"The touch..." And thoughts on the evolution of aquascaping...

Give a guy a soapbox...

Like many of you, I love to look at aquariums. I like to drool over the work of other hobbyists; to get inspired by their ideas, execution, and overall creativity. 

Some aquascapers seem to have a certain "style" or "touch" or whatever you want to call it. Seems like you could give them literally any old rock, piece of wood, or plant, and they'd somehow pull off something amazing...something that you or I never thought of.

What is it with these people? How do they seem to do it consistently better than the majority of us? What skills do they possess? 

I've talked to many of these people over the years. Like you, I've studied their work both in real life and from afar. Watched them "do their thing" over and over. Enjoyed their insights. And time and again, it became glaringly obvious to me that  these most talented of aquascaprs possess some consistent skills that, although you may not initially discern, will become apparent merely by watching them work, and viewing their finished products.

I think what a lot of the truly great aquascapers have in abundance that many of us don't is the ability to see beyond the "raw ingredients" that they're using and visualize the finished product well in advance.  Many of these people can look at a rock and just sort of know how to orient it, where to place it, or how much of it to use. Same with wood and plants- orbotnaicals, for that matter. Hand in hand with this, great aquascapers, like artists, seem to have the ability to draw from life, memory, and imagination when composing their 'scapes. It's like they have this "picture" that they're working from. 

And then there is that "perspective" thing: Perspective helps objects and the relationships between them look realistic...and understanding of perspective in he "canvass" of an aquarium is something that great aquascapers seem to grasp intuitively. They get the "golden ratio"/rule of thirds, and know how to apply them to aquascapes. Knowledge of shapes and proportions, contrast and tonal values, perspective, focus, and symmetry are art concepts, yet the "best of the best" just have this...grasp.

It's absolutely not earth-shattering to make the assertion that the truly outstanding aquascapers, who's work consistently captivates, inspires, and generally blows our minds, are quite simply...artists.

And, artistic ability is a combination of both talent and practice.  With practice just about anyone could become fairly proficient at aquascaping, producing beautiful work that they and others can enjoy. But a truly great aquascaper  (think Knott, Farmer, Senske Jutajevs, etc..) can never be the product of simply mediocre talent and intense practice. They have innate talent that is present in abundance...all of the skills that we mentioned above, and a level of self-awareness that is beyond average. To be at that level takes something that some have more than others; an "it" factor that, although many of these guys will downplay, is simply there; to say otherwise is to say that the truly great are no different from anyone else…that they simply practiced more. Which is simply not true. They have skill AND they work at it. Like a pro athlete, business person, or other skilled individual, the truly talented aquascaper has innate skill, an immense work ethic, and a vision. And they can adapt to changes in "style" if they so choose.

Often, on these very pages, you'll see me assailing many of the top aquascaping contests because of their absolute devotion to a single "style" of 'scaping, with little deviation or variation from entry to entry. I hear it from many of you, too. The "style insiders" who organize these events may think that aquascaping has evolved, when it is increasingly obvious to the "outsiders" of the world that it really has remained, sort of in "stasis" for some time. Yet, we're starting to see the first signs of change, IMHO. I think we're seeing a slight change from the "diorama" style of scape that has embraced "fantasy forests" and "middle earth" scenes ad nauseam over the past several years.

I think we're now starting to see a more realistic interpretation of nature. A desire to represent nature as it really is, not just as we idealize it. This, in my opinion, has "leveled the playing field" just a bit. I believe that it's entirely possible for an "average" aquascaper with a work ethic, deep understanding of his/her subject, access to proper materials, and a "prototype" in mind to create a 'scape that both inspires and enthralls. I think that the artistic skills that the "world-class" scapers possess gives them another layer of talent to execute this type of 'scape in a very different way. However, I think you're also likely to see some "average folks" pull off some incredible stuff in one of these contests in the future, because they have the ability to interpret and embrace nature as it truly is, and are not bound by convention nor pandering to a specific "style." 

The rise of the "soul scaper"- a hobbyist who sees the world as it is and brings it to life accordingly, will add yet another element of achievement to the state of the art of aquasaping. I think that, once judges and those who seem to be the "guardians of style" in the aquascaping contest world recognize that interpreting nature realistically requires as much talent and work as it does to create fanciful, highly stylized takes on the natural world, that we'll see the next evolution in aquascaping. Now, I'm not talking about militant, biotope-perfect aquariums either...I'm talking about systems that represent the natural world both functionally and aesthetically, without the obsession that every stick or grain of sand be absolutely tied to a specific locale we're representing.

Yet, a refreshing step forward from the rigid "nature diorama-style" thinking which has, in my opinion, limited to a certain extent progress on a greater hobby level. Talent, skill, and vision will still be required in abundance, right along with an understanding of the natural processes which shaped the habitats we're so inspired by. 

Blur the lines.

And guess what? I will wager that the best of the best- those aquascaping artists who awe and inspire us- will be every bit as excited about it as we are, cheering on this evolution as loudly as anyone. In fact, their very passion and skill...and love for the game, will help nurture and inspire the next generation of talent in ways we probably haven't even thought about yet.

Everyone will win. Most important, the natural world. Because we'll be looking at it in a different way. We'll be trying to understand as hobbyists why it looks the way it does. How it functions. What processes occur to keep it functioning. We'll see subtleties. We'll understand the external influences, and environmental pressures which man has placed upon the fragile and priceless aquatic ecosystems of the world. The old adage about people protecting what they love will take on an even greater significance. Embracing aquaecapes as functional AND aesthetic representations of the real aquatic habitats of the world will give us a greater appreciation for them, and an even greater desire to protect them and share the challenges they face with those not familiar with our hobby.

Truly a win for all.

Well, that's how I see things shaping up. At least some of that "touch" which we all admire so much is very much alive in all of us, waiting, perhaps, for the inspiration and opportunity to be brought out.

That's my opinion. That's my understanding. That's my hope.

Stay excited. Stay vocal. Stay involved. Stay creative. 

And Stay Wet.


Scott Fellman

Tannin Aquatics


Scott Fellman
Scott Fellman


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