The different styles of aquascaping

Quite often we hear about terms like “Iwagumi”, “Dutch” or “Nature”, words used to identify aquascapes, but…what do they really mean? They are just different ways to understand the art of aquascaping. This passion brings many artistic sensitivities, and with them, various styles have merged from the crowd. Here you can find a quick summary of them.


Nature aquarium

The Nature Aquarium was a style conceived by the late Takashi Amano. Its basic characteristics are the dominance of plants as the main element of the aquascape, the combination of non-artificially altered hardscape materials (driftwoods and rocks), and the inclusion of a moderate to small population of fishes of various or a single species. The arrangement of plants and hardscape pretends to create in the observer a feeling of witnessing a natural and rich aquatic environment. Purpose is not to copy or mimic into detail these natural spaces, rather artistically create the impression of being real. Plants of different shape and nature are mixed together, with no special attention to their origin or natural biotopes. Instead, they are used as colours of a painter´s palette to create textures and colours, light and shadows, giving birth to the aquascape. They are also the main element of Nature aquariums, and this style makes more use of stem plants than some of the others styles, which are based in easier or smaller plants. Nature aquariums mainly employ focal points to attract the eye, and creating the feeling of depth is not more important than the equilibrium and proportions of the compositions, but it is also taken into account. The layout is considered a success when the observer is made to believe the creation is, actually, a true natural environment, even if the combination of different elements that compose it does not actually exist in Nature. It is said the best result is achieved when the fishes inside the aquarium are also cheated, verifiable only when they behave in the Nature aquarium as they would do in their original environment or biotope.


Iwagumi aquarium

Also brought to the hobby by Takashi Amano, this style is a variant of the Nature aquarium with its own characteristics. The goal is to interpret a natural space, this time using stones and rocks of the same type as the main component of the layout. Even if this style is one of the simplest in terms of materials and plants, it is also one of the most difficult to dominate and achieve good results, as tiny imperfections have a deep impact in the final result. Just a small and odd number of rocks of different sizes are used, laid out in the aquarium in a way that brings unity to the composition. The concept is a fusion between the naturally shaped rocks as found in aquatic environments with the strong perception provided by mountainous landscapes. The proportion of sizes between the rocks matters, ideally being connected by the famous golden number, and also spatially arranged based in the law of thirds. The angles in which the elements are disposed are also important, and the full structure is built around a principal larger rock, which becomes the main focal point of the layout. Creating a feeling of depth is also important, which is achieved by a smart disposition of the groups of rocks, using the gaps between them for such purpose. Producing lighted and shadowed areas with the rocks is also a valued part of the Iwagumi style. Plants are also well considered but are not the rationality for this style, and they are usually carpeting plants of small size. The range of species in the same layout is also very small, from a single species to no more than 4 or 5 different ones. Textures of the plants are also chosen with care not to disrupt the harmony of the layout. Iwagumi aquariums have generally a small number of fishes, all of them of the same species, being favoured schooling and shoaling species.


Diorama or European aquarium

This style is an evolution of the Nature aquarium, which was mainly introduced by European aquascapers, but nowadays is probably the most common one within the top world aquascaping. In this case, the purpose of the layout is to recreate with detail a natural landscape, real or fictitious. Proportions in the composition and feeling of depth are critical in this style, being factors best considered for those fans of this variant. Both driftwoods and rocks are indistinctively used depending only on the landscape being represented. The aquascaper plays with the materials to cheat the eye of the observer and produce a layout which seems much larger than it actually is. This is achieved by a careful selection of the focal points and the arrangement of elements of hardscape, from large size pieces in the front towards smaller ones in the horizon line of the aquarium. Central compositions are highly penalized and asymmetry is favoured, once more following the law of the thirds when possible. Vivid details are added by using hardscape materials full of features: Cracked and highly texturized rocks, curled, branched and carved roots, from huge blocks to practically dusted materials. The use of the hardscape to create lights and shadows is also very important and appreciated in this style. It is common the use of artificially DIY composed materials, built by the hand of the aquascaper: breaking or gluing rocks to obtain desired shapes; attaching branches, roots or different driftwoods materials together to produce unique layout materials. It is also usual the design of impossible rocky or wooden architectures. Plant-wise, this style is making use of them in substantially smaller amounts, compared with the other styles. They frequently have low maintenance slow-growing plants from small to tiny sizes, like some species of Anubias or Bucephalandra genders. Occasional carpeting plants are also found in these aquariums in some of the spots or as unique planted element of the aquarium. The kings in this style, however, are mosses and ferns of small size, which are often used attached to the hardscape materials and/or within gaps. It is also possible to find some algae like Cladophora sp in these layouts. Fishes are deemed not very important, and are added in small amounts, if even considered, generally selecting a single species with schooling/shoaling behaviour.



Biotope aquariums

This style conceives the aquarium as the true representation of aquatic environments. The choice of hardscape materials, plants and fishes is done with care to ensure they are found in existing natural environments, or biotopes. Combinations of elements which are not naturally found together are penalized. Water parameters and lightning are also set to mimic those existing in the intended natural space. It is habitual to use leaking tannins to water in order to recreate such natural conditions of rotting vegetal material, which exists in many aquatic environments. The choice and layout of the hardscape materials is, hence, determined by what can be found in Nature. Plants are also placed into the aquarium as they would appear in such biotopes and also in the same amounts and proportions, including floating plants whenever they fit. These characteristics are not incompatible with some of the ones described in the other styles. It is common to see how these other styles are used when they match what can be found in the natural space of choice. For example, Iwagumi style techniques are often used in Malawi biotopes; Nature style techniques are also very common in those biotopes representing Amazonas or Borneo biotopes. Regardless of the methods and techniques, these aquariums are considered a success when they truly represent existing natural aquatic environments. Due to its purpose, there are no specific limits in terms of level of details, plant or fish selection, factors driven by the choice of biotope rather than to the style itself.



Dutch style

As its name indicates, this style had its origin in the Nederlands, country famous by their love for gardening and agriculture. It is probably the oldest of all the styles, with its origin placed easily in the XVIII or XIX century. In a Dutch aquarium, the layout is strongly dominated by stem plants, arranged in groups of the same species and variety. The grouped plants are applied to create patches of different height, textures and shape, quite often found in rows of alternate colours. The performance of the composition is measured by the capability of the aquascaper to employ the plants in creating a perspective in the aquarium and combine the various colours and textures with artistic skill by using different species or varieties. The trimming has to be very well applied, producing some topiary effect when possible, in order to cause a feeling of a well-cared garden. Use of hardscape materials is minimal or non-existing at all, with groups of plants as only elements of the composition. Presence of fishes is rather optional, but if any, they are also kept in small amounts, with schooling/shoaling species being preferred. Because of the type and role they have, health of the plants is also a vital aspect of these aquascapes. Similarly to Iwagumi, even if the style is simpler than others, mastering it takes time and dedication. Less prone to visual effectiveness, Dutch aquariums highlight the skills of the aquascaper in the care and maintenance of the plants, not always easy to observe in some of the other styles.



Jungle style

This is not yet a consolidated style into the hobby but it is worth mentioning as a good possibility for those lovers of large plants. By itself, this style heavily focuses in the use of a wide variety of plants which are densely distributed within the aquarium, practically making use of all available space, apart from some swimming/dwelling areas for the community of fishes. The largest plants available in the hobby are used commonly in this style, like Echinodorus, Vallisneria, Aponogeton and Lotus genders. Floating species are frequently included in this style. The aforementioned plants are rarely seen in the other styles, apart from some individual species of smaller size coming from these genders. Plants are often allowed to grow up to the surface or even beyond it, which in occasions favours the flowering of some species. Use of hardscape materials is scarcer, with usually just a few elements of it to create delimitations between the groups of plants. Introduction of bogwoods to produce some tannins is also usual. The number and variety of fishes is substantially larger than in the previous styles, given this a typical community aquarium. Success is achieved by bringing to the observer the feeling of a tropical subaquatic environment, in which plants and animals grow into their full size but there is still some order. Plants shall be displayed in a way in which they can be appreciated and not being shielded/shadowed by others. The critical composition criteria is based in the creation of separated spaces within the same layout, allowing the enjoyment of both plants and fishes. Because of these characteristics, Jungle layouts are commonly created in large aquariums. The previous styles can be easily adapted to practically any volume, but in this case, the limits imposed by the size of the plants make this style more adequate for large aquariums.