The Use of Negative Space in the Reef Aquarium Aquascape

Marine aquarium aquascapes are evolving to favor more open, irregular aesthetics

Marine aquarium aquascapes are evolving to favor more open, irregular aesthetics

One of the more interesting developments in the reefkeeping hobby, in my opinion, has nothing to do with the latest, greatest gadget or advance in water-quality-management methodology. Rather, it’s an evolving aesthetic in aquascaping.

Bored with the traditional monolithic stack of rocks propped up against the back pane and consuming much of the tank’s volume, modern reef hobbyists are starting to appreciate and experiment with the use of negative space—the open areas around the rockwork—when planning their aquascapes.

The towering, uniform “wall of rock” has given way to lower-profile aquascaping with irregular, broken topography, allowing open channels and swim-throughs, caves and overhangs, islands, etc.

And this trend makes perfect sense. Artists have long known the value of striking the right balance between positive and negative space in their compositions. With our reef systems essentially being living works of art, it stands to reason that the aesthetic principles guiding the works of painters and sculptors can only make our aquascapes all the more visually appealing.

This aquascape features a broken topography and plenty of open sand

This aquascape features a broken topography and plenty of open sand

What’s different about exploiting negative space in reefkeeping versus artwork is that it has both practical and aesthetic value.

Practical benefits

Practically speaking, creating more negative space in a reef system’s aquascaping offers several benefits. Among them:

  • Enhanced water flow through and around the rockwork
  • More options for creative coral placement
  • More swimming space for fish in the system
  • Reduced aggression among squabbling fish because they can more easily escape one another and evade each other’s line of sight
This aquascape offers more for the inhabitants (and visually) than a single mounded up pile of rock

This aquascape offers more for the inhabitants (and visually) than a single mounded up pile of rock

Aesthetic benefits

From the standpoint of aesthetics, negative space in reef aquascaping has a profound impact. Whereas a system aquascaped with the traditional wall of rock imparts the sense that you’re viewing a very small section of reef very close up, opening up the aquascaping with more negative space essentially allows you to create the impression of a larger tract of reef, only in miniature.

Negative space achieves this by providing:

Depth and dimension

An open rockwork configuration draws the eye through, around, and beyond the aquascape, creating a much greater sense of depth and dimension. You know you’re looking at an aquarium, but your mind perceives that something—the vast ocean, perhaps—lies beyond the structure you’ve created. The greater the front-to-back dimension of the tank, the more pronounced this effect is. In contrast, the traditional wall of rock tends to create a flat, two-dimensional impression even when bristling with colorful corals.

Interest from multiple angles

While traditional reef-tank aquascaping is generally best viewed head-on from the front of the tank, systems that make good use of negative space offer visual interest from virtually any angle or vantage point because the livestock is growing and swimming in all directions. If the tank is situated away from a wall, for example when used as a room divider, you can view and enjoy the system from front, back, and potentially one or both sides.

This is the same aquarium as the first photo, but photographed from the right and left side of the tank. You can see how each angle has a different aesthetic.

This is the same aquarium as the first photo, but photographed from the right and left side of the tank. You can see how each angle has a different aesthetic.

What’s your impression?
So, fellow salties, what’s your take on the current trend in aquascaping? What have I forgotten? What appeals to your eye? Please let us know in the comment section below.

Photo credits: Keith, Ellen Bucher, rj_sarmiento

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About Jeff Kurtz

Jeff Kurtz is the Co-founder/Editor of Saltwater Smarts, former Senior Consulting Editor for Tropical Fish Hobbyist Magazine, and the aquarist formerly known as “The Salt Creep.” He has been an aquarium hobbyist for over 30 years and is an avid scuba diver.

Comments

  1. Leslie Melling says:

    I very much agree with the article however just one small point. When people design their reefscape many tend to not to looking to 12 months down the line and what corals they wish to add to the rock. When a reefscape is full mature with corals (Ok maybe more than 12months) the reefscape will look quite differents than when it was just rock. Gaps will be filled in, overhangs and ledges along with caves will be greatly obscured and populated by successful growing corals. You might be tempted to add that bit more rock to accommodate even more corals especially the likes of SPS and LPS frags. My advice when planning your reefscape is do so with the above in mind.

    • ElleryWong says:

      I agree with Leslie… Same with the landscape in front of people’s new built homes. The nice little bushes/trees close to the house looks nice now but if these bushes turn out to be HUGE trees they won’t be doing anybody any favors.

      Too bad there isn’t an Aquarium Reefscaping software package that uses known full grown corals of the species you are buying to plan out your tank. Sure every coral won’t grow exactly the same shape but will give you some ideas.

      • Jeff Kurtz says:

        Thanks for your insights, Ellery. Back in my nursery/landscaping days, it was a never-ending struggle convincing homeowners to allow for the mature height and spread of plants. “What do you mean I can’t put a weeping cherry two feet from my picture window!?”

    • Jeff Kurtz says:

      That’s an excellent point, Leslie. It’s essential to factor in the growth habit and size potential of inverts when aquascaping and stocking.

  2. I totally agree, negative space is one of the most important things in a tank, besides water because most fish don’t do well in damp sawdust. Years ago I developed hollow cement rock that I use for my aquascape but I also use it to support the reef structure off the substrate. I position these supports under my reef and when rocks are added, these things are not even seen. But I can see under my structure all the way to the back of my tank. This is not immediately evident unless I point it out to you. The substrate in a tank is an integral part of the health of the bacteria and water quality in general. Blocked up spaces are a detriment for any tank. http://i258.photobucket.com/albums/hh270/urchsearch/IMG_1165.jpg

    • Jeff Kurtz says:

      I actually had your homemade rocks in mind as I wrote this, Paul. They definitely give you a lot of control over your aquascape!

  3. Leslie Melling says:

    I always use acrylic rods to create interesting reefscapes and find in doing so can make not only interesting caves ledges and overhangs but very stable structures which is often the bane when piling rocks on top of one another with limited reefscaping structures available. When designing a reefscape I draw what I am hoping to achieve then choose my rock to mimic as much as possible what I have in mind for my new reefscape. Using acrylic rods and drilling holes in my rock then threading the rocks over the rods I can achieve so much more than by rock alone and help give me the negative space so desired..

  4. Leslie, I also use acrylic rod and tubes for support, I just cover them in cement. This piece is the skeleton I built before it is covered in cement. It is the same piece I pictured above.
    http://i258.photobucket.com/albums/hh270/urchsearch/IMG_1154.jpg

    • Leslie Melling says:

      Yes I have seen your pic etc before Paul, nice idea.. I use Milliput along with the rods and you can’t see the rods at all.
      [IMG]http://i541.photobucket.com/albums/gg378/lesmelling/Aquareef%20300/P9030002_zpseqrgcvr3.jpg[/IMG]

  5. That is extremely cool. What’s Mill
    iput?

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