Realizations, affirmations, interpretations, and the way I create aquariums

The other day, someone gave me an incredible compliment. They said I was one of their favorite aquascapers. He wanted to know what my "secret" was, and what advice I could offer to "be a great scaper".

I was like, "Huh?"

Well, I suppose it's a compliment. Well, sure, it's flattering that someone thinks that highly of what I do. I'm honored!

But, "aquascaper?" WTF?

I've been called a lot of stuff by fellow hobbyists: "Rebel", "reckless provocateur", "twig pusher", "foolhardy", "The Podfather", "Leaf lover",  "dickhead", etc.  But never "aquascsaper."

Interestingly, I was actually sort of put off for a second by the whole "aquascsaper" moniker, because I don't do "aquascaping" in the "traditional sense." I mean, I see my self as a "function first" kind of guy, who's tanks happen look the way they do because they embrace aspects of Nature which most aquarists historically haven't found particularly attractive. Now, maybe I put a bit of artistic liberty into them, but that's it. However, If you have made the mental shifts to find stuff like decomposing leaves, brown water, detritus, and biofilms attractive and alluring, then I suppose that makes some sense!

Yet, my work is not intended to be primarily "artistic" or aesthetically-focused, really. Rather, it's an interpretation of the form and function of the natural world. I want to inspire others to look at the way natural aquatic habitats evolve and function, and try to replicate as many of the functional aspects of them as possible. If the tank just happens to look interesting- well, that's a sort of collateral benefit, right?

Well, shit- is that "aquascaping?" 

I dunno. Maybe?

(Next time I get George and Johnny are on the podcast, that's going to be a sick topic!)

I guess I would have felt better if the guy said I was his "favorite experimental aquarist" or something less superficial.

Shit, that probably sounds pretentious, huh?

I mean, I see botanical-style aquariums as more of an approach than a "style", really. Damn it- I had to use the freakin' term "style" in the descriptor. That's what must have done it! I fucked it up from day one. Damn.

I admit, I've never really been much of an "aquascaper." You know- those amazing hobbyists who can take a few rocks and a piece or two of wood and turn them into some sort of amazing design. And I made peace with that decades ago! I greatly admire those true artists who can employ all sorts of technique, color-coordination, and ratio and such snd come up with some incredible stuff with seeming ease.

They're rad.

On the other hand, I look at a lot of aquascaping work, admire the effort and talent  and such, and then get this feeling in my gut that I can't always explain. Well, I can, but it's not always...nice. Like, I look at a lot of modern 'scapes that the aquarium world rightly drools over, and just kind of...yawn.

Ouch, I'm sounding like a proper asshole, I know.

No! That's not what I'm trying to sound like...

Seriously, it's not that I think their work is shitty or something...I just find the "styles" of many of the beautiful tanks out there just a bit..boring. Or, should I say- not my taste. Not the work I want to do...even if I had a fraction of the talent most of these people do. 

It's just not "me."

Yeah, that's better.


It's weird, I do like certain planted tanks that just blow me away. Our friend, George Farmer, does amazing planted 'scapes which I would happily have in my own home if I had the talent. His work tempts me daily. I love the work of our own Johnny Ciotti- a guy who was trained as a classic "Nature Aquarium Style" 'scaper, yet, a true artist who can take botanical elements and create stunning botanical-style aquariums with ease. Jeff Sense of Aquarium Design Group is another person who can work with just about any "media" you give him- rocks, wood, plants- and crank out something that is unmistakingly original, dynamic, and gorgeous.


I'll never have a fraction of the talent those guys have. And I'm perfectly okay with that. I'm comfortable in my own skin. And it's largely because, a long time ago, I found what I truly love, and work with that. 


Nature, and Her many ecological niches and features, provides an endless array of habitats to recreate in the home aquarium. And my "POV" has always been to look at these niches, figure out how and why they formed, and why they look the way that they do. By researching the processes which helped create the habitat, I'm challenged to create an aquarium which attempts to replicate both the form and the function of it.


That's where I play. 

As Johnny calls, it, I play at, "The Delta at the intersection between science and art.”

I like it here.


This "not quite a biotope aquarium" and "not quite an artistic aquascape" thing is the perfect "sweet spot" for my interest, attention, and skills. And I think it's the place where I can be most useful to the hobby. Biotope-inspired, I suppose. A more forgiving, easygoing "style" which places function over aesthetics, yet somehow always leads to something that I find aesthetically pleasing in the end.


It's a strange, yet wonderful place, where I've made the many "mental shifts" that allow me to enjoy the beauty and elegance of stuff like decomposing leaves, sediment, biofilms, fungal growths, random aggregations of leaves, etc. A place where much of the attraction is because the aquariums I create are designed to embrace a certain function, which, as I'm finding, gives them a certain "vibe" that the aquarium world is finally starting to see as attractive and aesthetically pleasing.

It's an interesting time. And a lot of hobbyists way more talented than me are entering the game, and dazzling with their interpretations of these unique niche aquatic habitats. It's damn exciting. 


Oh, well, the usual, right? Listen to your OWN voice. Don't try to duplicate my work. Look to Nature and try to channel Her stuff. Go further than just looking at a pretty picture. Consider the ecology, geology, and other impacts upon the habitat you're interested in replicating, and think about how they influenced its formation and control its function.

When you start adding botanicals and stuff to your tank, think about why they would accumulate where they do. Consider what role they play for the fishes which live in the habitat. Don't worry about "Golden Ratio" or "color coordination" at all. Rather, worry about how you can facilitate biofilm and fungal growth, foster a place for fishes to forage, and encourage detritus accumulation like you see in Nature. 

Make the mental shifts to understand why these things are present, what they do, and how they are, indeed, beautiful and elegant creations which we should be honored to have in our aquariums!

And, if the water turns a beautiful golden brown, the fishes are thriving, and the tank just happens to please you- and inspire others- in the process? 

Huge win. 

For you. For the hobby. For your fishes. For Nature.

Stay unique. Stay bold. Stay studious. Stay enthralled. Stay curious...

And Stay Wet.


Scott Fellman

Tannin Aquatics 





Scott Fellman
Scott Fellman


2 Responses

Scott Fellman
Scott Fellman

February 22, 2021

Well stated, Keith! We definitely see this thing the same way.

I think the irony is that many hobbyists (“aquascapers”) give lip service to the word “Nature”, then proceed to polish virtually every functional aspect of Nature out of their aquariums in their zeal to comply with some long-held interpretation of what “Nature” is supposed to look like. A focus on aesthetics above all else, while supposedly following Nature seems a bit hollow, to me.



February 20, 2021

Scott, I truly enjoyed your article and mutually feel much of what you addressed. I began keeping aquariums in the mid-80’s. We didn’t have the term “scaping” then, and today, I believe we need to get out of that rigid, definitional box. I accept I am treading on contemporary sacred ideals in this comment.

Aquascaping was, is, and will always be the aesthetic layout of the interior aquarium. It could be rainbow gravel with sunken pirate ships (horrid, in my opinion) to emergent plants erupting from decomposing, benthic botanicals to anything in between. In my opinion, there’s this conformist definition of aquascaping today. It’s treated almost like some kind of formula.

I see hobbyists wanting to create such elaborate underwater scenes from online images and mimic them. Crystal clear water with plenty of undulating wood, perfectly primped plants, and a pristine substrate. There’s nothing inherently wrong with such designs, but based on my knowledge and experience, I find them time-intensive and temporal. Do many people realize many of these show tanks are laboriously and expensively set up, meticulously pruned, and then torn down after a few months? In forums and online groups, people fret over a tiny bit of algae, the development of infusoria, tannins from store-bought wood that’s not true driftwood. In my opinion, this aquascape anxiety needs a reminder that aquariums are not static. They are dynamic, small ecosystems. The aquarium hobby needs a renaissance in the understanding and appreciation of three unavoidable natural processes: decomposition, competition, and succession. I believe we should consider these overlooked processes when we “aquascape”.

Aquarists would benefit by taking heed from terrestrial gardeners who acknowledge and manage these processes. Decomposition is absolutely essential for life sustenance. Fish, plants, and other living things are simply “renting” organic compounds internally until their time is up. A head plunged into a pond or stream immediately shows a dynamic recycling system at work with microbes and larger organisms breaking down dead matter for uptake by others. I’m not suggesting we let our aquariums become open sewers, yet accept this necessary process and manage it within 4 glass walls.

Beginner hobbyists are taught about fish behavior compatibility in the same tank. However, do we talk about real competition? Competition of space, nutrients, gas exchange – not just animals but plants! Plants don’t always get along with each other side by side. Just ask any gardener. Why do we think we can just stick a menagerie of plants close together in a tank, and they’ll all grow well together? And then there’s plants’ biggest competitor, algae. I believe we need to consider competition in aquascaping.

It’s my belief that a mature aquarium is a joy to behold and a testament of an aquarist’s skill. Nature is very beautiful in its prime. I find it a pity when as soon as some aquariums are labelled as “untidy”, they are deconstructed. Ecosystems, no matter how small, go through successional changes. Sure, some pruning and maintenance are in order from time to time in aquariums. However, succession persists. I am rewarded by watching an older aquarium ripen with age as plants flower and complete their life cycle. Substrates darken and become richer with nutrients. The whole aquarium takes on aesthetic that is hard to replicate. I find it ironic many copy Japanese aquascaping styles that mimic an old, worn underwater scene. So, why don’t more aquarists let their aquarium ecosystems become authentically old and worn?

For me, I find more inspiration offline in real nature than online. Nature has a lot of the aesthetic and scientific mechanics worked out. We just need to be more aware, observant, and receptive to them when we “aquascape”.

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