Aquascaping tips & Tricks - Hardscape

Hardscape tips and tricks

More and more we are seeing amazing aquascapes,complex and intricate, faithful reproductions of live landscapes, or imaginary locations that delight us with their beauty.
All this inside of an aquarium.

For most of us the hobby has come far, from just grouping a bunch of plants and waiting for it to grow into a jungle.
Aquascaping is a form of art.

It's undeniable that plants are still at the heart of every planted tank out there, but if plants are the heart, the once overlooked hardscape are the bones that define it.

A good hardscape can make a stunning scape, as much as a bad one can break it.
So here's some tips on how to make a bad hardscape into a stunning one, some of these are rules, others are guidelines, some should always be used, others to be used at your choice.

Just remember in aquascaping rules can be broken, or bend to achieve that magic scape, so nothing of this is set in stone.

Define hardscape

A hardscape is everything in your scape that is not plants. You can call plants the softscape.
Normally this hardscape should can be composed of rocks or wood that are group together to create a visual feature that enhance your design.

It can be a bunch of rocks group in a way to look like a mountain, or a clump of wood, branched together to give a feeling you are looking at a very dense forest.

So here's a few tips on how to enhance your hardscape design.

Use focal points

Use a feature in your scape that is the highlight of the aquarium.
It can be a beautiful rock, wood, plant, rock formation, path or even a rare fish.
Something that captures your eyes as soon as you gaze upon the layout.
This will make the scape easier to watch and your eyes will smoothly flow from this focal point to the rest of the layout and absorb the bigger picture.

When there's no focal point, or there's too many, your eyes will quickly move from one to the other finding it difficult to look at.                                

It is normal for a layout to have only one focal point.       
But as rules are meant to be broken, some of the best layouts out there have two or more, but if you are not sure, keep it simple, one is good enough.

The focal point of this aquascape is the mountain formation

Use the golden rule

The Golden rule as been around for ages, maybe almost as long as man itself.
It is found everywhere, art, nature, construction.

It basically is used to measure how to make something, albeit being a painting, picture or in this case a aquascape more appealing to the eyes.

This is normally located 2/3 of the tank, basically, centered layouts do not look natural and apealing to the human eyes.

But if you place your focal point, a bit to one of the sides, to follow this rule, you'll see your scape instantly looking better.

If you have trouble findind this spot, divide your tank in 3 equal pieces with invisible lines, both horizontaly and vertically, the area where all the lines meet are your golden rule spots.

If you have trouble with invisible lines, use some tape to mark them.

And here's my focal point, the path and the big rock on the left hand side

Always use the same type of rocks or wood

In nature you'll mostly find one type of rock at any given setting. While this happens naturally, it's only fit to replicate that same conditions.

But more than that, in aquascaping it's important because it makes it visual appealing.
The Mountain scape used on the first example was achieved with Landscape rocks, the rugged texture, and the gray color make up for an harmonious composition, that sets up the base for my mountain.
When you look at it your eyes flow straight away to the tall peak of the mountain, flowing down the mountain to the planted plain.

Now imagine that same scape, but with a lava rock at the peak.
Even by imagining it you can see that this grey mountain with a brown looking summit does not look good.

It creates distracting focal points that break the harmonious flow of the composition.
So when designing your aquascapes always use the the same type of rock in the entire scape, same applies for wood.

Use different sizes of rock

This one is a no-brainer, the biggest and most beatiful rock should be used as the focal point of your aquascape.

Add more rocks of different sizes, Medium sized rocks should be used to to enhance the impact of the master rock, they will greatly improve the composition, and lastly but not the least use smaller stones to add a bit of a more natural look to the scape.
These smaller rocks make your design more elaborate and complex, mostly they'll be covered and disappear as the plants grow, but their presence enhances and creates an harmonious flow from the the master rock right to the substrate.
Think of them as the bones of your aquascape.

The following scape is a perfect example of this, the bigger rocks rise high above to the summit of the mountain, the medium sized rock sits next to it to help define the body of the mountain, and the smaller rocks sit close to substrate.

Use different lines to position your rocks

Even if you use different sized rocks, positioning is the key between and awesome looking aquascape and a bunch of badly grouped rocks.

To achieve that it's key to avoid grouping your rocks in lines, make sure they are grouped in different depths of the tank, this also helps achieving depth.
My mountain flows down from the summit, to the front and both sides.
As you can see they are organized at different depths in the tank.
 Now imagine my mountain if had grouped all these rocks in a line?
I am pretty sure this mountain would have looked really flat and one dimensional.

But in aquascape rules are meant to be broken, and amazing aquascapes have been achieved, using one straight line, the most notorious is probably, green machine's James Findley's Crimson sky aquascape.

But more often than not, this tip will help you achieve a better looking scape.

 Avoid symetry

To put it simple, symetry does not look natural.
There is no symetry in nature, no two rocks look the same, no two trees look the same, no two mountains look the same.

Avoid grouping rocks in symetrical ways, if you want to make a scape with two rock formations on each side of your tank, make them distinct enough from each other to avoid that unnatural symetrical look.

The same applies to plants, you may think putting the same plants on the left, and right side of the tank its a nice idea, but that looks unnatural, and symetrical.
Instead if you put an amazon sword in your left side of the tank, put some jungle val on the right, you'll probably achieve a similar look, but it will not look so symetrical.

Bank up substrate to achieve depth

A good way to achieve depth and to make your scape look more natural is to bank it up, normally this is done from the front to the back, but you can also do it from left to right or vice versa or if you want to go to extremes, bank it up really high to enhance a mountain, make a cliff, or to make it look like your are at the top of the peaks of a mountain.

The mountain scapes shown above are perfect examples on how banking up can increase the impact of a rockscape.
Just remeber when you go for extreme heights to support the substrate, otherwise it will all end coming crashing down or flatting out.

You can use rocks or substrate supports to reinforce it.

Use two types of substrate

You can use a different type of substrate to enhance an ilusion.
Example you can use white sand to enhance a path, or the make it look like a river stream.
This trick can be used to enhance specific features you want inside your scape.
But do not overdo it or it will loose its natural feel.

Not the best looking of my scapes but it gives an idea on how two substrates can be used

Create paths that cross the scape from front to back

Paths look amazing, they add complexity and depth.
You can enhance them by using the trick described in number seven, but it's really not a requirement.

When you build your path, make sure it's not centered on the tank, a path two thirds of the tank looks better, also make sure it does not follow a straight line, a path going slightly from one side to the other looks more natural.
Make it slighty banked from the front to the back to make it look longer than it actually is and do not make it too large, a small path looks better at adding depth, then a path that has one third of the lenght of the tank.

Use hardscape to make it more natural, more deep and to blend it better with the scape, the path in the following picture looks natural because i use rocks to enhance it, if you look trough it it looks like a narrow path, on the top of a montain with two peaks at each side.
You peer trough it and the roughness of the terrain make it harder to see the end.

This narrow path makes this 30 liter tank look much bigger and deeper.

Use perspective tricks

I have explained above how rocks should be positioned, but you can add perpective to your scapes to make it look even better.
For exemple imagine you want to make a scape with two twin mountains, but you want to make it look like one of the mountains is further away than the other.
To achieve this all you have to do is to use bigger rocks on the moutain thats looks closer while positioning it closer to the front glass.
On the other hand the second moutain should use smaller rocks, and be pushed more to the back of the tank, use a diagonal line to decide where to put the second mountain in relation t the first.
Like this you'll have two mountains, but one looking seamingly far away in the distance, and the diagonal positioning will make it look like there is a distance between them instead of one just being bigger than the other.

On the other hand imagine you want to do the same scape but make it look like the moutain that's further away is actually much taller than the one closer.
For this you use smaller rocks in the front mountain and much bigger ones in the one further away.
If you want to give an idea of one mountain in the shadow of the other still use a diagonal line but make them closer, almost to the point of overlapping, but always keeping a sense of depth between them.

If you have a good looking idea for a scape, these perspective tricks can make it amazing.

Two examples. 
But almost all the scapes above have some form of perspective trick in their design.

 Use plants to create depth, blend with the hardscape and create a sense of size

Most scapers  know that we have different sizes of plants, some are taller, others smaller, beginners are often taught to make lines with their plants, keeping the foreground plants at the front, followed by the mid-ground and the background at the back.

While this is true, it is only part of it.
Plants can be put to good use to make or break a scape.
If you create a mountain, you should use mostly foreground plants, as these ones will help create a sense of size to your mountain, background plants that dwarf your mountain will not look good.

You can also use mosses, or other foreground plants to easy the transition from the sustrate to the rocks, or to hide parts of the hardscape completely.
Using different sizes of plants in different depths of the tank will make your tank look much deeper than it really is.

Just make sure to be consistent, don't add a carpet in the front next to a jungle val, or add a amazon sword in the mid-ground and smaller plants behind it.
It will just break the illusion.

Hope these tips and examples can help you guys when designing your next aquascape.