures that your tank has a striking visual aspect, and guides the viewer's eye across your tank.
Focal points can be created through the effective use of plant selection, by either color, scale, or texture.

Plant Selection

It's important to keep in mind the plant's adult size & coloration. Choose a plant that's appropriately sized for where you're placing it. For example, in most cases, you wouldn't put a stem plant in the foreground, since it's likely to grow so tall that it blocks the view of the tank. You also wouldn't put a low-growing, carpeting plant in the back behind your aquascape. There wouldn't be a point, because it would never be seen.

In most cases, however, focal points are created with one easily-used principle...


This is what separates the entries from the winners. Proper use of scale in an aquascape is what makes the 'magic'. Again, most of us learn better visually, so here's a sample layout:

Once again, you can see the Rule of Thirds is very prevalent in this tank. What's more, you might notice the scale that's present in this aquascape.

1: substrate size

Substrate size can play a huge role in the appearance of your tank. That's why you see almost all professional Aquascapers using the ADA powder type topsoil. The small granules lend a greater sense of scale between the hardscape, plants, and substrate.

If you have the budget to use powder-type, do so. Just remember: it's a top coat, not a substrate you should be creating depth with.

2: large focal stone(s)

Using larger stones in tanks is a great way to use not just the horizontal space in the aquascape, but also the vertical. That's important, so I'll repeat it:

Using larger stones makes use of the vertical space in your aquascape.

This is the most common problem I see in beginner tanks: they're making relatively good decisions about substrate, plant placement, and fish selection, but their hardscape simply isn't using the full tank. The stones or driftwood aren't large enough to make use of the open space above the substrate, and so everything ends up looking like a low, 'squat' layout.

3: smaller accent stones

Beginners almost always forget these stones. While it's sometimes hard to get these from stone purchases (sellers only include the large/medium stones), it's important to incorporate these to create variance in your hardscape.

It's important in hardscapes to think as if it's in nature: large stones aren't by themselves. There's almost always a few smaller stones around it that have either chipped off, or been pushed up next to it. The same should be true of your Aquascape: place smaller stones naturally in the tank to create a natural look.


This is a subtle principle, and it's not always found in many of the Aquascaping Tanks you'll find on Aquatic Gardeners. The basic premise of this principle is this:

If everything is emphasized, nothing is emphasized.
Which basically means that if you're putting a ton of variation in your plants, substrates, and hardscapes, it's going to create a busy tank that has too much contrast. However, choose two plants that differ greatly (in color, for example), a one-color substrate, and one stone type—then you'll have the beginnings of a great tank.

The green box

There's a danger with most aquascapes to become what I call the 'green box'. Essentially, your tank has almost no contrast, and so it becomes a 'green box' to most viewers. (A box with some green, underwater plants.)

The easiest way to avoid this is using all the aspects of your tank (the substrate, hardscape, and plants) in such a way as to show differences between your chosen materials. If you have lots of green plants that grow quickly, choose one vivid red plant that'll be placed next to your focal point.

Thanks for reading! Hope this helps some beginners; I know I was really confused when I first started Aquascaping.

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Discussion Starter · #4 ·
This is great! Thank you!
You're welcome; I'm happy it was useful! If you have any questions, let me know and I'd be glad to help.

Please see this discussion about the myth of the Golden Ratio and Rule of Thirds:
The Rule of Thirds is in principle an extension of Golden Ratio. The reason why most everything around us uses the Rule of Thirds is because of how the golden ratio ends up dividing the object we're viewing.

If you look at the past winners, you'll see that nearly every entry is divided into either the Golden Ratio, or a general Rule of Thirds. I'll definitely say that it's a general guideline, not something to be precisely measured + adhered to. Visually speaking, everything that seems pleasing to the eye is using some form of these compositions, whether intentionally or subconsciously.

However, as with nearly anything, rules are made to be broken. When in doubt, go with what looks better in your tank.
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