How to Design and Aquascape Your Aquarium

Posted on September 11, 2012 | 2 comments

Aquascaping, a work of Art;

Aquascaping is a term we generally use for describing the setting up and decorating of an aquarium in such a way that it satisfies our own perceptions of what is aesthetically pleasing. Yet in truth, Aquascaping is so much more.

Aquascapes, like all art forms, have a great number of rules of guidance and application. These rules exist to guide us towards success, and succeed in doing so. But remember: rules exist only to guide, and a skilled artist can actually enhance their work by bending or breaking the accepted rules if done so in just the right artistic manner: aquatic artistry is no different. This article will talk you through the basic ideas of composition and design, highlighting the rules along the way and helping you learn to apply and break those rules to gain the artistic effect you desire, whilst maximizing the beauty and impact of your design.

If you want to have your own Iwagumi Aquarium, Contact us. We can Design, Think Out and Build your dream tank. More info about our services you can find here.

Beautiful aquarium by Filipe Oliveira

Essentially, the craft of aquascaping is landscape gardening underwater, involving the creation of aquatic plant, driftwood and rock arrangements, including cavework. Whilst an aquascape would typically house fish alongside the plants, it is also appropriate to use simply plants and rockwork, or other hardscape alone. The aquatic works of art adhere to a collection of distinct looks and rules, such as the Dutch garden-like style, and the Japanese-inspired Iwagumi. Many dreamlike underwater landscapes come to us courtesy of Takashi Amano, one of the most influential people in the field of freshwater aquascaping, and his firm, Aqua Design Amano.
Mr Amano introduced the Japanese nature style during the 1980s, where a planted aquarium would aim to mimic a naturally growing scene and is influenced by Japanese gardening concept Wabi Sabi. The implementation of schools of fish is also favored in this genre, to obtain a gentle balance of life and nature.

The goal of the true ‘naturalist’ aquatic designer should be an interpretation of the natural environment, fashioned as much as possible by the forces of erosion, deposition and plant colonization and as little as possible by the hand of man. Style is a very personal thing. There are no rules, but for me the exposed ‘grain’ of a water worn river’s edge has a much richer tale to tell than the random coalescing of the materials – rocks and driftwood in mid-river which appears to be a popular starting point for many aquarists.

Natural Inspiration

There is much to be gained by going to rivers and lakes to see for oneself, as Mr Amano regularly suggests. With the wisdom of hindsight I have come to better understand my life’s subconscious quest – for the perfect rock strata materials from which to create a natural theatre for the mysterious dramas of the freshwater aquatic world. Unfortunately perfection, like a rainbow, is impossible to touch. We can only aspire. The quest continues.

We live in a world with a great variety of landscape forms and geology to inspire the aquarist. The enhancing effects of weathering, erosion and attrition are a great inspiration to any true Nature Aquarium enthusiast.

Working with the rule of thirds, or ‘The Golden Ratio’

Next, we will examine ‘The Golden Ratio’ and how to create perspective in an aquarium, before looking at some common aquarium layouts.

The golden ratio dates all the way back to the Greeks mathematicians. By dividing lines into extreme and mean ratio, also known as the golden section, the Greeks were able to come up with ratio 1:1.618. This ratio has been used in many forms of art and has been successful at pleasing the human eye. This golden ratio would be best applied to medium sized aquariums. Anything smaller than a 50g aquarium will leave the focal point heavily noticeable thus may be the only focus of the aquascape, and anything larger than a 50g will have too much space and a second focal point may be needed. Unless you are an experienced aquascaper, I advise only using this rule to aquariums between 50-75g.

How to use it

Imagine that there are four lines (two horizontal and two vertical) running through your tank, splitting it into nine equal sections. Wherever the lines cross is a golden focus point for your aquascape, and marks where you should consider positioning prominent features like main stones, wood shapes or bold/red plant species. The same process can be done when considering planning the height of plants and hard-scape; place the focal points at 1/3 or 2/3 of the height of the tank, and remember to consider the height that your plants will grow to. You can use it to plan the overall scape of your tank, for example you can choose to have 1/3 planted and 2/3 negative space, or vice versa. There are almost an infinite number of combinations to play with, and all can help you achieve stunning results.

Breaking the rules…

Remember that not all of the rules must be followed all the time. Whilst it may be advisable for beginners to stick more stoically to the rules of composition, a focal point that breaks the rules will demand attention in the most commanding manner by bringing tension and interest to the scape, resulting in a truly breathtaking effect.

Red lines – The Golden Ratio grid
Green and Blue lines – work with triangles

Creating Perspective

This can be one of the greatest challenges in an aquarium as aquariums often do not have enough depth (from front to back) to give a deep enough sense of perspective. This can be achieved with careful planting and positioning of Rock/Woodscape, and the use of The Golden Ratio helps with this to no end.

A common mistake when positioning rockscape is to place stones or wood in a very unnatural, straight line from left to right. This results in a flat, two-dimensional image. To avoid this, imagine your tank as consisting of several images, or screens, layered one after the other from the front to the back of the tank, each with a small gap in between, so that each image is slightly further away from the first. Make sure that when you place your hardscape, you place it in a variety of ‘screens’, so that it spans a variety of points in the depth of your tank. Some pieces of hardscape can share the same ‘screen’, or point of depth, but the key is to create points of perspective from the the front, and these points should be the lowest, to the back where they will be the highest. Like The Golden Ratio, this is a guide, and only a guide, to creating a good sense of perspective within the aquarium. The more experienced artistic eye will learn to manipulate the rules and use and break them where desired to create a truly beautiful, individual scape.

Top view. The different shades of green represent layers of perspective and depth (front to back).


There are three common layouts;

  • ‘The U Shape’
  • ‘The Triangle’
  • ‘The Island’

‘The U-Shape’

The negative, or open space, will be in the center of the aquarium. Alternatively if you are using the rule of two thirds, it will be off center. There will be higher planting to the left and right hand sides of the aquarium.

 U-Shape layout frontal view. U-Shape layout top view.

The Traditional Method:

When the negative space in the middle has been chosen, the next step is to select what plants to use and where to position them. This should be done carefully and several elements need to be considered in order to plant a successful scape. First, one should consider the growth habits of the plant; what height will it grow to, and how fast will it achieve that height. Thought should be invested in how the maintenance of the plants will be carried out; if you want the plant growth in one area of the tank to be at a height of 5cm, but choose a plant that grows very rapidly to 8cm, then you will be forever trimming and maintaining your tank, making it hard to maintain the ‘U’ shape and achieve your vision.

A New Way:

As with all art, especially relatively new artforms, trends have changed over the years and techniques have developed. The traditional technique is to use plants such as Glosstigma elatinoides, small Cryptocorne species like C. Parva and regularly pruned stem plants to create the ‘U’ shape. A relatively new and modern alternative to this is to use decorative sands and graded gravels in the place of Glossostigma, wood and stones to create the ‘U’ shape, and plants to soften the harsh edges of the hard-scape. This technique leads to a feeling of looking down a river or deep gorge enveloped in a tall, exotic canopy of wild green foliage.

‘The Triangle’

This is a successful compositional layout in cases where the tank is in the corner of the room and viewing angles are restricted. It consists of planting the area of the tank in the corner of the room, by the wall, and then gradually reducing the height of the planting as it moves further away from the wall, as though the plants are naturally creeping in towards your living space.

 Triangle layout frontal view.  Triangle layout top view.


Despite the apparent simplicity of this arrangement, careful consideration is needed. The first thing to consider is the negative, or open, space. With this layout the rule of two thirds is often used, with plants making up two thirds of the space and the final third being left as negative space. A further tip is to utilize triangles throughout the scaping of the tank to highlight the composition and dimensions. For example, wood or stones are often used to counter balance the triangular planting of this design by pointing them in the opposite direction; often up into the far/top corner in the open area. This style lends itself to an open sand area for Corydorus sp and brings a spacious feel to an aquarium.


The second thing to be considered is the choice of plants. For manageable maintenance, and optimum success, ensure that plants are chosen with an eye to maintaining desired height levels; stem plants are few and far between in this arrangement due to their growth habits. Where they are used, they are in the corner of the aquarium where the planting is at its greatest height.

‘The Island’

This is the least commonly used layout, and is often only used by aquarists who have a large aquarium to plant. The style is fairly self explanatory; all the main hardscape and planting is in the center of the tank, and the height radiating from high in the center to lower on the edges. Triangles are also used in this design, but in more dynamic ways.

 Island layout frontal view.  Island layout top view.

The Strata Line

When using slate or other sedimentary material the strata line is probably the single most important design element in achieving a natural look with a sense of scale. Continuity and consistency of strata are vital or rockwork can resemble little more than a pile of rubble. Choose a jaunty angle and stick with it. I personally use 40° or less, from horizontal and continue the same angle in the positioning of all rocks and stones, more or less right across the aquarium.

Above: Illustrating the importance of the Strata Line.

This will automatically create a sense of scale of an underlying geology that quite correctly should dwarf the size of fish and even plants as it would in nature. Scale in aquarium design, as the word suggests is about relativity. Very large tanks require bold statements with very large rocks and driftwood bringing all the attendant problems of weight on floors, joists etc. If loading is an issue smaller rocks can be used to great effect if strong strata lines are ‘coaxed’ into the arrangement. Think dry stoned walling, only a bit looser. An infinite variety of size should be used where possible from large rocks to fine sands and everything in-between.

Grading Gravels to Replicate Nature

The significance of this becomes apparent when the gravel and sands are graded and placed in the aquarium in the same way as can be found in rivers and streams where there is rock outcropping and some current in the flow of the water. If possible, rocks, stones, pebbles and sand of the same color should be used. Homogeneity of parent rock, stones, gravels and sands becomes a beautiful component in the outcome of the design.

In nature finer, lighter materials are carried further before settling out and in stronger currents they literally sandblast the bigger rocks and boulders until they are smooth and streamlined. Any flat rocks with good grain can be leaned against the rear of the tank  providing a good backdrop and keeping the overall weight down. They can also be used to conceal filter uptake pipes (plastic ones only) and to form caves for more timid species of fish.

Order vs Chaos

Lastly, avoid the temptation to over elaborate. Although the debris of erosion settles into natural rhythms and patterns, there is always a random element. The trick is to strike a balance between order and chaos. From the strong linear diagonal strata to the random placing of pebbles and small stones the forces of nature involved in erosion and deposition, can be mimicked.

Do not assume that this artwork will ever be finished. After time you may see potentially better arrangements of the rocks and stones with which you are now familiar. Fine tuning can make a big difference. Devil in the detail and all that. And then of course there’s the planting but that’s another story for another day. Remember that simply adding the water will change the picture dramatically. The magnifying/compressing optical effect of a full tank may lead you to different conclusions but the simple act of filling this glass box with water is to wave a magic wand transforming what was a few angled stones and grit into a mystical underwater world.

Final Guidelines to Achieve a Beautiful Minimal Aquascape

  • If you decide to opt for a minimalist Nature Aquarium, the main thing to remember is to strictly limit your choice of plants to no more than three species and to stick to this choice.
  • Colour and texture are obviously important considerations, so make these important issues in your final decision in planting.
  • Once you have decided on the vision that you have for the tank, do not be side-tracked from your original goal, it may seem monotonous working with so few species but that very starkness you create will have a beauty all of its own. Think of a simple yellow dune in the dessert set against the blue sky, or the silhouette of a tree in moonlight as comparisons.

Creating Perspective with your Choice of Livestock and Hardscape

The aim of an aquascape of this nature is to create the illusion of a large space within what is really a small space, and remember that the final choice of livestock should reflect this concept.

  • Large fish will make a tank look smaller, whereas a shoal of small fish will open it up and create the illusion that it is larger.
  • It is also advisable to go with the ‘less is more’ approach with livestock: one large shoal can have far more impact than several mixed species and in nature would be more the norm.
  • The use of just one species of fish can further enhance the minimalist style of the overall planting effect.
  • The hardscape used in a scape of this nature should be bold, creating a graphic image which will contrast with the simplicity of the planting.


There are no real hard and fast rules here and experimentation may bring unexpected success. Remember, when creating an aquascape we are creating a work of art.  As the artist the choice of materials with which we work is of the utmost importance in achieving our original concept of planting and our final goal.

If we plant a mixed bag of plants within our  we aquarium will have just that growing within it – a mixed bag of plants.

Choice is the artist’s friend and this type of minimalist work is only possible where the artist has full control over the species planted.

The minimal aquascape may be simple, but when established it can carry all the grandeur of the Himalayas or the Arizona desert.  In the setting of one’s own home it will bring endless hours of meditative pleasure.

If you want to have your own Iwagumi Aquarium, Contact us. We can Design, Think Out and Build your dream tank. More info about our services you can find here.

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  1. Loving this article Leonardo. It would be good to see how this translates over to reefs. I know most of it applies, but corals are so different to plants – guess this makes aquascaping reef tanks that much more of a challenge?

  2. Thanks! It’s true, corals can grow differently and slower then most plants. But comparing them to these beautiful freshwater tanks also makes you think out of the box. How about a “field” of Green Star Polyps all over the tank bottom, with a few large rocks coming out, with carefully placed SPS on them.
    Also, because corals grow slower many aquarist forget to take coral placement, coral structure and growth patterns into account.

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