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Talking with Images: Tomasz Walenta

By Rebecca Bedrossian

Tomasz Walenta has a Ph.D in Study and Practice of Arts on visual language. He can also crank out an illustration about Kim Kardashian’s tweets in 24 hours.

An editorial illustrator, graphic designer, researcher, and educator, with a range of clients from the Wall Street Journal and New York Times to Foreign Policy magazine and Princeton Press, Walenta’s work revolves around visual language. Not your average visual language, but semiotics (the study of signs and symbols). It’s academic, intellectual, deep. 

That doesn't mean he eschews popular culture. A while back, Andree Kahlmorgan, then-art director at Time magazine, needed an illustrator for a weekly column. Turnaround time was tight, and the topics were all over the place. “One of the challenges of doing a weekly column,” explains Kahlmorgan, “is the unpredictable nature of the subject matter. Some stories are easier to conceptualize visually than others.” 

That doesn't mean he eschews popular culture. A while back, Andree Kahlmorgan, then-art director at Time magazine, needed an illustrator for a weekly column. Turnaround time was tight, and the topics were all over the place. “One of the challenges of doing a weekly column,” explains Kahlmorgan, “is the unpredictable nature of the subject matter. Some stories are easier to conceptualize visually than others.” Kahlmorgan remembers one in particular that the editors felt was impossible to illustrate. It was about religion and football. Walenta delighted them all with a sketch of Michelangelo’s hand of God holding a football in position for a field goal kick. That might seem obvious, but many great solutions do—after someone else has conceived of them.

Kahlmorgan recalls reading Walenta’s thesis: “He was describing a process that we use every time an illustration was created, but I had never seen it put into words.” It was her aha moment. “Editorial illustration requires a mix of left brain intuition/creativity and right brain analytical/problem-solving skills,” she says. “The genius of Tomasz’s study is that it applies an extremely analytical lens to the intuitive and creative part of the image-making process.”

Posters for the Polish Cultural Institute New York, FUTU, and Publicité Sauvage.

I caught up with Walenta, who is based in Warsaw, Poland, to discuss pictures that speak, early web design, process, balance, and what Allen Ginsburg and an IKEA catalog have in common.

Create: Visual language is central to your work and process. How is it a source of inspiration?

Tomasz Walenta: I see illustration and poster design as a language, and its purpose is the expression of concepts and ideas. Illustration and poster design both use the same visual language, but they operate on different levels of this language. This is similar to written language (natural language); you can write an informative brochure, a novel, or poetry in any language. The words you use come from the same vocabulary. What makes the difference between an Ikea catalog and an Allen Ginsberg poem is the choice of words and how one assembles these words into sentences. But they are all from the English language. A natural language has the ability to express concepts on all levels (literal, narrative, humorous, symbolic, metaphoric, poetic, abstract); the same is true for visual language. Visual language is of course more limited than a natural language; you can’t express the same complexity of ideas, but it’s possible to express quite a lot. This is why I find inspiration in ideas—they drive my creativity. I get excited when I find a way to express a complex idea. I like to “talk” through my images.

Editorial illustrations for the Washington Post and an animation for the Wall Street Journal.

Create: Why design?

Walenta: I was 14 years old when I saw a Polish poster in the window of a gallery. I fell in love and instantly decided that I wanted to be a graphic designer. To this day, I’m kind of a geek designer.

Create: Geek, as in technology?

Walenta: Before I went to university, I was drawing by hand. (I still do. I use a tablet primarily for retouching; I prefer to draw on paper.)  But as soon as I discovered computers, I started using them even though it was very hard at that time to do something as big as a poster on a computer with an 80 MHz processor, 8 Mb of RAM, and a 250Mb hard drive. I continued to work on posters by hand and began doing photo-illustration on the computer.

In 1993 I started University in Montréal to study graphic design. We had a Photoshop class and we used Photoshop 2 or 2.5. There were no layers, no undos, so if we made a mistake, we had to restart from the beginning. This was also the time of SyQuest cartridges, zip drives, and floppy disks… Everything was really slow and crashed all the time. I also had an Illustrator class, I loved Illustrator back in the day, but today I work primarily in Photoshop. Back then, InDesign didn’t exist, we used QuarkXPress, and it was the beginning of After Effects and Premiere. I always loved computers and software. I worked as a web designer for more than six years—I was on the team that did the first Cirque du Soleil website. I also designed and coded many small websites in Flash. And I’ve designed books and a couple of magazines using InDesign. Basically, I’ve been using Adobe software for 25 years—I’ve pretty much tried all the programs.

Today I work in Photoshop (which I love), Illustrator (I loved it until version 7 and now I just like it), InDesign (I love it), Animate (great program), After Effects (wonderful, I wish I had more time), Acrobat (for editing PDFs, OCR, signatures, etc.), Dreamweaver (basic HTML), Muse (HTML 5 and CSS), Character Animator (I really like this program; for now, I’m playing with it but I have a project in mind for the near future), and Dimension (just discovered it).

Some of Walenta's work since he returned to Poland.

Create: Over the years, your work has evolved, not simply because of those digital tools. Will you elaborate?

Walenta: My work process can be split into two periods: the intuitive period (1991 to 2012) and the conscious period (2012 to present). When I started out, I had a completely different style. I was fascinated by Polish posters and the Polish Poster School from the Academy of Fine Arts in Warsaw. When I finished my bachelor’s degree in 1996, I came to Poland to do my master’s at the Academy. I enrolled in Lech Majewski’s studio. (Lech is one of Henryk Tomaszewski’s ex-assistants and continues the Polish poster tradition and way of thinking.) When he saw my Montréal portfolio, he said I had some talent, but that I had to forget everything I had learned and start from scratch—a complete tabula rasa. I began looking for my own style.

The process was trial and error. It took about a year to break free from my old style and to create the first poster in my own style. During that time, I learned that something called visual language existed, but I had no idea how to use it properly. I learned by working on projects. In 2012, I decided that I wanted to finish my Ph.D. and changed my thesis subject to “The talking image: a study of the practice of visual language for the graphic designer and editorial illustrator.” That is when my work process ceased to be intuitive and I started to consciously build my illustrations and posters around semiotic principles.

A 2011 illustration for Time (left), a 2013 illustration for Time (middle), and an undated personal project.

Create: Hence, the conscious period?

Walenta: Right. I discovered a logic behind my work, that I basically [was] being a translator—translating ideas from a written language to visual language. I started to read on the subject, I discovered semiotics and linguistics. My Ph.D. was written using a hybrid methodology inspired by Heuristics Research (Moustakas, 1990) and The Reflective Practitioner (Schön, 1994). My Ph.D. is inspired by my practice, but working on my thesis also changed my practice and my work process. It has become a very conscious process.

Create: You worked with Andree Kahlmorgan at Time for years. I spoke with her about your illustrations for Joel Stein’s weekly column. 

TW: I learned so much from working with Andree. She has so much experience in illustration and in work politics. And working on the column greatly enriched my visual vocabulary. This is when I developed my photo-illustration style. Each week, I had to find new signs, new ideas, new metaphors.

Create: Signs and metaphors segues nicely to your teaching.

Walenta: At the Polish-Japanese Academy of Information Technology in the New Media Arts Department, I currently teach Design Practice (editorial illustration), Information Design, Visual Semiotics and Film Semiotics. It’s a great experience and it allows me to structure my thoughts. 

I also like the human contact that comes with teaching, as I am used to working alone. After 10 years of that, teaching and interacting with faculty and students is a very welcome change in my life.

To see more of Walenta's work, visit his website and Behance portfolio.