Use These 4 Rules That Every Aquascaper Should Follow in Their Layout

Use These 4 Rules That Every Aquascaper Should Follow in Their Layout

I’m sure most of us have seen those incredible aquascaping scenes that have done more than just caught our attention. You know the ones I’m talking about. Those that literally transport you to another world. A world of minimalistic basics that offer endless scenes of tranquil prosperity.

Whether you are just getting into the groove of aquascaping or annually compete at world sanctioned AGA contests, if you plan to get into aquascaping, there are a few key guidelines to be mindful of. Aquascaping is more than a hobby to pass the time. It is an art, skill, and something that is born from passion—not mimicry.

If you are looking to create visually captivating Iwagumi landscapes or marvelous interactive Taiwanese style planted aquarium, then you will need to follow these 4 critical guidelines, especially If you want to turn the tide and become the center of attention with your next aquascaping venture.

You can spend hours searching for the answers to why your tank doesn’t look like award-winning George Farmer’s piece, but all of that is about to change. This goes back to aquascaping being more than a hobby and more than an art. Aquascaping can be broken down into a science, and that is exactly how the great become just that: GREAT!!!

In total, there are 4 main guidelines or principles to aquascaping. Familiarizing yourself with these guidelines, applying them to your tank, and practice patience with routine dosing, your aquascape will become your best experiment yet.

Once you understand these four principles, your mind will begin to observe, deconstruct, and imagine endless aquascape possibilities. Turn heads and steal the spotlight with your new planted tank project.

Rule of Thirds

This is the most important of the four principles and should be taken to heart with new aquascape you pursue. This principle extends far past aquascaping and roots date all the way back to its first recorded appearance. Originally written down in an explainable process and theory in 1797 by John Thomas Smith.

The rule describes the urgency for the human mind willfully become attracted to things that have been divided into sections like a grid; placing items along the gridlines will create balance and visually attracting layouts. This same principle holds true for Aquascaping.

This is why most aquascapes will use an odd number of pieces (signifying plants/rocks) to take away separation equality with the scene, where the tank has all of the components, but they are just poorly placed.

Let’s look at a simple test layout:

Almost instantly, two things should have stood out: The person who made this has some serious carpeting plant skills, and this tank utilizes the Rule of Thirds in structure placement.

We’ve taken the time to mark this landscape of 2 critical areas clearly:

1: Placement of Focal Point

More details on focal points will proceed following this breakdown. The thing I want you to observe is the positioning of the highest point in the tank. What do you notice?

The positioning of the points is nearly one-third away from each other down to the tee.

This was intentional, and if it was subconscious, then the aquascaper thought the arrangement was aesthetically positioned to be the focal point. Either way, now you know what to look for, you’ll see it in almost every tank now.

2: Rightfully Breaking Rules

Obviously, it is cheesy, but, every rule is meant to be broken. The art lies in the intentionality of how the rule will be broken, resulting in consciously applying the concept to give it a purposeful appeal.

Notice how the smaller stone is set in the background at the one-third distance. If for instance it was placed exactly a third away and on the same plane as the larger stone, the piece would like oddly mirrored, resulting in an unwanted cookie-cutter layout.

Tune Your Eyes into Focal Points

Staying attentive to your focal points will help keep your layout from becoming too cluttered or overly distracting. Some of the most beautiful aquascapes are based on the: Less is More attribute, creating a minimalist feel of elegant beauty.

Most focal points are consequently created simply by adhering to a style’s guidelines and practices. For instance, the Iwagumi style takes advantage of multiple stone placements within a particular pattern, that typically has one central stone that falls directly on a ‘third-line.’ This naturally constructs a focal point because the style’s guidelines are based on the Rule of Thirds.

If you are aiming to create that striking visual appeal when it comes to your hardscape, then consider removing instead of adding. This will help viewers attention to be guided across your tank while ensuring an awe-striking piece that hits the golden principle of naturally occurring focal points.

Additional focal points can be created by effectively using plants. Arranging them by type, color, size, or texture to install new focal points. Just be wary of causing aquascape congestion, as that can be rather unsightly.

Much like rock/stone placement, where plants are put in the tank will also carry visual weight. You, for obvious reasons, would not want to place a stemmed plant in the foreground because it is going to grow taller and block out large chunks of the tank’s view. Just the same, you would not want to carpet the background, as it will most likely be hidden by the aquascape.

Creating focal points doesn’t have to be a struggle, especially following one easy guideline…


We’ve reached the point now where things get serious. Correct implementation of this guideline is what separates the contestants from the award winners. Scaling is extremely important and is really the hidden ‘magic’ behind aquascaping.

In most cases, visuals get the point across better, so let’s take a look at an excellent complex sample layout:

Take notice of the use of the Rule of Thirds, which is clearly dominant in this layout. If you are paying attention, you may be able to spot the level of the scale used in this aquascape.

1: Relevant Substrate Size

When it comes to scaling: Size Matters and your substrate can play a vital role in the overall appearance of your tank. This is a major reason why leading aquascapers use an ADA powder type topsoil. The scale of the hardscape, plants, and your substrate are affected by your substrate size, which is why smaller granules are easier to design wonderful landscapes with.

“Using a powder topsoil should not be considered usable substrate to build depth with.”

2: Differentiating Scalable Focal Stone(s)

Using different size stones is a great way to use your horizontal space in your aquascape optimally, and it can also fill in unused high-value vertical areas too. What was that:

“Using different sized stones make use of both horizontal and vertical space in your aquascape.”

Tons of beginner tanks have this one ugly factor in common. They have done their research and have selected strong substrate, beautiful plant placement, and a great fish selection. The problem the noobs are running into is their hardscape. Plain and simple, a lot of times it does not utilize the full openness of the tank. In many cases, driftwood or stones are too small to take advantage of the clear open space above the substrate, thus leaving poorly constructed low-level layout.

3: Using Accent Stones to Make a Difference

The most commonly forgotten piece in new tanks. It can be a little tricky getting some smaller stones to accent the larger ones as many retailers are only trying to sell large and medium stones. Using smaller accent stones will create a sense of variety in your hardscape, making it easy on the eyes while providing a nice level of stimuli.

A better way to understand this is to think of your hardscape as nature:

Larger rocks do not naturally occur by themselves in nature. There are usually smaller stones that either has fallen next to the larger stone or have been chipped from the stone itself. Your aquascape should also have this naturalistic look.


This is sort of the unspoken guideline and is not always present in aquascaping tanks. The basics of this guidelines are:

If the focus is on everything, then nothing has focus.

In layman’s term, if you spend time placing varieties of plants, substrate, fish, and hardscapes, then your tank will become congested, and there will be no clear focal point. Successful aquascapes typically show a pair of contrasting plants that are completely different, a single-color substrate, and one style of stone. Taking these guidelines into consideration when setting up your next aquascape can truly be the difference in an aquascape or a jaw-dropping scene of endless drawn inspiration that give a sense of serenity to the viewer.

The Green Screen Failure

Even if it is not obvious, there are dangers associated with most aquascapes. While you can find several different names for it, I prefer to call these dangers: Green Screens. They are more like failures instead of dangers.

What happens in design is an absent thought of contrast, thus creating what ultimately appears as a tank coated with greenage. Onlookers and viewers will only be able to see green, without any real definition of style, scale, and colors. We aren’t shooting an action scene, so let’s keep the green screens in the movies and beautiful aquascapes in our tanks.

The best way to avoid creating the ‘green screen’ is to follow these 4 easy guidelines. If you have taken the time to follow all four of these rules/principles/guidelines, then you can with confidence, have a successful winning attitude about your aquascape.

A Community Full of Opportunity

Do you have a wonderful aquascape that kickass using all of these principles? Then stop keeping it to yourself because we would love to feature your tank for the whole community to ogle. Send us a description of your tank, some background, and a few pictures, and you may see your tank featured in upcoming posts.

Don’t have a tank but looking to set one up and have some questions? Drop us a line, and we will try to point you in the right direction.