Interview with Tono Dreßen
An aquascaper from Germany: an introduction

A few years ago Tono Dreßen appeared like of nowhere as a participant in an aquascaping contest during an aquaristics fair - and since then he has been an integral part of the German aquascaping scene. He is certainly one of the few representatives of the guild with a special passion for teasing out everything from an aquascape for a competition and getting to the heart of the design. Tono is also an enrichment to the scene with his open, friendly and communicative manner. For our Aquascaping Wiki he has agreed to answer some questions. Read our extremely detailed interview with Tono Dreßen (TD), which was conducted by Aram Schneider (AS) for Aquasabi.

The interview

AS: "What are your influences, where do you get your inspiration and ideas from? Which artists have had an impact on you?"

TD: "For new layouts, I'm looking specifically for landscapes that might appeal to me. So there is usually a kind of "target photo" in my head, and the idea is developing from there. Which material serves this purpose, which plants fit the proportions? Everything else happens along the way, the pieces fall into place one by onet. That can take some time - sometimes it takes months, and sometimes it doesn't even work at all. Often, over time, such a landscape painting may get reduced from a full panorama to a detail section. So it becomes more and more detailed during the ongoing process.
Inspiration is everywhere, on travels, on my way through the forest or a botanical garden, in pictures... And sometimes it is just desire to do something outside my comfort zone, something new, for example to finally try out that Utricularia graminifolia or giving things a whirl that others have already found solutions for so much better than yourself. Basically I am interested in aesthetic and creative concepts. I am fascinated by design and enjoy modern and contemporary art.

Tono Dressen – layout detail

Takashi Amano is our all patron saint, the father of the movement so to speak. He's part of my early development like nobody else in the hobby. I am still impressed by the quality, meticulousness and passion still at home in Niigata to this day. Definitely a place of longing for me, but for whom not? The aquascaping scene has become so international and diverse that there's absolutely no shortage of role models in the hobby. It is almost pointless trying to list them all. Above all it's always individual designs from other aquascapers that catch my eye, impress and certainly influence me.
But I also get the impression, that the overall level of the top class has once again increased enormously over the last few years – it's almost a little intimidating. Sometimes even I find this too much to stomach and I long for a bit of a cooler breeze on Mount Olympus - in the end a little less model making and a bit more nature. But I understand that those who can do it are always looking for new challenges. And that, in turn, keeps us more worldly hobbyists excited while watching.

AS: "I know you primarily as a scaper who enthusiastically participates in live aquascaping contests, e.g. at the ENAC at the Aqua Expo trade show. What is the special attraction of such events for you?"

TD: "Simply put, you get better by interaction. You always leave such competitions with new pictures in your head. The horizon widens, and personal aspirations grow. But above all: a competition, especially a live contest, teaches you humility! You come out of your hobby cellar with great creative pride and expect the world to be at your feet. But, you know.. she isn't. If all goes well, there's people on those fairs and competitions, that can do it all so infinitely better than you. This is where the learning begins. Inspiration, incentive and all the first-hand tips and tricks are free of charge. The aquascaping community is extremely dynamic, very international, but above all it is one thing: open ... and ready to help!

Tono Dressen - Nano Aquarium

Networking in the hobby is global and much more extensive than you might perceive from the outside. Social media in all its forms - but especially Instagram – wildly fuel the hobby. There's texting and chatting on all channels. Despite this, or perhaps because of it, personal meetings have a special appeal, a different atmosphere. In reality such events feel more than class reunions or contact exchange markets, basically the aquascaping guild's annual general meeting. And even if you know absolutely nobody, yet or are new to the hobby – the people on location are approachable, glad to help and happy if you talk to them.
Competitions, especially such a live contest, have a clear potential for addiction. Getting started is not particularly difficult, you simply have to overcome yourself."

AS: "What is your fertilization concept for plant aquariums?"

TD: "All roads lead to Rome, as they say. In a nutshell: I do what's necessary. A little less dogmatic and a little more shooting from the hip.
Actually I do have to admit, that this sector of the hobby, with all of its complex, scientific scope, doesn't phase me that much. I am no lab technician and almost completely do without water tests when I can get away with it. Not because I suppose them useless or non-informative, but because they bore me. Being honest, there's probably no other topic aside from aquarium filtration and LED luminous flux nerdy talk, that to this day is being debated THAT passionately and sometimes highly emotionally. In the end, however, the motto is "he who heals is right!". This isn't supposed to be an excuse to never get familiar with the basics, by the way. It is easier to ignore rules without consequences if you know them and ideally have even understood some of them.
For me, CO2 is actually obligatory for everything. Most of the time I prefer lean values rather than a blatant surplus of nutrients. The risk of turning the ignition too much is quite low. I also like the daily confrontation with my aquarium tanks - daily fertilization therefore works very well for me"./p>

AS: "What are your favorite materials, e.g. which types of stone and aquatic plants?"

Tono Dressen - Iwagumi

TD: "Not an easy question, indeed. Obviously my passion for materials and plants changes from project to project. Much easier would be naming my non-favorites, namely Dragonstone and Spiderwood -which is exactly why I should finally work with them. An important realization for me was that an analytical view of personal dislikes is quite revealing. Uncomfortable materials and plants you're unfamiliar with in combination with an effort in better creative handling, open up new horizons.

Tono Dressen - small Bucephalandra

I have a distinct weakness for small leafy Bucephalandra, the tinier the better - certainly due to my passion for nanoaquariums. A few years ago I started to get on the collective nerves of many people all over Europe with my search for them. In trade, corresponding offsprings can hardly be found so far, a real gap in the assortment of the nurseries. By the way, I am not too keen on those fantasy- and trade names for the different varieties. In this respect I am probably not a good collector. By the way, the topic of Bucephalandra imports directly from Borneo remains a delicate issue, as so often a hobby with comparable topics. To what extent can one actually still account for plants collected in the wild? Even if you don't think it all the way through it remains a complex and exciting question, which calls for a conscious handling with it."

AS: "How long have you been in the hobby?"

TD: "It's been almost 20 years since I bought an aquarium in a DIY store very spontaneously and extremely thoughtlessly: the inevitable starter complete set. The Internet was still in diapers, people trusted the advice from the shallows of the aquarium business, and as a newcomer I was unfortunately a bit disobedient. The catastrophe took its course.
But I also came across one of the first books about Takashi Amano at a local pet shop. By the way, the dealer thought it was quite some kooky crap at that time. Apart from that, none of those luxurious items fom Japan were available to buy in our part of the world - and if there was, it would have been completely unaffordable. For me it was clear that this is exactly how it was supposed to look like! But then it did not...not at all. But from then on, those images were in my head, indelibly.
I have shimmed through the coming years with simple technology, dangerous half-knowledge, but with questionable creative concepts. None of this had anything to do with aquascaping. I simply and soundly slept through the exciting founding years of the scaping scene in Germany, and only learned about all the pioneering deeds years later. When I discovered Flowgrow, for example, the first and second generation of aquascapers had already been active for years and fired up the hobby. It was the triumph of invertebrates, nano aquaristics and LED technology that made aquascaping so interesting for me again. Suddenly everything was accessible and possible! About five or six years ago I gave away everything that had accumulated around my hobby until then, including the aquarium itself. It was time for a complete reset, a real catharsis. I started from scratch and never regretted it for a second."

Tono Dressen - EAPLC 2020

AS: "What are your biggest successes in competitions?"

TD: "Nominally it would probably be the victory at ENAC 2018, but actually a third place at "The Art of the Planted Aquarium 2019" in Magdeburg was completely unexpected and a big thing for me. Live on location and with Le Mans-style start, this competition format was and is absolutely beyond my comfort zone. The starter field was frighteningly top-class, the jury an exquisite Who's Who of the aquascaping world, and the layouts of the other participants were eventually accordingly impressive. In general I seem to have a knack for third places: 3rd place at the ENAC 2019 in Dortmund, but most of all 3rd place in the nano category of the EAPLC 2020, which was definitely more than I could have hoped for.
And sometimes the successes simply lie beyond the tournament grounds. One of the proudest moments of my career is actually a simple, little Instagram comment. "It's beautiful!" was written under one of my posts about the ENAC/EAPLC layout, left by Yusuke Homma, ADA."

AS: "In my opinion your aquariums are characterized by a special cleanliness. To what extent is this topic and the associated care of the aquarium important to you?"

TD: "Absolute flawlessness and perfect symmetry are known to quickly create an artificial effect. Only small irregularities and flaws, paired with a little patina, create sensational beauty. This is why details are the master key to success. All factors are relevant for the design and I enjoy being quite uncompromising there. Bubbles in the back film, algae coats on panes and hardscape, a twirled sandline – who doesn't know it? Nevertheless, you shouldn't confuse likeable blemishes with carelessness. Small defects are easy to get under control, care is worthwhile and the marginal yield is enormous! A clean overall impression simply pays for itself by not distracting the eye of the viewer from the actual composition of the picture. That's exactly why I like to go an extra mile wherever I can.
I am also firmly convinced that the entire system of our tanks benefits from a regular routine and a certain amount of care. We run the aquariums quite often at the edge of the red zone, simply to achieve the best results. Why then - figuratively speaking - start pinching pennies on the oil change?

Tono Dressen – Layout section

For all my obsessions, I have to admit that it makes a difference whether you present an aquarium at a trade show or competition or whether the tank is at home in regular everyday use. So I would certainly not open the door on any given day when you unexpectedly ring my doorbell to take pictures of my aquariums."

AS: "If you had to choose a beautiful stone or a beautiful aquatic plant, what would you take?"

TD: "Bad hardscape is unforgiving. For plants that may not look so radiant, you can try with good ideas, with love and passion. This is how usually something good always comes about. So my choice is clear: take the stone! The rest will follow by itself.."

AS: "Thank you very much for the interview."

Tono Dreßen on YouTube

Tono Dreßen on Instagram

Copyright for all photos in the article: Tono Dreßen.