The Planted Tank
Elements and Principles of Design
Design elements and principles are concepts for describing what you use in a visual work and how you use it. You can find a
lot of information on elements of design for
artwork, web pages, and architecture—and
the same concepts apply to your aquarium.
Learning to think about artistic concepts
and how to incorporate them into your
aquarium can help you in creating your
personal aquatic masterpiece.
Elements of Design
The elements of design are the specific
visual concepts you use to create your
masterpiece. Elements of design can
include: line, shape and size, color, texture,
shape are intricately tied, since whenever
we have a shape it must have a size.
Shapes are often considered to be organic
or geometric. Organic usually implies a
natural form, and it is what we most often
deal with in our planted aquariums. The
shape of our tanks themselves is geometric,
and sometimes geometric decorations are
added. We can also look at positive space
and negative space. The positive space is
made up of the objects that are the center
of attention, while the negative space is the
background. In some very heavily planted
tanks the background is very hard to find.
In some more sparsely planted aquariums,
or those with a more restrained design,
very dramatic effects can be achieved with
careful use of negative and positive areas.
photographs by the author
Rhonda Wilson keeps about 80
planted aquariums collected
over more than 30 years of
fish keeping. She is co-author,
with Terry Barber, of the T.F.H.
book, The Simple Guide to the
Planted Aquarium. She’s also
written several articles published
both in the US and abroad.
Rhonda has been active in local
and national fish and aquarium
clubs including serving as past
chairman of the American
Livebearer Association. She has
a lifelong love of animals and
nature. She currently lives with
a zoo of children and pets in the
Phoenix area of Arizona. You
can see her website and post
questions on her bulletin board at
In the aquarium we find lines in many
places—such as the shape of the tank and in
some of the items we may use as decoration.
For example, the right pieces of wood can
create a very obvious line in your aquarium,
and may be used to define areas. Often, one
piece is used as a central point on its own
merit. Lines are also suggested around the
edges of the objects in our aquariums, such
as a group of plants. Horizontal lines indicate
calmness and rest, vertical lines suggest
loftiness, and diagonal lines suggest direction
or movement. Lines aren’t always straight;
lightly curved lines can suggest softness,
while jagged lines can suggest turmoil.
SHAPE AND SIZE
Shape, or form, is very easy to find in
the aquarium. There is the shape suggested
by bare or covered areas of gravel, by the
different groups of plantings we may have,
and in the decorations we may use. Size is
how much space a shape takes up. Size and
Color is the combination of hue and
value. Hue is the basic color, like red, green,
or turquoise. The most predominate hue
in the planted aquarium is generally our
green plants, but there are also red and
brown plants. Plants of different colors can
be used to define areas or show emphasis.
A bright red plant in the center of a lot of
green plants will stand out. More color can
be brought into the aquarium with gravel,
wood, rocks, and other decorations.
Value is how dark or light the colors
are. We can see this in the aquarium with
plants, decorating material, and the lighting
we use. Even though high lighting is most
often used in planted aquariums, the use
of darker items and an imaginative layout
can change the overall effect to dark and
peaceful like a shady forest.
Texture is how something feels, but you
don’t necessarily have to touch an item to