art, science and business of aquascaping

Filipe Oliveira – the treescaper

Creativity involves breaking out of established patterns in order to look at things in a different way.

This quote from Eduardo De Bono captures how I think about Filipe Oliveira’s aquascaping. He’s an artist that pushes boundaries to move art forward. His famous treescapes are just an example.

It is my great pleasure to introduce you to Filipe Oliveira, a professional aquascaper from Portugal. As you will see, Filipe has been aquascaping for over twenty years and, in my opinion, is one of the aquascapers that is responsible for expanding the boundaries of aquascaping as an art form.

I’ve known of Filipe for almost his entire career as he was one of the early members of my old site, Aquatic Plant Central. This makes me especially happy to be able to showcase him, twenty year’s later, on ScapeCrunch.

Meet Filipe Oliveira…

Who is Filipe today? Please share a little bit about where you live, family, what you do for a living. 

I’m a professional aquascaper, photographer, graphic designer, social media manager and public relations at Aquaflora Aquarium B.V. (Aquatic plants producer in The Netherlands)

I never in my life thought that I was going to exchange my hobbies with my main job. I was in computing and teaching, in my previous jobs, and aquascaping, photography and multimedia were hobbies. In time, I learned how to improve my hobbies and that has brought me to this “beautiful world of aquascaping” [Art’s comment: Hat tip to Balazs Farkas].

I live in a small village in Oporto, Portugal near the sea and forests. It’s called Matosinhos with my wife and son. I’m 45 years old and getting better as Oporto wine (LOLOL).

What is your typical day like? Any habits/practices you like to do? 

Now that we are facing a worldwide pandemic, my routines are very boring compared to what I was used to do in the past, I really miss that!

No matter the time we are passing through, I can’t live without my early morning coffee and dose of caffeine… I’m a coffee addicted! No coffee, no fun… and no good vibes! [Art’s comment: I couldn’t agree more. Cuban coffee for me.]

My early routines, no matter if I’m home or at Aquaflora’s gallery, is to get a mug of coffee and check all tanks, see if everything looks good, do some water refill and add some liquid fertilizers.

Since March 2020, I’m working from home, doing graphic design, editing pictures, taking photos for Aquaflora portfolio, and feeding social media. I’m also promoting the hobby by doing some live streams about aquascaping and adding some content to my YouTube channel in order to answer the same daily questions.

Before March 2020, I was used to having my luggage near the front door and was ready to travel with short notice… As you can see, my daily basis now are really boring compared to what I used to do! Hopefully, everything will get back to normal very soon!

Where did your interest in the aquarium start?

I always loved aquariums but when I started, I didn’t keep tanks correctly. It wasn’t until 1999-2000 when I started to give my first steps into the world of aquatic plants. Back then, information about aquatic plants was almost absent. The Internet was slow and didn’t have much information or products available in the market… We had to deal with it by trial and error and see how it was going by ourselves. Later, with online forums, it became possible to exchange experiences and plants between members, which was indeed a big help for the aquarium community.

Nowadays we have everything we need at distance of one click and tutorials to show how it can be done. This is a very powerful tool for newbies that want to start in the hobby.

I first became aware of you via the Internet when you stunned the aquascaping world with your now-famous bonsai tree aquascape. It was 2006-2007, I believe. Please tell us the story of that aquascape. How did you get the idea for it? How do you execute such a unique scape? Challenges?

It was indeed in 2006-2007 but before, in 2005, I tried to do it without good results.

This idea came in 2005 when I saw a beautiful tree from my office. Then I thought to myself that a tree could be a nice idea and bring something different to aquascaping. It would be trying to do something that hadn’t been done before.

In the very beginning, this idea brought a very controversial discussion to the aquascaping community. It wasn’t seen with good eyes by lots of people but, as like anything that is new, will always bring different emotions. You either love it or you will hate it.

At that time, we didn’t know about super glue or any other techniques that are used nowadays. The tree was built with stainless steel screws, holes in the base of the wood to add the thin pieces of wood and moss was tied with nylon wire. To keep the shape on that tree by trimmings, I had to take a deep breath before place the scissors in place, any movement besides the proper cut would release the moss from the place and destroy it. [Art’s comment: I can’t even imagine this…]

Nowadays it seems to be a very easy job due to all new techniques, but in that time, this was a very difficult job to execute.

I’m very proud of what I have accomplished and for bringing a different way to how people started to look to aquascaping since then.

Filipe Oliveira tree
copyright Filipe Oliveira

You followed the bonsai tree scape up by taking it to the next level with the red bonsai tree. How did you execute this scape? A stem plant used as leaves on a tree? How?

Since my first successful treescape in 2006, I always tried to improve the treescape concept, by turning it in something more realistic or just different.

Filipe Oliveira
copyright Filipe Oliveira

The “red bonsai tree” was different because instead of using moss or the traditional green plants, I came out with red stem plants.

copyright Filipe Oliveira

How it was done? Easy… but very time-consuming. Glue at that time was well-known and very effective but for those that have used it till now, they know about the white marks that super glue leaves when placed. Since the stem plants will always grow towards the light, they will not disguise the white marks and afterwards, they could get out from place very easily. This is why I have used the same technique as on my first treescape, nylon wire. Every stem was tied with wire without pressuring it too much to don’t affect the stem. One by one, after a few couple of hours (I spent around 6-8h just tying them in the very thin and delicate branches of wood) the top of the “tree” was ready without knowing if was possible to achieve such effect… but I had a theory. When you have a theory, the best way is to see if it works, never be afraid to test it and even if this doesn’t work at first time, doesn’t mean that can’t be accomplished, try again and again until you have tested everything.

The theory behind this project was based on floating stem plants and by testing them for a few weeks in a tank. Being close to the light and no space to grow in height towards the light, they started to grow horizontally, releasing side shots and vertical roots. By just providing liquid nutrition in water, they were growing healthy and colorful… and once again, my theory was right and I have got a very successful layout.

What are your thoughts today on planted aquariums for the mass public? How has your thinking about the freshwater planted aquarium market changed or evolved over time? How is it like in Portugal?

Social media has a special roll on this! With all information available on internet, people is not afraid to give the first step as before. Shops compete between them and this is good, we have more offer, more specialized people to help and more products can reach to a wider audience. This is good for everyone!

Even not being a cheap hobby, we have so many alternatives in Europe to set an aquarium and definitely, fishkeeping has the biggest audience in the hobby.

Part of my job is to inspire, show to people that we can scape something nice, easy and aquascaping can be a fun too. When I travel to do workshops worldwide, I don’t do any plans for it, I just need to be sure I have some diversity of aquatic plants to adapt myself to the audience, use local resources (this is very important when nowadays everyone wants to use the same) and do what they want to see and learn. Sometimes is not the most spectacular layout ever, but it’s adapted to the audience. If 20% is willing to give it a try, I will be very happy.

copyright Filipe Oliveira
copyright Filipe Oliveira

Portugal always has been strong in aquarium hobby and we must consider to be submitted to study in order to understand how we can have 5-10 shops in 100km2, and all aquarium shops, not pet shops… all this in a country of just 13 Million people!

Today, where do you draw inspiration from for your aquascapes?

Always from nature! I don’t know if this happens with more people, but when I’m walking somewhere in nature, I always look to some parts of and try to figure out how I can recreate that inside of an aquarium and which plants to use.

Travelling worldwide is also a good inspiration as well, because I’m lucky to witness amazing places, people scaping, different cultures… this can be very useful when we need to scape something, give us so many possibilities.

Aquatic Plant Central featured you as the April 2007 Tank of the Month. In that piece you stated, “Aquascaping for me is a way of relaxation and recreating a small part of nature in the middle of five glass walls. There are only two kinds of scapes for me: “Nature” and “Landscape”. I love the landscapes.” Is that still true today? What aquascaping styles do you love now? How has your aquascaping philosophy evolved from then to now?

circa 2007 | copyright Filipe Oliveira & AquaticPlantCentral.com

You know, working for Aquaflora (aquatic plant producer) changed a lot my way to scape…

Before, I was more in the diorama (landscape) style with minimalist aquascapes with a specific theme, but that has changed due to the need of showing more plants species in my layouts.

Filipe Oliveira
copyright Filipe Oliveira

Is that bad or a good thing? Well, I consider it very good because took me out from my comfort zone and helped me to improve some skills that somehow became a trademark as well in my scapes, that is blending lots of aquatic plants without you notice until you look closer.

Filipe Oliveira tank
copyright Filipe Oliveira
Filipe Oliveira aquascape
copyright Filipe Oliveira

I’m more into nature aquariums now! No idea if it’s the influence of working for Aquaflora and want to try more plants or just a bit fed up of diorama. We see so many diorama aquascapes nowadays (amazing skills) but everything is glued, repetitive… more of the same!

Most of them can build an amazing diorama but don’t have a clue how to grow aquatic plants, then, after 1 or 2 months it’s about the same… and a bit boring.

What companies do you work with today? I see you a lot with AquaFlora, how is that relationship?

At the moment I run my own company but I work exclusively for Aquaflora.

As I have mentioned before, I take care of the graphic design, photography, social media, workshops and seminars, consulting and customer service, public relations and maintenance of the gallery (at this moment from distance due to pandemic).

Aquaflora gave me the chance to travel worldwide, they are pro-active in spread the word of aquascaping, more we have in the hobby the better! It’s all about the people and to inspire them to pursue their dreams.

Filipe Oliveira aquascaper
copyright Filipe Oliveira

Tap or RO?

Always Tap water when it’s possible. I use tap at home and at Aquaflora.

But sometimes it’s very difficult when the quality of the tap water doesn’t give warranties or it’s too hard. Having water with general hardness and carbonate hardness higher than 15º can be a big issue because plants can start to struggle.

What are your thoughts on the role of aquascaping competitions in the planted aquarium hobby? Are they progressing the art form?

Contests are good to push boundaries and bring new ideas to the hobby.

However, I think it’s very difficult to bring that WOW factor as we have seen before in the most important contests. Don’t get me wrong, we see amazing scapes, but we are reaching to a point where we almost have seen everything and it’s extremely difficult to bring something new.

I don’t see you in the world competitions much any more. Are you still entering them? Tell me about your thoughts on you entering contests.

Being travelling all the time turned this task very difficult. A competition tank is not like any other tank, we must take care of the maintenance on time, trimming can’t wait one more week… then, if you are not present when the tank is perfect, you lost your chance to take the final picture.

Then, here we go again, trim, fix, wait…and then if you are out again, you will going to miss it!

I’m also a judge of one international contest and this take me out from two of the contests because I’m not allowed to submit my work.

Well, I keep doing my scapes with different purposes, enjoying it a bit more now than before because I can also breed some fish species while I run a nice scape a same time.

Aquascaping contests aren’t a priority for me at the moment. I must say, I have much more fun now than before.

Filipe Oliveira winning tank
This is my 90cm planted tank, submitted to IIAC in 2020, ending in ranking 22
Filipe Oliveira aquascape
This one, I sent it in 2016 (my last participation on IAPLC) but not expecting good results because this 200x80x90cm tank was in the Interzoo exhibition in the same year and it was there that I took the picture. The layout wasn’t matured yet and it was not prepared for contest… But I have decided to send it anyway, it got the ranking 501.

For world-class aquascapers like you, tell me about the most difficult aspect of creating an aquascape that will last?

It’s not that difficult! We just need some planning, care and experience.

With time we learn in how to “read” the plants and we can fix major issues very fast when most of people start to struggle and stress. After a tank is balanced, a proper routine will stablish the success. It’s very important that we don’t stress when things don’t run as expected or something goes wrong for some reason, for example, run out of CO2 with intense light by two weeks.

I’m used to travel a lot and my tanks are still running in auto-pilot, I learnt to live with some algae, they come and go, this fight and know how to solve, not only gave me the knowledge in how to fix it but also to have the patience to fight it back.

Filipe Oliveira tank
copyright Filipe Oliveira

Nature takes its time!

Before, I was dismounting my tanks every 6 months because of the contests, now I’m running them for 12-36 months.

What aquascaper (besides Amano) has served as inspiration for you? What about this aquascaper resonates with you?

Amano is the one because brought to all of us the chance of doing this for living.

Of course, I admire others aquascapers due to their philosophy and mostly the personality, the humble way how they are in the hobby!

Some of the guys that I’m proud to call my friends: Dave Chow, Takayuky Fukada, Josh Sim, Mashashi Ono, Xue Hai, Luca Galarraga, Mike Senske, André Longarço… etc so many others!

I have a long…long list! I always learn something with everyone, fool is the one that thinks he knows everything.

Do you maintain any aquascapes at home? Please tell me about it/them? Details like gear are always important.

I have two tanks at home, 60x45x40h cm and 90x60x45h cm, plus a few wabi-kusas and one terrarium. I do my experiences at home, test new fertilization routines and plants to see how they grow and their needs.

Lately I’ve embraced a new project, mostly now because I spend my time at home due to the pandemic and have decided to breed one of the species of fish that I love, the Mikrogeophagus Ramirezi German Blue. I’m not just a plant nerd and geek, I respect so much my livestock and sometimes I rescape my tanks just for them, as I have right now on my main planted aquarium.

Usually people use just a tank without any decoration to breed them, but I have decided to make it work in very dense planted aquariums. Breeding fish and keeping a healthy planted aquarium is extremely difficult, but it can be done. The same when I had Discus in a planted aquarium 8 years go…

Aquascaping can be done in so many different ways, we just need to find the right one that matches perfectly with the livestock we have. Some aquascapers, mostly the ones that love contests, they scape their tanks and later they select the livestock that will better fit in their scape; I prefer to adapt both in case I already have the livestock, I don’t like to dispose or give away the lievestock just because I don’t need them anymore.

Both of my aquascapes have extreme light, CO2 injection, external canister filters with heater, dedicated surface skimmers or inline surface skimmer, dark clay based soil, very rich nutrition based soil, lots of plants, light dimmers and in my big tank I use Felix Smart controller to easy operate the technical equipment and monitor when I’m away from home.

What guidance would you give someone who aspires to get into the world of planted aquariums?

Nowadays we have so much information all over the internet that the biggest issue is to filter the good from all rubbish placed everywhere.

Being a good observer always help, plan all you need by researching is very important to have a successful tank and don’t panic when things don’t run as planned. Nature takes its own time and rushing things and doing shortcuts can bring big headaches. Just take your time and most important, you must like what you have done no matter other’s opinion because in the end, it’s yours and if you don’t like it, you will never take care of it.

Since it’s not a cheap hobby, just get all you need before you start. If you can’t afford a big tank, just go for something smaller in order you can get the best available for it.

The most important keywords: Practice, patience and plan. 

Tell me about your first car

It was a Fiat Punto. We would need two pages just to talk about it… for the good and for the worse!

[Art’s comment: This is one of my favorite questions to ask people. I find it so relatable with everyone’s experiences.]

Favorite superhero?

Spiderman

Do you think you have a style? Please describe your aquascaping style and what you think makes it yours. What’s important for you when doing an aquascape?

A few… First was the treescape, I don’t think it needs an introduction by now.

copyright Filipe Oliveira

Then and lately, the mix or blend of aquatic plants without catching so much your attention until you realize they are there.

copyright Filipe Oliveira

The use of bold wood when most of people tend to avoid it.

copyright a happy Filipe Oliveira

I’m not afraid to test new material and don’t go for the easy way. I like challenges! The more difficult, the better. [Art’s comment: please notice how natural the above wood looks in the aquarium. This is due to the natural positioning and amount of detail work. Masterful!]

Describe something about yourself that most people don’t know

Most of people think that I’m arrogant (probably because of the way how I write or I speak) and it’s very difficult to approach me, but that is not true… No matter how I feel (if I’m tired, sick, bad mood, personal problems…), I always have a smile and find some time for those that come to me.

What are some personal values that make you who you are?

I will leave that for the comments… for the good and the worse. (for those that know me, you have here a good chance LOL)

Strict, direct and perfectionist! (sometimes too strict and direct, no filters! This can be a problem or not..)

What plans do you have when the pandemic is over and we get back to normal? Personally, for your business?

Just have people around, start to travel once again and get back to my normal life.

It’s being almost one year that I don’t travel to The Netherlands. They probably already forgot about me…!

Chocolate or vanilla?

Tricky… I have days! But I will pick chocolate because coffee is not an option LOL!

Favorite food? Favorite drink?

Difficult! If I’m in The Netherlands (my second home) will be “Bitterballen”.

Since I’m Portuguese, it’s even more difficult to pick one… but I can’t let my people down!

Tripas à moda do Porto” is my choice… however I’m much divided with “Arroz de cabidela

I’m pretty sure you will be disgusted when you see about what I’m talking about, but I’m a big fan of any Portuguese traditional dish. [Art’s comment: in English, I would translate it as traditional Portuguese tripe stew.]

BTW, Portuguese gastronomy has so much to offer, I’m just different and from the north! 

My favorite drink is “Amarguinha”, also a Portuguese drink… almost side by side with Oporto wine.

T5 or LED?

LED all time!

copyright Filipe Oliveira

Readers of my blog are avid hobbyists from around the world. Any words of wisdom you would like to share with them to close out the interview?

Never give up! The hobby has up and downs and no matter the issues we face, there are always solutions for it. Patience is the key for success and sometimes, the more we care, more problems we will get… just let things flow normally and give them time, never rush nature.

copyright Filipe Oliveira

Algae is not the end in aquascaping. If they are under control, they will leave with time. We just need to find balance.

Keep your maintenances sharp and just enjoy your tank. It’s a hobby, right? Hobbies are to have fun and not stress, for stress we already have our own lives…

And lastly, don’t forget to smile and be happy.

conclusion

I want to thank Filipe Oliveira for the time and effort that he took to share with me and you this interview. Filipe actually selected each image and it’s placement within the interview that made my job extremely easy. Thank you so much, Filipe!

About the author

Art Pennom

Art Pennom is the founder of ScapeCrunch.com where he writes about the world of planted aquariums and aquascaping. In the past, Art founded AquaticPlantCentral.com, ScapeFu.com and the ScapeFu Podcast.

Art lives in Miami, Florida

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art, science and business of aquascaping

Art Pennom

Art Pennom is the founder of ScapeCrunch.com where he writes about the world of planted aquariums and aquascaping. In the past, Art founded AquaticPlantCentral.com, ScapeFu.com and the ScapeFu Podcast.

Art lives in Miami, Florida

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