Revisiting the idea of "functional aesthetics" yet again...helping to bridge the "tint gap..."

As we establish our blackwater/botanical-style aquariums, it's really fun to see the incredible diversity of approaches that everyone takes towards creating something cool. I mean, one would think that to use botanicals, you just "prep 'em and plop 'em" in the tank, and that's it!. Well, as we both know, there's a lot more to it than that!

I suppose that we can look at the use of botanicals in our aquariums from two approaches, really:

*Purely aesthetic

*Purely functional

That sounds right; however, I think that the two go hand in hand.


In the case of botanicals, you can't ever lose sight of the fact that you're adding a piece of natural material into your closed ecosystem. These materials WILL impact water chemistry, biological activity...oh, and the "structure" of your aquascape.

I have coined (well, I like to arrogantly THINK that I coined it-perhpas I simply appropriated it...) the term "functional aesthetics" to describe this dichotomy. That is: This stuff gives your tank a certain look (in terms of visual "hardscape" and the color it imparts to the water), while impacting the TDS, pH, etc.

And this idea is not really new, in terms of tangible affects of adding "stuff" to our tanks. I mean, every time we add a piece of wood to our aquarium, there is some leaching of tannins and other compounds into the water. Lover's of "crystal-clear, blue-white water" may do everything in their power to neutralize the impact immediately via activated carbon or other chemical filtration media, but the fact is, there is an impact caused by these materials.

In our instance, we've made the conscious decision to embrace what nature offers up and "accept" the tinted water, impact on pH and possibly the nutrient load imparted by these materials. This is where we part ways, so to speak, with our "clearwater" (urggh, that term is ridiculous, iMHO) friends and chart our own course. 

When I have occasion to explain our "botanical-style" to a hobbyist not familiar with the practice, especially one who is devoted to that "blue-white look", they're with me right up until the part where I describe the impact these materials have on the color of the water. It's an aesthetic that many simply cannot get past. And I get that. And the idea of a jumble of decomposing seed pods, bark, and leaves, often covered in biofilm, is simply not everyone's idea of a good-looking aquarium.

You can show some aquarists hours of underwater footage of Amazonian igapo flooded forests, Asian peat bogs, and African rain forest streams, which our tanks closely resemble, and they still won't be able to get over the "fantasy diorama aesthetic" that's been perpetuated as the most "natural-looking" aquarium for a couple of decades now. Again, I can't fault them at all. Many of those tanks that are the darlings of the aquascape world are artistic masterpieces. However, they bare as much resemblance to a wild habitat as a potted plant does to a rain forest, IMHO. I don't hate on the wonderful work or aesthetics of these tanks at all. I just strongly disagree with the public perception (and the attitude I sense from some corners) that these 'scapes are the ultimate statement of "natural aquascaping." And some of the downright nasty exchanges I've had with some people from this "world"  over the past few years calling what we do "reckless", "undisciplined", and "aesthetically lacking" makes me realize we're doing exactly the right thing here!

There are many possible "ultimate statements" in aquascaping. Look at many of the wonderful, painstakingly-researched and brilliantly-executed aquariums from the Biotope Aquarium Design Contest. Again, perhaps not everyone's cup of tea, yet these are some of the most incredible, natural-looking aquariums you're ever likely to encounter. 

To me, the idea of "functional aesthetics" is every bit as appealing as any scape concept out there. And when you see the work by aquascaping masters like Johnny Ciotti, Cory Hopkins, or Jeff Senske- aquascapers which can hold their own with anyone on the planet- you'd have a hard time disagreeing. Each one of these guys has embraced the use of botanicals in their own way, forging their own interpretation of "functional aesthetics." It's pretty cool!

What is increasingly exciting and interesting to me is to see more and more of you playing with planted blackwater aquariums. Not only are you simply "going for it", and trying regardless of "what they say"- you're learning exactly what the impacts of blackwater environments are on the growth of some of our favorite aquatic plants. Really good stuff. And work that is serving to bridge the gap between two worlds of aquascaping!

We're seeing more and more of this type of crossover work, and I think it's doing more than just making a statement or inspiring others. It's helping open up minds, opinions, and call some attention to the unique wild habitats of our aquarium fishes- some of which face grave threats from man's interventions. This is perhaps the ultimate benefit of embracing the idea of more naturally-functioning and appearing aquariums- biotope and otherwise.

Rather than inspiring hobbyists to simply mimic other people's tanks, they help call attention to the natural habitats themselves, and encourage aquarists to find out more about them; how they work, what is happening in them, etc. And if that encourages some people to set up a botanical-style aquarium-despite their initial "aversion" to the "unconventional" aesthetic- it's a victory not only for the hobby- but for nature as well.

If we are honest with ourselves, and aren't afraid to tel things like they are, I think that hobbyists worldwide can really unite and share ideas and respect from a wide range of different approaches. Reaching out across the "tint gap" with a mangrove branch, Savu Pod, or whatever (metaphorically AND literally, lol) can go a long way towards opening up minds and helping embrace the talent, knowledge, and work ethic that exists in the aquarium world. Being open-minded to many aspects of the aquatic world builds better hobbyists, a better hobby- and calls greater and greater attention to the precious natural aquatic habitats of our planet.

Comprehending the idea of "functional aesthetics" a good start. And, in reality, it's really just the jumping off point on a journey that will forever continue. And we're all better off if we take that journey together. 

Reach out to a friend who might be a bit close minded, unfamiliar with, or otherwise put off by our style and interpretation of nature. Share with him our her the concepts, challenges, and ideas we work with. Understand his/her perception of aquascaping and aesthetic. Share the idea of "functional aesthetics" with a seemingly close-minded friend.

Find common ground. 

And grow.

Stay bold. Stay unique. Stay adventurous. Stay humble. Stay open-minded...

And Stay Wet.


Scott Fellman

Tannin Aquatics 





Scott Fellman
Scott Fellman


1 Response


November 19, 2017

I definitely get a lot more curiosity than criticism about my blackwater tanks, and I love when I occasionally get a question about stuff that I’m doing that I don’t really know… and then I have to go do some research! A lot of the questions come from wondering why things are so messy, chaotic, or unconventional, and the answers usually boil down to functional aesthetics.

Utilizing functional aesthetics in an aquarium just makes good sense for the fishes, whether it’s the obvious, like caves created by larger pods and hardscape, or the incidental, like bettas building bubble nests under floating leaves. Nature knows best, so let’s try to emulate nature!

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