Brazil’s Ascension to the Aquascaping World Stage

Copyright Marcelo Tonon Chiovatto

Copyright Marcelo Tonon Chiovatto

Brazil is famous for the great Amazon, beautiful beaches, crazy Carnival and this year, the World Cup, followed by the 2016 Olympic Games! It is also the country whose master aquascapers (arquitetos aquapaisagistas in Portuguese) have burst onto the aquascaping world stage and taken it by storm!

Brazil takes the aquascaping contests

I first started to notice the progress of Brazilian aquascapers back around 2009-2010.  My friend, Alex Ribeiro (Xylema), was writing his blog and, through my very poor Portuguese, I was seeing the beauty that they were creating with aquariums. However, they were not ranking in the top 30 in the most important aquascaping contests, the International Aquatic Plants Layout Contest (IAPLC) and the Aquatic Gardeners Association (AGA) Aquascaping Contest. In 2009, there were 13 entries from Brazil in the IAPLC with Renato Kuroki placing 38th. Not bad at all by any means.

In the 2010 IAPLC, Brazil began to make moves. It submitted 49 entries placing 9th in total number of entries from one country and most from a non-Asian country. However, the highest placed Brazilian that year ranked 125th. More entries but the caliber of entry appears to have gone down a bit. Still good, but not great.

In the 2011 AGA contest, Brazilian aquascapers took Second and Third place finishes in four out of the five aquascaping categories excluding the Biotope and Paludarium ones.

This is Luis Carlos Galarraga’s 2nd place finish in the 200-300L category:

Years of Solitude by Luis Carlos Galarraga

Years of Solitude by Luis Carlos Galarraga

It was in the IAPLC of 2011 that the above tank also placed 18th in the world. From little known aquascapers in a country that wasn’t really on the global aquascaping radar to Best in Show and 18th world ranking is quite a feat. That year, Brazilian aquascapers submitted 37 entries to the IAPLC. It slipped to 11th as for the number submitted from one country and the US replaced it as the highest non-Asian country.

Interestingly, the following year, Brazil only had one aquascape win in the 2012 AGA contest. However, that one entry was amazing and won the Best in Show. It was Leandro Artioli’s Unknown Way.

Leandro Artioli's Unknown Way

Leandro Artioli’s Unknown Way

There was improvement at that year’s IAPLC too with an 18th and 19th world ranking- Galarraga and Artioli, respectively. However, the momentum Brazil had been showing over a number of years seems to pick up speed with a total of 51 entries and it regained its title as highest non-Asian country.

Galarraga 2012

Galarraga 2012

Artioli 2012

Artioli 2012

Then came the 2013 aquascaping contest season and the Brazilians were ready. They took the 2013 AGA Contest like a green and yellow hurricane winning Best in Show and placing in the top three in four out of the five aquascaping categories. What’s more, they had 10 aquascapes place in the Top 10! The next closest was Thailand with six. It’s clear the Brazilian aquascapers came en masse and they came to win!

Marcelo Tonon Chiovatto’s Sunrise in the Valley won Best in Show.

Copyright Marcelo Tonon Chiovatto

Copyright Marcelo Tonon Chiovatto

The 2013 IAPLC was no exception. Brazil’s aquascaping powerhouse team won six out of the top 30 spots in a field of 2,164! They even tied the number won by the home team of Japan. No other country won more in the top 30. That’s truly incredible!

  • World Ranking #3 – Marcelo Tonon Chiovatto for Sunrise in the Valley
  • World Ranking #7 – Ana Paula Cinato
  • World Ranking #14 – Paulo Pacheco
  • World Ranking #20 – Luis Carlos Galarraga
  • World Ranking #22 – Andre Longarco
  • World Ranking #28 – Pablo Goes

Last year’s IAPLC saw the greatest number of entries by Brazil ever, 73. It placed 5th in total number of entries surpassing Hong Kong and Thailand where aquascaping has a very long tradition and very high popularity.

Brazil’s aquascaping scene

Like its vibrant people, Brazil’s aquascaping scene is dynamic and active. Some of the better known aquascapers are Luis Carlos Galarraga, Fabian Kussakawa, Andre Longarco, Gary Jose Chagas, Marcelo Tonon Chiovatto, Alex Ribeiro to name just a few. They are innovative, passionate and focused.

As you would expect, online is where many share their thoughts, ideas and works. One excellent, albeit somewhat new, forum on aquascaping that I’m a member of is Natureaqua. Another good one that focuses on all things aquarist is Aquaflux. On the blogging side, I can’t recommend enough Aquarismo Alagoano. It has great commentary on the state of Brazilian aquascaping on the world stage. I encourage you to visit them and spend some time. Even if you don’t understand a word of Portuguese, pictures tell a 1,000 words (yes, it’s a bad cliche but it’s true in this case).

Aquabase Workshop Copyright

Aquabase Workshop Copyright

Complimenting the strong online community is a strong retail foundation. I think it necessary to have strong retail support for aquascaping to grow and flourish in a country. It’s one of the achilles heels of our growth in the US. In Brazil, stores like Luca Galarraga‘s Aquabase is filling that need. Not only do they provide local aquarists with the tools of the trade, they also hold workshops teaching aspiring aquascapers the art and science behind the hobby. These are not basic “infomercials” designed to get you the product du jour. They take the form of a curriculum with subjects like “advanced layout techniques” and “photography techniques for contests”. I counted fourteen sessions scheduled for the 2014 calendar year. They are serious about aquascaping and the community supports them for it.

Brazil also has an aquascaping contest that has been active since 2004. It’s called the Concurso Brasileiro de Aquapaisagismo or CBAP. In looking at the aquascaper statistics, it looks like most of the winning aquascapers come from the State of Sao Paulo with Parana second. That’s interesting to me because it shows that aquascaping is flourishing in the most densely populated part of Brazil. If you don’t know, Sao Paulo is a huge metropolis similar to any large city in the US except with much more traffic congestion due to it’s 11 million inhabitants.

The CBAP seems to be a training ground for those aspiring to enter the global contests like the AGA and IAPLC. It’s sponsored by some of the top companies in the industry like Eheim, Tetra, Sera and Marineland. What’s more, it’s successful. The global results are proving it. I can’t wait to see what up and coming aquascapers are doing at this year’s CBAP. I’ll be keeping a close eye!

Winners of the 2013 CBAP Copyright

Winners of the 2012 CBAP Copyright

Wrapping it up

Brazilian aquascapers have come a long way in a very short time. In five years, they’ve gone from 13 entries at the IAPLC to 73 and moved up the world ranking with amazing speed reaching the #3 spot! This doesn’t just happen. It takes hard work and dedication. It takes passion and that, my friends, is what Brazil’s got tons of!

One question to ask is what those of us who don’t live in Brazil can learn from what Brazilians are doing to expand the aquascaping hobby. I would venture to say that the hobby has been in the US as long as it has been in Brazil. However, the uptake of the hobby has not been the same. Yes, the US hobby has grown by leaps and bounds, but it hasn’t progressed on the global stage very much. The US submitted 23 entries to the IAPLC this year with the highest ranking of 219. We, in the US, are missing something and I venture to say it’s retail support and availability of good plant stock. What do you think is the issue (if there is one) in your country? But I digress! Back to Brazil!

Parabens a voces!, my Brazilian friends. It’s been fantastic watching your well-deserved recognition and growth over the years. I can’t wait to see what you bring to the aquascaping world stage this year and in years to come!

All the best,


Analysis of 2010 IAPLC Winner

Forest Scent


While we wait for the pictures of the the IAPLC 2011 winners to be released, I thought it would interesting for you if I analyzed last year's winning aquascape.  The winner was chosen by a group of international aquascaping experts and, as such, I am by no means questioning their conclusions as to the ranking of this aquascape. I am merely applying established design principles and guides to it and sprinkling in some of my experience with aquascaping. So, with that, lets take a look at Forest Scent by Pavel Bautin (Russia) and see what we can learn from it.  What we're trying to understand is why this aquascape is so good that it won the competition.

Rule of Thirds

Rule of thirds

Lets begin by looking at the aquascape using the most common design principle, the rule of thirds. We divide the scape into thirds and see if the key elements land on these lines and sections.

As you can see above, Pavel does a pretty good job of positioning one focal item right on a third line- the large tree on the right. The middle section is somewhat less full than the left or right sections. Most of the foreground and middle ground lie in the bottom two thirds with open space in the top third only slightly encumbered by the background tree tops. Most of the foreground lies in the bottom third.

Overall, I think Pavel does a good job of positioning the aquascape for a strong, anchored arrangement. Do you think he used the rule of thirds consciously when setting up and trimming?

Golden Section

Golden section right

The golden section is similar to the rule of thirds but if tries to see where the focal point falls.  Ideally, you want to have focal points that are not directly in the middle of your aquascape either horizontally or vertically.  Here, what I interpret to be a focal point is the big tree on the right.  Pavel uses that plus a build up of trees in the right section to give your eye the impression that there's a heavier concentration of trees there. It fits nicely in the right section as you can see above.


Golden section top

I also like how Pavel uses the upper two sections to divide the foreground from the rest of the composition. The above image really highlights this effect that we all know if needed but that putting it to good use is easier said than done.

Golden Spiral

Golden spiral

The golden spiral principle attempts to see if the focal point of the composition is in a place where traditionally a composition is strong to humans. There's a lot of math behind this that I won't get into here but just accept, for now, that we feel an arrangement is well done if the focal point lies within the golden spiral.

Here, Pavel hits the nail on the head. As I mentioned above, I think the focal point is that big tree on the right. The golden spiral confirms my suspicions. Do you also get that feels of that tree anchoring the overall aquascape?

Golden spiral left

Lets not forget to look at the left side.  There seems to be a secondary focal point here. It's the smaller tree on the left. It's secondary because the tree is thinner than the one on the right.  If Pavel would have placed a bigger tree here, it would have thrown the composition out of balance as there would be two competing focal points.

I am intrigued that the spiral falls right on the lines of two thin trees that Pavel placed. Notice the highlighted section.  I am not sure of the placement of the right thin tree so far in the foreground but I talk more about it later.

Harmonious and Harmonic Triangles

Harmonious triangles

We humans love triangles and so does nature. Triangles in compositions speak subconsciously to our souls. They make the composition look and feel natural to us. Lets see how Pavel does in this department.

The harmonious triangles, pictured above, clearly show that Pavel chose to have a top and bottom triangle composition. However, notice that there are also more hidden triangles on the left and right. This makes for a strong composition that feels natural and right to us.

Again, do you think he did it consciously?

Harmonic triangles

Above is a more simplistic triangle arrangement that looks only to harmonic triangles.  Don't just focus on the obvious four triangles. Notice also the triangles that take up half the composition on the left and right (the side and bottom triangles). Triangles can be subtle but your soul sees them and they make the aquascape feel natural.

This is not easy to do. You can go overboard with triangles and turn a natural aquascape into a more manicured human one like an English garden. It's beautiful but obviously man-made. It's an art to use triangles in a natural way and Pavel does an excellent job here.

The image below highlights to two main triangles. However, as I mentioned, there are many subtle, hidden triangles your subconscious picks up on.


Opposing triangles


Perspective is hugely important when you're working within the confines of four glass walls.  It's important to make your aquascape seem larger than it really is. This is especially important in a nature aquarium style because it must convey a sense of an expansive, natural setting. Lets explore how Pavel sets up perspective in his composition and makes it look bigger than it really is. Can you tell what size aquarium this is?


Simplistically, perspective is created by changing the size of elements.  Notice the trees on the left above. I've highlighted them to make it easier to tell the difference in size between them. Notice that the closer tree is bigger and taller.  The one in the back is clearly thinner and shorter.  There's only inches between them in reality but to our eye and mind, they could be a great distance apart. 

This feeling is accentuated by the small plants in the foreground that transition in size through the middle and then background. As you can see above, Pavel chose to focus on height as the key perspective generator when choosing plants. They get taller as you go back in the arrangement. You also tend to see expert aquascapers use color to turbo charge perspective. Pavel did not use much of that here. The middle-back line of plants are a brighter green than the plants just in front of them. This tends to want to stop the eye from moving back into the composition and I see it as a bit of a miss here. However, the brighter color also reminds you of tree canopies that tend to be lighter as you go higher so I'm a bit torn here.

What do you think?

As I mentioned before, I am unsure of the placement of that tall, thin tree in the front left of the composition. Why did Pavel feel it belonged there? It does fall on a focal spiral line as we discussed but does it add or distract from the perspective or balance of the aquascape?  I'm not totally sure.

Through the magic of Photoshop, I've taken the liberty of removing it from the aquascape. Below is what the aquascape would look like without it. What do you think?

I think that it does, in fact, add to the balance of the aquascape overall. The fact that it is so thin and almost imperceptible means that perspective is not totally sacrificed in an attempt to balance the composition. Well done, Pavel. Your mastery of that subtle element is impressive.


Front tree removed

Nature Approximation

Forest scent

In the IAPLC, especially over the last few years, an aquascape must approximate nature to rank highly. In natural aquariums like these, I think this is critical. The whole concept of the nature aquarium is getting inspiration from nature and creating an idyllic version of it in your aquarium. This is where Pavel's aquarium separates from the pack.

I mean, wow, can anyone look at this aquascape and not feel like they're in the middle of a beautiful forest somewhere?  All of the details and positioning of elements fade into the background and what really hits you is the overall feel of nature.  My soul tells me immediately that this is a place I'd like to spend time in and I long for.

Truly excellent focus on details only adds to this feeling. Pavel's choice of wood for the trees is very well done. They look like they've been there for years. They all have the same color and feel. Even the wood pieces on the ground are covered with the foreground plants giving the impression of timelessness and antiquity.

This is an inspiration to all of us.

Overall Impression

Finally, taking into account everything I mention above, I think Pavel clearly deserves his world ranking as the grand prize winner.  Even the name, Forest Scent, perfectly adds to what this aquascape is and the feel it creates.

Although I've taken you through a deconstruction of Forest Scent, like reading a book to understand why it was written the way it was, please step back and take in Forest Scent for what it is – a beautiful expression of nature and what we all long for as human beings.

Well done, Pavel, and thank you.

All the best

Please let me know what you think of my analysis and if you agree or disagree. What aspect of Forest Scent do you think Pavel best executed?