The art of "the art.." Easing into blackwater...

I realize we push you guys pretty hard...

We push you to look at natural aquatic habitats and create aquairums that are, in many cases, literal interpretations of them. Not just in terms of the "look", but in terms of the functions and the interactions between fishes and their environment that they foster.

Now, I realize- and have from day one of Tannin, that not everyone likes the look of a truly natural aquarium. You might not even agree with us that flooded forest floors and other blackwater systems are all that compelling...

Oh, sure, some people like a couple of seed pods, maybe a leaf or two, and possibly even the tinted water. However, you may not like the look of decomposing botanical materials, biofilms, and detritus. Some of you favor a more "artistic" look overall. And some of you perhaps like the tinted water- you just don't want the other stuff...

As I've said like, thousands of times- I totally get it.

And, even Nature provides some inspiration for a less "botanical-laden", yet still "tinted" look.  You just have to look. IN the pic below, the water is tinted, but there is nary a leaf in sight...These materials are upstream, and the soils which impact the tint are everywhere...There are numerous influences on the color of the water- clues for us to take from Nature, right?

Just because you don't like the "all-in" natural look doesn't mean that you can't enjoy some aspects of this world. You simply need to approach things a bit differently.

I can relate.

I mean, I love "artistic" 'scapes.

I like the look of an amazing "Iwagumi" scape, with a perfectly manicured lawn of Glostostigmma or Dwarf Hairgrass, or some other "high-concept" planted tank but I will likely never personally set one up. They just don't hold an allure to me that makes me want to jump in and do one. I'd love to HAVE one, but the "art" of it is not my thing. And, I don't have the patience or particular set of skills required to accomplish that. (So, perhaps that's a slightly different issue than what I'm alluding to here, lol...but the overriding concept is the same. )

I like the idea- admire the product-yet, just not all aspects of it.

However, you likely have the skills to create a very natural-looking tank...You just may not like all aspects of the look itself.

And that makes perfect sense.

So, lets say that you like the tinted water. You might even like seeing some botanicals in your tank. But not- the decomposition-it's not your thing. How would you pull it off? 

Easily, actually. 

You could start by utilizing some botanical materials in your filter. Like, just "sandwich" a piece of catappa bark between some mechanical media, where water will flow through it...Guess what? The bark will impart its tannins and humic substances into the water...You'll get a nice "tint" without ever seeing a bit of bark or other aspects of the botanicals in your tank! You could have a spotlessly clean, yet tinted tank! 


And, unlike having to continue to dose liquid "blackwater extracts", it's a lot easier to utilize the actual botanical "source" itself, as it will "time release" the tannins for some extended period before it becomes more or less "inert." Don't believe me? Think about the last time you cured a piece of sexy driftwood in your tank...How long did it take before the water was "clear blue/white" instead of golden brown?

Yeah. A long F- #$%ING TIME! 😂

For many hobbyists, this is a great way to ease into the world of blackwater aquariums, while still creating the overall "look" or style that you love. It's a form of compromise, I suppose- but one which will perhaps unlock new ideas and aesthetic inspirations for you.

Another approach to "easing" into the world of botanical-style, blackwater aquariums without the "whole natural thing" would be to utilize more "durable" botanical materials- ones which tend to not break down too much...or break down very, very slowly over an extended period of time. So, you could utilize materials such as Sterculia pods or Cariniana pods, which have a very hard external "construction" and tend to soften extremely slowly.

If they begin recruiting algae or biofilms on their surfaces, you can simply remove them and scrub them gently with a soft bristle brush (like a toothbrush), give 'em a rinse, and return them to service. A bit more labor intensive than keeping a piece of bark in your filter, but it gets you the added benefit of an aesthetic boost, courtesy of the seed pod itself! 


What about leaves? 

You can also use leaves...Yeah, leaves are certainly more ephemeral, but you could utilize them in your tank to get the "look" of a leaf litter bed or accumulating leaves, without some of the other aspects (like, biofilms and complete breakdown/decomposition).  I'd likely avoid guava or catappa leaves, which tend to break down fairly rapidly in most systems.

So the key to utilizing leaves in the easiest possible manner is to select some leaves that are more durable- like Yellow Mangrove, or Texas Live Oak leaf litter  (if you're a bit more adventurous, and don't mind either using all of the other materials which come with it- or sorting through the mix to remove only the leaves). Both of these leaves are durable, and will last many months, as opposed to weeks (as in the case of other leaves) before breaking down.

And of course, if you like leaves and such, but DON'T like the "tinted" look they impart into the water, you can always utilize activated carbon or other chemical media, such as Seachem Purigen, to remove it. When combined with your usual frequent water exchanges, and removal/replacement of leaves as they break down, this practice can give you the "look" indefinitely.

It's simply a matter of how hard you want to work at it...And it's not really "work"- it's simply a matter of incorporating the process of replacing leaves into your regular maintenance procedures.


This approach is very successful, and has been executed beautifully a number of times by our friend, the talented Jeff Senske, legendary 'scaper and co-founder of  Aquarium Design Group.  If you're inspired and motivated, beautiful aquaecapes with botanicals are entirely achievable in this fashion.

It's about compromise, education, observation, and procedure. Clear or tinted- planted or unplanted- you have numerous options when it comes to utilizing botanical materials in your tanks.

There are many approaches to using botanicals in your aquascaping work besides making them the central focus of your ecosystem, like we do so often here. Our approach is just one way to use botanicals. Certainly not the "best way"- but an approach that you may or may not find appealing.

You can have the "artistic-style" tank that you like, while still easily incorporating some aspects of the botanical-style aquarium into the mix. The main "rule" is that there are no "rules"- except those dictated by Nature herself.

It's about creativity, imagination, diligence, and executing...About freeing yourself from preconceptions and daring to go down a different path.

That's the "art" of the art.

Until next time...

Stay creative. Stay observant. Stay diligent. Stay consistent. Stay obsessed...

And Stay Wet.


Scott Fellman

Tannin Aquatics 



Scott Fellman
Scott Fellman


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