Composing an Aquascape

One of the most difficult parts about creating an aquascape is knowing where or how to start. You have your materials ready, and it’s time to get to work but…what now? Here are some great methods to composing an aquascape that will help you create an aesthetically pleasing, personal work of art, right off the bat! For some inspiration it sometimes helps to look at easily accessible hardscape materials. Many forms of rock and wood are easily obtained, Dragon Stone, Seiryu stone, Elephant Skin Stone are popular rock options. Weathered driftwood, Spider Wood and Black Spider Wood are excellent would options.

The Rule of Thirds (ROT)

The rule of thirds is a guideline that applies to the process of composing visual images such as designs, films, paintings, photographs, and in our case aquascapes. The guideline proposes that an image should be imagined as divided into nine equal parts by two equally spaced horizontal lines and two equally spaced vertical lines, and that important compositional elements should be placed along these lines or their intersections.

The ROT is applied to aquascaping by aligning a point of interest with the guidelines and their intersecting points, placing the horizon on the top or bottom line, or allowing linear features in the layout to flow from section to section. The main reason for observing the ROT is to discourage placement of focal points at the center or to prevent a horizon from appearing to divide the layout in half.

The Golden Ratio

The Golden Ratio describes the perfectly symmetrical relationship between two proportions. Approximately equal to a 1:1.61 ratio, the Golden Ratio can be illustrated using a Golden Rectangle: a large rectangle consisting of a square (with sides equal in length to the shortest length of the rectangle) and a smaller rectangle.

Fibonacci Sequences

Later known as the Golden Ratio, the Fibonacci sequence is a series of numbers in which each number is the sum of the two preceding numbers. The simplest is the series 1, 1, 2, 3, 5, 8, 13, 21, etc. Artists recognized that the Fibonacci Spiral is an expression of an aesthetically pleasing principle. This is used in the composition of a layout balancing the features of the image by thirds, rather than strictly centering them achieves a more pleasing flow to the picture.

Composition Styles

Another way to compose a layout is to use specific composition styles. These styles include triangular, convex, and concave.

Triangular Composition

The triangle is a compositional element that has been used in visual art throughout history and can be used as a guideline in creating depth in your layout or purely as a shape to follow. 

Convex Composition

Taking elements from the foundational triangle, the convex composition is in its basic form an upward facing triangle. With the top point usually residing towards the center of the layout (not always and not a rule), resulting in a “mound” type shape. The convex composition can also be used as a guideline to creating depth identical to the triangular composition.

Concave Composition

Using triangles just as the previous composition styles, the concave composition in its basic form, a downward facing triangle. Using the rule of thirds along with this composition style will help offset the focal point and to keep the layout from being too symmetrical. 

Creating Depth and Forced Perspective

Ever looked at an aquascape and thought to yourself “How do they make such a small space seem so vast?” Some of them even look to be miles long! Here are some techniques in creating simple depth all the way to forced perspectives.

(Top to bottom: The Aquascaper’s Collective, Cory Hopkins, Hiep Hong, Art Commisso, Bryan Tabares, and Shawn McBride; Aquascape by Shawn McBride, Aquascape by Cory Hopkins)



The manipulation of light is one of an aquascaper’s secret weapons. Why does this matter? It matters because we have a small area to work with and we need to utilize as much of that real-estate as we can. Since we don’t have the room, we manipulate the light to trick our minds into seeing a much larger area or maybe just a small area that’s a bit larger than the aquarium you have.

How do we manipulate light? The lights we use for our aquascapes are hung from above our aquariums, therefore the light is shining straight down on our aquascape. By leaning hardscape forward it creates a dark shadow in front of the piece, by leaning it back you allow the light to shine on the face of the piece eliminating any shadows as you lean it back more.

These are 2 easy ways to understand how to create depth/perspective.

  1. Dark to bright
  2. Bright to dark

The perfect example of this phenomenon would be two daytime photos of a train tunnel. One from inside the tunnel looking out (dark to bright) and the other from outside the tunnel looking in (bright to dark).

Most aquascapers use dark to light, but in certain circumstances, light to dark can work.  (Both layouts by Cory Hopkins)

Shadowing also creates color contrasts, making your layout more interesting by creating points of interest, as well as adding textures you can only get through material and light manipulation. (left to right: Aquascape by John Pini, Aquascape by Cory Hopkins, Aquascape by Cory Hopkins)

Hardscape Size & Texture

Another key component in creating depth or forced perspective in your layout. While looking at a valley or mountain range, whether it be in in real life or a well taken photo, you’ll notice that everything that appears close to you or the camera is large and very detailed…well yeah, obviously…and as the structures get further and further away, they appear to lose their detail and appear to get gradually smaller. We can take this info and apply them to our layouts by choosing large, detailed hardscape for “up front” of our layouts, then finding materials that gradually get smaller and less detailed as we get “further back” into our layout.         

Sketch and layout by Cory Hopkins

Aquascaping Through the Lens of a Camera

If you’re into competition or just practicing, aquascaping through the lens of a camera lets you see what the photo of your aquascape will look like. A very tedious and meticulous task but very effective in creating your own perfect layout. The task is very tedious because normally every time you would add or move a stone/wood piece, you take a photo (cellphone on a tripod are easiest to use for this). In the end you will most likely have 10’s por 100’s of photos pf your progress. Also makes for an easy way to explain your process to someone who would like to do something similar.

“Mako’s Morichal”   Step-by-step biotope aquascape by Cory Hopkins

Aquascaping, just like any artform proves to cater to a wide spectrum of experience levels. From very simple and minimalistic to advanced and detailed, making it a versatile artform for anyone from all ages to enjoy. Thank you for reading, We look forward to seeing your aquascapes!

For more information on aquascaping and a great selection of hardscape material, tissue culture plants, CO2 equipment and planted aquarium accessory’s please visit our website at