When setting up a display aquarium, i.e., one that is meant to be admired (as opposed to hospital or breeding tanks which are guided by practicality), you will normally want people to focus on your fish and on your aquascape. Therefore, it's very important to try to hide as much as possible of all the necessary but intrusive aquarium equipment in the tank. Few things look uglier and more unnatural than a huge, shining aquarium heater placed prominently in the middle of the rear glass!
Equipment parts used inside the tank (such as powerheads, tubes, heaters and wires) sometimes require skillful and creative tactics in order to be hidden. But anything that goes behind the rear glass (air pumps, power filters, wires) can be easily hidden by the simple addition of a backdrop. Many hobbyists have already figured that out, but one often overlooked aspect of backdrops is the ample choice of colors and patterns that can be used, and the effect that each of them has on the final composition. This is what I intend to discuss here.
Types of Backdrops
Nowadays there are several commercial "Backdrops Rolls" that come with some really nice images of aquatic landscapes, and because they look so good at the shop it's quite tempting to use one of these. But beware, these images are an easy and good solution only if you don't intend to do any rich aquascaping by yourself. If your goal is to have people admire what you have done inside the tank, then don't use one of these! They strongly remove the attention from all the fine details of plants, rocks and wood in the tank. Obviously, in this case the best way to go is with a plain, single colored backdrop. Now there are 2 possibilities:
This is a widely used solution. Simply clean the rear glass, choose the color and apply your favorite paint on the outside. This is what I used to do on all of my tanks in the beginning. However, there a few problems with this technique. First, extreme care should be taken so that paint doesn't get into the tank! Most paints and solvents are toxic and may kill your fish. Second, if you don't apply a thick enough layer of paint and your tank gets some lighting from behind, the backdrop is going to look irregular, translucent and very ugly. Finally, if you don't like the result, or get tired of the current color, changing the backdrop will be a very painful process.
I don't know if this is a personal trait, but I tend to get tired of a tank if it stays the same for too long. I often feel the need to "do something" and see if it looks better then. As I'll discuss further below, the color chosen for the backdrop significantly changes the impression you get from it, so nowadays I've been only using colored cardboard as backdrops, because they can be simply taped to the back and easily changed whenever I feel like it.
Colors and their Effects
Because it's so easy to change cardboards, and because they're cheap and come in several different colors, I've already experimented with many of them to see their effects on how the aquarium looks. Here are my impressions on the best colors:
- Black: This is probably the most common option and definitely one of the best. It completely removes your attention from the background, getting you focused on the tank's aquascaping and fish, and tends to enhance their colors (if the tank is well lit), due to the high contrast. It also seems to enlarge the tank, since you no longer see a clear limit in the back. All other colors induce a more "localized" impression of the tank, but still some of them look really nice.
- Light Blue Green: Using this kind of color increases the tank's brightness, and makes it remind you of shallow, sandy waters...a really pleasing impression, well suited for both Freshwater and Marine tanks. It will remove your attention a little from the plants due to lack of contrast, but they still look very good. Non-colorful species such as Angelfish and Bala Sharks contrast very well with these tones.
- Blue:The stronger and darker tones of blue will give you a "deep sea" impression, a pretty nice natural effect for marine tanks. It also works well with dark rocky aquascapes such as in African Mbuna tanks.
- Brown, Beige, Sand: These colors are best suited when you're trying to create the impression of a sandy or muddy River Bank. They work well with a not too dense plantation, and rocks of similar colors.
- Other colors: If you feel like trying something different, several other colors can give you unnatural but still interesting effects: orange, red, yellow, etc. It all depends on how they contrast with your setup and the color of your fish. I once saw a huge, beautiful Oscar tank with an orange backdrop, it greatly enhanced the fish and the wonderful piece of driftwood used as the centerpiece.
Don't be afraid to experiment...try all the options until your tank looks the way you want!
To add to the great ideas listed above. A good move could be to check round your local aquarium stores to see if there's simply a backdrop in style of the sea. No rocks or plants, just the ocean. This can help to give a spacious and endless effect to your aquarium, still hide wires and heaters, but also make sure no attention is lost from your aquascaping.
For a simple and easily changeable background for glass aquariums, use acrylic crafters paint. It is found at Hobby stores and even Walmart. Three coats are needed to make sure light will not pass through. If you get tired of the color, simply spray with water or Windex and it comes off very easily.
It's also a good idea to keep the colors of your fish in mind. I have a few Black Moor goldfish in my tank and I use a black background, because of this, they sometimes disappear when they're under a shadow or near the back.
A more complicated, but in my opinion better option, as I like more realistic aquariums, is to make a background with real materials. So what I do is that I cover a piece of glass or some board with sand or stones. And afterwards I put that glass as a backdrop. Then the back of the aquarium is like an extension of the ground, the aquarium looks deeper, and more real.
I started with one of the printed scenes, and it looked good while I was starting things off, hiding the power cords, pump, heater and filter. But once I had finished phase 2, installing artificial plants, it looked too fake, so I replaced it with a reflective foil. Amazing! It's brighter since it's reflecting the light back through the tank, and it makes the tank look a LOT bigger. Also, my cherry barbs seem quite happy with it. They swim back and forth next to the mirror most of the time, enjoying a larger school.
A simple, cost effective solution to an effective backdrop is fabric. In my 180 cm American cichlid tank I had the typical aquarium scene backdrop for too long, and I decided it looked pretty tacky. I wanted to get a plain colour, but couldn't get cardboard big enough for the tank. I went down to a fabric store, picked out a natural sandy coloured fabric and got it cut to size for about US$10. A bit of double sided tape on the joins of the tank and some clips up the top is all I needed to keep the fabric in place. The new backdrop is discrete and creates a more natural looking aquarium, while averting the viewers attention to the fish, rocks and plants within the tank rather than a tacky fake backdrop.
I once used an orange folder for the backdrop of my 40 L aquarium. It didn't fit perfectly, but two would work and it is a really cheap idea! For my 75 L, I used black wrapping paper. Thanks for this article, I enjoyed reading about it!
The only issue I have with using bright colours for a background like orange, red, pink, etc. is that the fish themselves are not used to living in such a disco-ball like environment. Most freshwater fish, specifically, come from muddy subdued lakes, and marine fishes are probably more likely to come from large expanses of the big blue than anything else. Keep in mind how stressful it may be for the fish to have to live with your color choices. I do like the idea of the reflective foil for schooling fish to give them a sense of larger numbers, but beware that many fish (males particularly) become aggressive around others of their kind, or at least other males. Male Bettas cannot be housed together, and while it's a beautiful sight to see them displaying their colorful fins, it can be stressful as well, as they would have no real respite from protecting their turf. Just keep in mind the fishs' best interests, before your own asthetics.
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