Aquascaping Philosophy 102
By: Steven Chong
First Published: 02-18-2007
The following article is the work of Steven Chong and has been re-published with his permission. It remains unchanged since being originally published with the exception of some minor layout and grammatical changes.
In Aquascaping Philosophy 101, I discussed the formation of Aquascaping as a creative path. Specifically, 101 was a general premise discussing the value of Aquascaping as an art form and the hopes for its future growth. It was an article discussing the ideal and optimism. 102 is the opposite - discussed below are some of the nit-and-grit-down-to-earth ideas of Aquascaping. Essentially, I am laying down some rules of elementary Aquascaping, rules for design, more specifically the “don’ts” and as such rules that are essentially confining. That said keep in mind that in art, rules are meant to be broken. However, breaking them comes after understanding them and beginner aquarium designers have to start somewhere.
Before we get started, this is an elementary level and not baby level. I will not discuss subjects such as the differences between Nature and Flower Arrangement (to use Amano’s terminology), the golden ratio or other such subjects on which there is a large amount of documentation. My Aquascaping Philosophy articles should be read alongside the Nature Aquarium World series and other widely read basic guides. For a thorough introduction guide, I will refer you to George Farmer’s “Aquascaping Basics 1-3” which can be found at the Aquaessentials forum.
Starting off as a Nature Aquarium Designer
After reading through the basic material (and hopefully Nature Aquarium World I) you should have come across the name Takashi Amano several times. Amano is an artist who really brought Aquascaping to where it is today. The most recent focus has been on the nature school of Aquascaping which really finds its foundations in Japanese/Asian aesthetic ideals as well as Amano’s work. I also fall on the side of this “nature school” and so in this Philosophy 102, I will be discussing some of the developments that fall under this nature school.
Field in Front of Wall Syndrome
When one first comes to the world of Aquascaping, one’s eyes are caught on the jewels of the Aquascaping world. A beginner aquarium designer finds himself entranced by the sparkling fields of riccia or hemianthus callitrichoides and the brilliant red stem plants such as Ludwigia arcuata or Eusteralis stellata. Entranced by these plants, they are the ones he first seeks out. The usual result of this is the development of Field in Front of Wall Syndrome (FFWS syndrome).
FFWS syndrome is the most basic mistake of beginner aquarium designers and that is to build a layout with an enormous amount of space given to either the foreground and/or the background, with virtually nothing given to the mid-ground. The result is the appearance of a field in front of a wall of stem plants.
Even if the plants are grown well, the result will be an Aquascape that is flat and visually unappealing. The parts do not work together and so the Aquascape is split. Moreover, this layout type creates no sense of depth whatsoever and so seems small and boring. FFWS is something that must be conquered in order to create a good layout.
Building a Foundation
Just like in many other disciplines, the key to a good Aquascape is in laying out a strong foundation. In Aquascaping, there are 3 basic pieces to the layout - the foreground, the mid ground and the background. You should be well familiar with these terms. One of the keys to creating an attractive layout is the unification of these 3 parts into an interesting and depth-giving design. For this purpose, one needs to build a strong foundation.
What I am getting at is that the most important of these 3 is the mid-ground. Advanced aquarium designers may implement some innovation into the fore or backgrounds but even for the best of Aquascapes the mid-ground design is critical. In fact, the innovations of foreground and background usually come from an understanding of the mid-ground. For a beginner aquarium designer, mid-ground should be the target of focus. One can have beautiful fore and background plants and the Aquascape will look flat and spirit-less. On the other hand, one can have a foreground of plain sand and no background plants at all, but if the mid-ground is well designed, the Aquascape will be beautiful and pleasing to the eye.
In nature aquariums, the mid-ground is traditionally inhabited by epiphytes and small bushy stem plants. Such plants include:
Moss Species (Taxiphyllum, Vesicularia and fissiden sp. being the most available)
Microsorum (Java fern varieties)
Rotala rotundifolia “Green”
Keep in mind that depending on the size of the tank and the design, foreground or background plants can also be used in the midground. Plants that grow on runners such as crypts, hairgrass and echinodorus tenellus, depending on the size of the tank and layout, can be used in either fore or midground. In a layout with a sand foreground, even hemianthus callitrichoides can become a midground plant.
Aside from these types of plants, the midground (especially in nature aquarium style) is the traditional grounds for hardscape such as wood and stone. With the strong utilization of these elements, the foundation for the layout will be built.
The mid-ground is the area that is most demanding of the artist’s design skills and creativity. Even a beginner understands this subconsciously and because of this often carries a fear of the mid-ground. This is another reason why FFWS runs so rampant among the majority of layouts. In order to become better though, the aquarium designer must conquer this fear and face the mid-ground head on. Even if his first efforts are poor, he must try because only by trying does one improve.
Finding One’s Own Way
Unfortunately, because the mid-ground is the most demanding of creativity, it is not something I can hand down to you. It is something you must come to understand yourself through your own effort. This is where your inspiration and motifs come in.
An artist is a person who goes to strange places and does strange things and desperately pays attention to every little detail in hopes that some sort of inspiration or understanding will come to him. He’s a man who keeps a sketchbook next to his bed, so that when he awakes from an awe-inspiring dream he can desperately scribble down its substance before it fades. He is a man who stops to notice the small grass patches on the side-walk. He is a man who never forgets to look at the sky. He is a man who routinely looks through the works of other artists. He is a man who will travel to the farthest reaches, even in danger of being killed by whirlpools, poisonous potatoes or the roar of his snoring American neighbors, in search of inspiration (if you’ve read Nature Aquarium World, you’ll get these references).
When one finds himself unsure in the face of a problem of creativity, one must let his inspiration, his background work in doing these things as an artist, guide him in making his decisions. It is a bit like intuition and the only way to get more of it is by doing it. Honestly, talent is a factor here too. Some people have more of it than others and in different areas. The world is not fair, deal with it. Use what you have and what you can do to get as far as you can and improve as well as you can.
Tip: Iwagumi is not a bad place to start. The structured rules will help you not make mistakes and it will teach you a lot about stone arrangement even in your non-iwagumi layouts.
Off of the nature school, many other smaller interests have developed within its scope, primarily in Asia. However, these distractions are not particularly natural looking and should be pointed out as something to be careful of.
Though not easily obtained, many should be familiar with plants from the Tonina and Eriocaulon groups. These plants have become a synonym with “rare,” “expensive” and “cutting edge.” For better or worse, people tend to associate these words with “desirable.” Toninas and eriocaulon are very beautiful plants and moreover require very special demands in the aquarium. Those who are obsessed with growing the “latest greatest” plants and looking for a challenge often turn to these.
Many an expensive ADA set up with aquasoil, high lighting and CO2 have I seen dedicated to these with pages and pages of responses in tow.
Problem: None of them are very attractive
I have yet to see a single example of top-tier Aquascaping that used Toninas or Eriocaulons, much less used them in a way that the Aquascape wouldn’t be better off without them. In the entire history of the ADA International Aquatic Plant Layout Contest, there has not been a single winning tank that used Toninas or Eriocaulons. Looking through the 2005 and 2006 contest books, they start to disappear as one gets into the top 100 and are non-existent in the top 50.
Why is this?
Of course volume is a problem, how many people do you know who own 40+ of 1 type of eriocaulon? Collectoritis is also a problem since demographically, the majority (of the very small population) of tonina/erio growing hobbyists are afflicted with collectoritis. Another demographic problem is that the majority of serious aquascapers notice the lack of strong Aquascapes using these plants and then choose to ignore them. Expensive plants that do not look good in over-all Aquascapes are not of great interest to serious aquarium designers.
Aside from these demographic/price/cultivation difficulties though, the plants are just not very easy to use from a Nature Aquarium Aquascaping perspective.
Toninas and tall Erios are leggy. Nature and Dutch designers alike prefer to have nice thick bushes and usually hide the “legs” of their stems with either smaller plants or hardscape material. Compared to a rotala, hemianthus or ludwigia that will bush nicely and branch readily, a tonina’s shape is not-preferable. A straight leggy stem going up to a pom-pom like crown is not good for shaping. The most common motif for a stem plant to follow is that of a tree or bush. Toninas don’t do either of these motifs that well.
Smaller Eriocaulons would have more potential if they could be grown more thickly together. When I first saw Pogostemon helferi (Dow Noi), in my mind I put it in the same group of “too expensive a plant for no design pay-off” along with Eriocaulons and Toninas because it comes from the same “culture” or collectoritis-difficult-plant-loving keepers. However a few months down the line I had to eat those words. A number of aquascapers including Oliver Knott were able to use Dow Noi to breath-taking effect. The combination between Hemianthus Callitrichoides and thick bushes of Dow Noi are now well known to be amazing, and potentially a great combination in strong mid-ground design. Dow Noi’s ability to grow thickly and with others has allowed it to have this kind of success even in serious Aquascaping. If Eriocaulons could be grown in the same way, they would experience similar success. As of yet though, one normally sees the plant individually, spaced widely apart. Such an arrangement is distracting at best and outright visually-annoying in others.
Erios and Toninas also have the disadvantage of not very closely resembling many plants in our terrestrial existence. Just like with salt water tanks, Tonina tanks often have the problem of not being able to connect with human instinct. They are just too “alien” looking. While beautiful, they do not touch our deepest memories and make us feel rather alien.
All of this is not to say that it is impossible to make excellent Aquascapes with these plants. Rather, it is to say that doing so is difficult and has yet to be done. What one should understand is that Toninas and Erios are difficult plants in cultivation yes, but ALSO IN AQUASCAPING. They are advanced, un-tested tools from which the beginner designer would do well to stay away from. They will likely require a high level of artistic maturity and inspiration in order to be used effectively. I myself have only come up with only a handful of still un-formed ideas for their use, though I look forward to trying my hand at it.
Simply, one should keep in mind that Tonina Obsession Syndrome (TOS) is a sub-species of Collectoritis and can be just as inhibiting to the aquarium designer as FFWS.
Mosses and the men owned by them
Another sub-culture of the plant collecting scene that has developed (especially in South East Asia) is the moss-collecting scene. With the great efforts of one Loh K L in Singapore working with the Singapore moss-hunting community and a Singporean Bryologist named Dar. Tan, a wide variety of moss species have recently become available and identified for the public. With the large number of not-easily-distinguished bryophyte species, identification is critically valuable in order to create a market containing many types. With Dr. Tan’s help and the work of killies.com on the internet, correct information on aquatic mosses has become available and thus the market on moss has been able to develop significantly.
New tools are always welcome to an aquarium designer and one should put in effort to stay updated on the types of plants available and what they look like. If you have not made your way over to killies.com and updated your understanding of mosses, it is highly advisable that you do. Since moss are staples in mid-ground design, it is inherent that they will always be staples of aquarium design as well. From the start Amano has made frequent use of Taxiphyllum barbieri (java moss, though it is miss-labeled as willow moss in all the Amano/ADA literature) and “Koke” (moss) species have always been treasured in Japanese gardening from which much of Nature Aquarium style is derived.
That said everything should be kept in moderation. Moss is a staple, but it’s not the main player of a well-designed Aquascape. Moss is used by the skilled aquarium designer to add warmth and softness to otherwise overly harsh hardscape or foreground areas. However, if moss is overused, the picture simply becomes too fuzzy. In most cases, it is best to combine the softness of moss with stronger elements such as areas of bare wood or stone or thicker leaved plants such as ferns, anubias, crypts or even glossostigma.
Keep in mind that any type of collectoritis affliction is an affliction for a dedicated aquarium designer. The goal is to grasp an inspiration, consider how to create that inspiration and then collect the exact parts one thinks one needs to create that inspiration. Nowhere in that process does the collection of 10+ different types of moss and then desperately trying to find space for all of them in the same tank, fit into that process. If one allows Moss Obsession Syndrome (MOS) to control one’s life, one will never be able to create a layout that doesn’t look like a hair-ball.
Recently, the creation of “moss walls” has become popular, especially with the growing moss-culture in SouthEast Asia. The idea is that they provide a beautiful natural background.
Let me ask a simple question
When was the last Amano/ADA Layout you saw with a moss wall?
The answer is, you haven’t seen one. Amano feels very strongly about the Zen principle “Create a Universe in a Small Space.” That is for most of us, we want our aquaria to look much larger than it actually is. This is the basis of the common focus on small fish, deep tanks, and small-leaved plants. This is also the reason for the popularized Frameless/Rimless Tanks and overexposed white backgrounds, all attempts to make the aquarium look like it continues past its boundaries. The goal is to eliminate the boundaries of the aquarium.
What happens when one makes a moss wall? What happens to the design when one grows many plants on the WALL and draws a lot of attraction to the WALL and clearly defines and highlights the WALL? You guessed it. The boundaries of the Aquascape become very clear and the tank seems very, very small. Cramped too.
I am going to set the general rule to not make moss walls. For you beginners, I am saying this is a no-no, a design flaw. For advanced aquarium designers, rules are meant to be broken after all, but you better come up with a damn good design reason for using one and a very tactful and creative way to use it.
Other objects of collectorites that one should be careful of becoming obsessed with:
-Foreground plants-- you don’t need to collect ‘em all. This isn’t pokemon
-Colored Shrimp (when was the last time you saw a meadow covered with red and white striped cows?)
-The “Newest, Rarest Fish” that might not fit your Aquascape.
To be a great aquarium designer, your decisions come from your art. Ideally they don’t come from money, time constraints or distracting side interests (like collectoritis). Of course these things will always be there and impossible to be completely rid of, but one of your goals should be to always eliminate their effect as much as possible. Act to improve your inspiration and vision and act for the sake of your inspiration and vision. With that, you will keep improving.
That said, your existence as an artist is both with your brain and intuition, so look for “happy accidents” when something goes better than your original vision. Look out for accidents and run-ins or spur-of-moment encounters with people, places, plants or fish that might make your intuition blare like crazy, “This is it idiot! Stop thinking and listen to me!” because that’s a part of being an artist too.
As a final word, I’ll leave you with a quote from Laozi in the Daodejing:
Give life to things, rear them,
Give them life but without possessing them,
Act but without relying on your own ability,
Lead them but without ruling them
This is called profound virtue