Finding your negative space...

It had to happen eventually...a customer asked me about my thoughts on aquascaping and layout in botanical-style aquariums. Specifically, on the idea of "negative space" in our 'scapes.

And of course, I have an opinion on the subject...possibly not based on talent or anything- but an opinion, nonetheless!

It makes sense that e get questions about this, of course.

I suppose it seems like every other aquarium-related post/blog/pic you see is about some aspect of aquascaping. And that makes sense, because so many of us want to set the scene with our little aquatic microcosms. It's sort of a fundamental part of fish keeping...and it's been elevated to a real art form now! And our quest to replicate the functional and aesthetic attributes of some of the ecological niches we love so much means we look at this stuff from a different perspective.

Apart from me wanting to vomit every time I see an article or post describing "rules" of how to place your wood, rock, or plants in a specific position or whatever, most of this information is fantastic and very useful (although I think that the idea of "rules" in aquascaping, other than those about proportion and space, are not really "healthy..."). It seems to me that so much attention seems to be placed on WHAT to place WHERE in your tank, that little mention seems to be made of NOT putting stuff in every nook and cranny, or how to look beyond the immediate concept of design.

Seems like most aquascapers do know intuitively about the benefits of leaving some open area- either intentionally or unintentionally, as the case may be- in their aquariums.

Yeah, we get that.

The idea of "negative space" is really important, and can make the difference between a tank that looks like a pile of stuff, or a representation of an underwater world on a small scale.

Negative space.

What exactly is “negative space”? Simply put, it’s the part of your aquascape that doesn’t have rock in it! In other words, open sand areas, devoid of plants, rock or wood. 

Negative space  helps “break up” long spans of rock work or wood, adding visual interest. Creating a focal point in an aquascape is much easier when there is an open area to break up the visual “monotony”. Now, that being said, I feel that many aquascapes don't have a need for large amounts of planned "negative space..." 

Rather, by virtue of the morphology of the materials used, they "have it" already. And as most of us know, many of our "scapes" with botanicals feature large aggregations of materials by virtue of the habitats they represent. Yet, you still have plenty of opportunity to embrace negative space.

On a practical level, negative space helps break up territories for fishes, as in the example of a tank aquascaped with multiple rock  formations. Each formation can be a territory for fishes like Apistos, for example. If you are inclined to mix aggressive territorial species, it gives them a fighting chance if they are isolated on their own individual area to "set up shop", so to speak.

I have been, and always will be- a fan of multiple small aggregations of aquascaping materials, scattered throughout the tank when keeping territorial fishes. It looks interesting and is a very maintenance-friendly configuration. The breaking up of “territory” is not just useful for keeping aggressive specimens apart and providing swimming area, it can function as a sort of “aesthetic boundary”, allowing you to try different techniques, colors, or morphologies on different wood structures or botanical materials.


With proper utilization of negative space, you also get the opportunity to move a lot of water! The “gyre flow” that you often hear expounded upon these days works exceedingly well in this type of aquascaping configuration. A deep (ie; deep front-to-back) tank really comes alive with negative space, and even a small aquarium can look bigger when every square centimeter is not crammed with rock, wood, and botanicals.

Creating channels and open areas makes maintenance very easy. Since you won’t have huge walls of rock or wood to contend with, access to many areas of your tank should be quite simple. You can still make an aquarium look "complete" while still leaving valuable negative space.

Being able to get a siphon hose into the aquarium without knocking into wood and such is a beautiful thing... 

Now, granted, a lot of the habitats we tend to replicate in our aquariums are, at least on the surface, a hopeless jumble of wood, botanical materials, leaves, etc., as do our aquariums. That being said, the reality is that within these little niches, there is a surprisingly large amount of "negative" space.

You just need to look closely sometimes.

In the end, it’s all about what moves you, but if you want to try something just a bit different, leave some open space in your rockwork/woodwork, and see what it can do for your aquascape. I think that you-and your fishes- will enjoy the open space.

By carefully utilizing negative space in your aquascape, you will also create forced perspective, which makes the aquarium seem much larger and/or deeper than it really is.  In this era of smaller “nano” aquariums, it’s a valuable mindset that can make the difference between mundane and spectacular, so don’t be afraid to think negative in your aquascaping process.

Find your own "negative space."

Stay observant. Stay inspired. Stay creative. Stay disciplined. Stay unbridled by rules...

And Stay Wet!

Scott Fellman

Tannin Aquatics

Scott Fellman
Scott Fellman


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