I am very excited to present the cover for The Way of Kings, the beginning of Brandon Sanderson’s new epic-fantasy series, The Stormlight Archive, with artwork by Michael Whelan.
It seems like every part of this project is a major event. Brandon Sanderson, hot off the success of the New York Times bestselling The Gathering Storm, is embarking on a sequence of books every bit as ambitious as The Wheel of Time. In order to match the rich world-building experience of Brandon’s novel, we asked Michael Whelan, arguably the most beloved and influential artist in the field, if he would take on the commission, despite having largely moved away from commercial assignments to focus on his gallery work.
Like the great epic-fantasy writers, Michael never looses sight of the fact that that the environment can be as much a part of the story as the plot and characters. Michael’s worlds are majestic, whether pleasant or imposing, with a depth of field that speaks to the hero’s emotional journey as well as physical. He says,
When I received the manuscript from Tor I was somewhat dismayed. 1400 pages! I felt that it would be tough sledding to work my way through such a massive fantasy epic.
As it turned out, though, I was soon hooked and lost in the world Mr. Sanderson so skillfully realized. It helped that the writing had a rich cinematic quality that brought images of scenes, characters and creatures to my mind as if I were immersed in a Myst-style virtual reality adventure, or watching a movie.
That was fun to read, but it made my work for the cover art very difficult indeed. How can one successfully distill enough of this novel to possibly do justice to the book with one picture? It was a steep challenge.
Michael did not disappoint. The Way of Kings has all the majesty we’ve come to expect in a Whelan painting and promises an otherworldly adventure full of excitement and consequence.
Below the cut, Michael takes us through the cover process.
Michael Whelan: One thing I found very helpful was to have the manuscript delivered to me in a digital format. It was only the second time that I’ve done that, but it was a godsend. To be able to flag and highlight character and scene references, then to search them out and collate information and details, is an invaluable time saver for me.
Irene Gallo: I wound up sitting on the sketches for a bit, trying to decide between them. l loved the dramatic value shift and odd composition of the second one but as designer Peter Lutjen began to lay the type in I realized it was not going to work as well as a cover.
Michael Whelan: I was shown a cover layout for a front cover based on one of my preliminary sketches. But the book was so large in scope that I couldn’t restrain myself from widening the field of view, from attempting to capture some of the vast scale of the world described so well in the book. While reading The Way of Kings it becomes clear that the planet of the story is itself a character, perhaps the prime character, of the narrative, so I felt it was essential to portray one of the massive storms described in the book. I could only do that using a horizontal format with a panoramic view.
The first thing I did was to draw out some of the larger landscape shapes, get the placement of the various elements worked out on tracing paper:
I often do a study or two of the main characters, which then become my “models” while I am doing the actual painting. This is a painted sketch of the figures and some tentative plant forms.
After transferring the landscape masses to the panel I painted in the cloud shapes using pastels, which I then fixed by spraying down with clear acrylic gesso.The panel is cradled in a bed of foam board, which has registration marks so I can accurately fix my drawings on tracing paper if I need to check on the painting’s fidelity to the original composition.
Usually I work from background to foreground, and from shadows to light, but in this case I needed the foremost figure in there to guide my handling of the sky elements framing the figure. Also, from fairly early on I had the glow of the veiled sun indicated to guide my color and values in that part of the sky.
By this time the sky is pretty well laid in, and I’ve started to lay the shadows into the landscape masses.
As often happens, I decided I had incorrectly visualized the shadows and structure of some of the landscape shapes and had to fix them as I painted them in.
Irene Gallo is the art director for Tor Books and Tor.com.