Making a scene: The subtle players.

Like any hobbyist, I have tendencies, habits, and preferences in my aquarium setup and stocking that just seem to be reoccurring themes.

One of those"tendencies" that I have have developed over many years is an appreciation for fishes that have a subtle beauty, as opposed to the flashy ones!

I don't know if it's just me, but I have this thing about "brown and grey" fishes. Subtle ones with a splash of color. I've written about this before, and it always catches an empathetic ear from some fish geek somewhere, who agrees with my less than chromatically brilliant aesthetic choices.

And I try to figure out what it is about the somewhat "chromatically challenged" fishes that I love so much. Now, don't get me wrong, I can appreciate the incredible colors of a fancy Betta, brilliantly-colored Tetra, a beautiful Discus, or a fancy livebearer. I love them and keep many. It's just that, when I'm selecting fishes for my aquariums, I tend to go after the more subtly-colored ones for the bulk of the fish population in a given aquarium.

Sure, I will often put in a fish or two that has a big "pop" of color for the affect. However, the majority of the fishes in my tanks are subtly attractive (or, "Just subtle", as one of my "friends" tells me, lol). For example, the "stars" in one of my recent characin-heavy office tanks (okay, most of my office tanks are characin-heavy, lol) that you see so much here are the "Diptail Pencilfish", Nanostomus eques, and Sailfin Tetras (Crenuchus spilurus)- really nice fish- but not the kinds of fishes that you're going to catch a glance of as they swim by and yell, "WOW! Those are crazy!"

Rather, they are the kinds of fishes that have their own quiet charm.

They blend nicely into their surroundings, have interesting color patterns, and sort of hold your attention a bit longer than say, a school of bright, flashy Cardinal Tetras. For a "pop" in color, I always seem to choose a fish that is, indeed colorful, but maybe one that wouldn't be your first choice to blow people's minds...Like, for example, the "Orange Flame Tetras", Hyphessobrycon flammeus (a domesticated variant of a popular "beginner's fish") that grace our office tank. If I had a dollar for every time someone asked me what those fishes were, I wouldn't have to sling botanicals for a living!

There is something to be said for bright- but not outrageous-fishes in a natural setting. I remember when I was a kid, my dream tanks in my mind always had black gravel and a huge school of Cardinal or Neon Tetras in them. I think it was about contrast.

I still like that look, yet, as I've gotten older and more experienced as an aquarist, I've found that I tend to favor more subtle fishes that sort of blend in harmoniously with their environment.

In the botanical-style/blackwater aquarium, it's great to have a little pop of color against the deep, rich colors of leaves, pods, and wood, and the tinted water. However, one of the surprising things I've discovered is that the more subtle fishes tend to "pop" more in blackwater tanks. Now, "surprising" not in that they display better colors- the environmental conditions we create obviously assist in that- but "surprising" in that they tend to catch your eyes more than I had expected.

Even the more cryptically-colored-and shaped fishes do this. In fact, they are somewhat more engaging in this setting than the more obvious, brightly colored fishes, IMHO.

There is something I enjoy about being able to take in the "whole picture" of an aquarium, and to not have any one element really make a huge impression on you. Rather, it's nice to have the entire aquarium provide a sort of "vibe", and take you on a little journey of discovery.


In my opinion, the very best aquariums- marine or freshwater, keep you engaged for a long time, as if strolling in a garden- discovering the little surprises along the way. The best aquariums I've ever seen don't stand out because of that one element...rather, it's a combination of things working together, creating an intricate collage of color, texture, and structure.

Regardless of what the primary focus of the aquarium is (fish, plants, hardscape), it's the combination of elements that seems to create the whole impression. For example, some tanks, are filled with all sorts of botanical elements, as surprising as palm fronds or as common as leaves and plants, yet the entire "picture" is truly greater than the sum of its parts.

The fishes tend to become the "kinetic" element in a well thought-out display: A moving, living component which weaves the whole thing together.

And that's where the less vibrant fishes come in. In my opinion, if you had nothing but crazy-colored fishes, the tank itself would tend to just be "the background"- a supporting player in a larger cast of characters!

By incorporating more subtly beautiful fishes into your aquarium, you've woven together a combination of colorful, interesting elements that form the whole picture, truly greater than the sum of its parts.

A lot of outstanding aquariums arise from a vision, a idea. A means to execute something which may have caught our fancy...perhaps the way a certain piece of wood or the texture of the substrate play with each other- something which speaks to us. A cast of separate "players", working together to create something amazing.

It seems that, no matter how we plan them in our head, they come together in ways that perhaps we never even imagined, and as they evolve, morph into ever more rich, complex works of living art...not unlike Nature itself.

That's the value of subtlety.

Until next time...think about the "big picture."

Stay engaged. Stay creative. Stay inspired. Stay dynamic. Stay subtle...

And Stay Wet.

Scott Fellman

Tannin Aquatics

Scott Fellman
Scott Fellman


2 Responses

Scott Fellman
Scott Fellman

January 31, 2021

Hi Scott,

Thanks for the kind words!

Really happy to have piqued your interest in this stuff. There are so many unique avenues to explore in the aquarium hobby; we’re happy to have encouraged fellow hobbyists to take the occasional meander oof the beaten path with us! All kinds of discoveries await!


Scott Gale
Scott Gale

January 30, 2021

I must say, you have an amazing way of looking at the aquariums we love so much. Thank you for sharing.

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