Mar 1 2010 1:00pm

Brandon Sanderson’s The Way of Kings cover by Michael Whelan

The Way of Kings by Brandon Sanderson, cover art by Michael Whalen, design by Peter Lutjen

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.


The sketches.

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.

Michael Whelan sketch for The Way of Kings

Michael Whelan sketch for The Way of Kings

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 sketch for The Way of Kings

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:

Michael Whelan Way of Kings in progress

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.

Michael Whelan Way of Kings in progress

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.

Michael Whelan Way of Kings in progress

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.

Michael Whelan Way of Kings in progress

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.

The final:

Michael Whelan cover art for The Way of Kings

Irene Gallo is the art director for Tor Books and


Bethany Vanderputten
1. Bethany Vanderputten
Wow, this is beautiful! Thanks for sharing the process with us. - Bethany
Bethany Vanderputten
2. Martin White
Impressive... Very nice indeed. Really looking forward to this series!
Bethany Vanderputten
3. Sam Bosma
Ridiculous. That first sketch alone is such a gem.
Bethany Vanderputten
5. trench
That is just a gorgeous piece of art work. I want the poster. To bad elvis got droped.
Sam Mickel
6. Samadai
Very great artwork. One of the best covers I have seen.
Erika A.
8. brownjawa
I'm even more excited about this series now! Gorgeous cover, thanks Tor!
Bethany Vanderputten
9. she-who-is
Dude, this cover is awesome. It reminds me of the classic high fantasy covers, which I think is a good thing. Dunno if I would have picked up the book if not a huge fan, but that's just me.
Joel Wright
10. joelright
I love the art on the cover, the painting is incredible.

This cover also brings up one of my pet peeves with book covers... I hate book covers that have the author's name in a larger font than the book's title. I know it's probably some sort of industry standard for big-name authors, but that doesn't mean I can't gripe about it :)
Grant Newton
12. GrantNewton
Good call on the storm! Really electrifies this piece.
Bethany Vanderputten
13. Bostonwolf
Whelan is the best, I love it.

Also, third paragraph "looses" should be "loses"
Bethany Vanderputten
14. dravenreborn
Michael Whelan is one of my favorite artists,...ever. He actually READS the books he does art for. This is beautiful. I can't wait to read The Way of Kings.
Eric Soltys
15. esoltys
Any chance you can release some larger sizes as wallpaper?
16. Freelancer
Intense, dramatic, majestic. Outstanding art.

Tor must be ecstatic to have their hands on talent the likes of Michael Whelan and Brandon Sanderson. The NYT might as well prepare that space at the top of the list now, this work is going to hit like a bulldozer.
Bethany Vanderputten
17. douglasm
It's a great visual, but does the book really feature a major character in possession of what I assume is a Shard Blade who is left handed? Or is that just artistic license?
Bethany Vanderputten
19. jefff hotchkiss
It's a great cover, but it's a pity you can't see more of the original on the cover because that is one stunning piece of art. I really like the title font too.
Bethany Vanderputten
20. Jay R. / Signe
Honestly, at first glance the fully-typed cover underwhelmed me. It looked like so many other fantasy covers. The original print, however, is breathtaking.

When used for the cover, the greyscale version of the artwork catches my eye and draws me in a lot more than the full-color does.
Bethany Vanderputten
21. jefff
Michael is truly an incredible artist. Too bad he wasn't commissioned for the Wheel of Time books.
Moshe Feder
22. Moshe
Speaking as Brandon's editor, I couldn't be more delighted with Michael's art. It's going to make a gorgeous wraparound jacket.

Having a Whelan cover is literally a dream come true for author and editor alike. The combination of his innate artistic genius and the meticulous attention to detail shown above produce results that are unsurpassed in their ability to evoke a world previously only realized in the mind's eye of the author.

I'm eager for you all to enjoy the story that goes with the picture. We're working hard to get it to you this summer, even as Brandon continues his work on the Wheel of Time.
j p
23. sps49
An old favorite and a new one.

I can still envisage every one of MW's John Carter of Mars covers. And the Ivrel ones. And- heck, he useta be all over the place!
Fake Name
24. ThePendragon
Michael Whelan is the greatest Fantasy Book Cover Artist of all time. ALL TIME! Seriously.

He should do the covers for every Fantasy book ever.
Bethany Vanderputten
25. 54x
The cover looks simply amazing. I can't wait to get my hands on the finished product! :)
Samantha Brandt
26. Talia
I was lucky enough to hear Mr. Whelan speak at the local library a couple years back, and I must admit my heart sunk a bit when he mentioned he'd stopped doing covers (which I'd been previously unaware), though I understood his reasons.

Now seeing his work dressing a new book by someone who's swiftly become one of my favorite authors just about makes my head explode. I will happily buy this in hardcover, almost as much for the art as for the book itself.

(argh, August? *sigh*).
Bethany Vanderputten
27. J. Bradford DeLong
I have to ask: what's with the customer reviews for this book at ?
Bethany Vanderputten
28. James Anselm
Somebody's idea of "having fun"? (I mean, 43 reviews for a book that's still being edited? ) I hope this won't boomerang against the actual book when it's released...
Samantha Brandt
29. Talia
haha guys, I just found that earlier too. Hilarious aren't they??

Anyway, here's Brandon's comments on this. I'm pretty sure all the reviews are just fans who decided to be smart alecks. :)
Irene Gallo
31. Irene
@10 Joelright:

Not that I don't agree with you but it's a branding thing. When people go to the bookstores, they will know Sanderson's name before a title so, the idea is to make that more visible. And, as you say, it's become a bit of industry-code for "Important!".

@26 Talia:

Well, we'll get to see at least one more cover from Michael. He had actually agreed to work on a Venor Vinge book before the Sanderson manuscript came up but he Vinge book was scheduled much later so we were are to fit both in. I'm very much looking forward to seeing how that turns out as well.


As an aside note: Michael was up at Boskone this year. It was great to be able to hang out with him a bit but I think the thing that excited him the most was seeing a guy in armor with the perfect helmet reference for this image. He said that he had been struggling with that part of the painting before he drove up and now he seemed _really_ excited to get back to the studio with whatever issues that were plaguing him figured out. That is a pro. Someone that has been painting as long and as well as he has and he's still inspired by the prefect shape, or bit of reflected light.
Marcel xxx
32. lowlandr
Very very nice cover. I don't know how to 'label' it but it has something imaginary to it... I really like the shaping and the coloring of the landscape.

Having read 'the Gathering Storm', I have confidence in Brandon's ability to write 'epic fantasy'. I'm looking forward to the book.

When will it be released??
Shuaad Manuel
33. Shoo-z
All i can say is... WOW... this art work is epic and i can't wait to see it on my copy of The Way of Kings :)
Bethany Vanderputten
34. Niftium
I believe the current release date for tWoK is August 17th. But who's counting? ;)
Bethany Vanderputten
35. Sir Read-a-Lot
@10 Joelright:
I agree with you. I think that the way the cover is set up distracts from the power and beauty of Michael's storm. But the art itself is amazing.
Bethany Vanderputten
37. madscientistnz
Am I correct in thinking that The Way of Kings is the first in a ten book series? If so, is Whelan going to do the covers for all the books?

(I'm a big fan of matching covers for books in a series, it really bugs me when a drastic cover change is made half way though!)

Although, it would be kind of cool to get a different awesome artist to do the covers for each book!
Bethany Vanderputten
38. Brentus
I would really like a 1920x1200 wallpaper-sized one. I'd pay for that.
Bethany Vanderputten
39. shdwfeather
And I here thought that I couldn't be any more excited about WoK. This cover made my jaw drop open when I saw it.

I totally need a print version and a desktop wallpaper of that.
Bethany Vanderputten
40. Duncan Long
Once again, Whelan has produced a beautiful cover. And seeing the process and various considerations in which sketch to employ for the book cover is quite an education in itself. Thanks so much for all this information and a chance to see Welan's sketches.

--Duncan Long
Freelance illustrator for HarperCollins, PS Publishing, Pocket Books, Solomon Press, Ballistic Publishing, Asimov's, etc. See my cover illustrations at:

Bethany Vanderputten
41. Steve from Texas

I agree with JoelRight about the compromising of the cover image with 40% being obscured by the author's name. It may be a branding thing in the industry but it really hurts this image a great deal. It needs air to showcase the depth and detail Whelan has worked so hard on and all that type covering 50% of the available area is just onerous. And does Brandon Sanderson really deserve this kind of treatment?

Having gotten that off my chest, let me say how much I LOVE these articles. Getting to read about the decisions made by you on cover specs, the considerations for different layouts, the comments shared by the artist, this is GREAT STUFF! Thank you! You are the reason I keep coming back to
Bethany Vanderputten
42. PogiDave
This is beautiful.

I want to suggest marketing numbered prints signed by Michael Whelan with a copy of the book signed by Brandon Sanderson, but I don't know if I could afford it.

Prints would be really nice though.
Bethany Vanderputten
43. SongstressCela
Ugh. Odd girl out here, but not a fan at all. Warbreaker and Mistborn had such striking covers, but this looks like generic fantasy garbage that doesn't stand out a bit from 90% of the genre. =\ Really disappointing.
Bethany Vanderputten
44. Fiirvoen
I'm the third person to say this, but seriously. How do I get this as a wall paper? Who do I pay? I want this image on my desktop rather badly. I went to Whelan's site, but it's not on there and his membership section is "under construction." Any help here would be greatly appreciated.
45. Freelancer

Ask that question again in two years. There is no doubt that Michael Whelan is the premier fantasy artist at work today, but let's keep cart and horse in proper perspective. The book wasn't written as a canvas for Whelan's art. Tor is backing a winning horse in Brandon Sanderson, and if you haven't read his work, you should consider it. He is as original a fantasy author as I've ever experienced, and his vision for The Stormlight Archive is incredible in its depth and scope.
Bethany Vanderputten
49. King Henry VIII
From His Royal Highness King Henry VIII

I dearly hope that the composition and workings of the text within the said book are up to the front cover's perfection. The artist did a truly wonderful work there, even though it is a trifle similar to The Lord of the Rings style by J. R. R. Tolkien. Nonetheless, I have faith in Brandon Sanderson after he finished up The Gathering Storm by Robert Jordan. All I can say, is that I cannot wait for it to come out and will be more than happy when it finally does.

May Ye Be Blessed
50. Freelancer
I wonder if SongstressCela @43 has since begun reading The Way of Kings, in order to realize that the image is not simply "generic fantasy garbage", but is perfectly faithful to the story within.

King Henry VIII @49

Oh yeah. The whole thing is 1000+ pages of awesome. BTW, you might want to watch out for a guy named Kvothe. He is called the Kingkiller.
Irene Gallo
51. Irene
Freelancer: one thing you can be sure of, Michael Whelan is _always_ dedicated to serving the story faithfully. Easy enough for two people to image the same scene differently but Michael is always true to the writing as he sees it.
52. Freelancer

Of this, I was already very much aware. But @43 wasn't the only comment in that vein. On Brandon's blog someone said that while the art was nice, it was a ridiculous portrayal that couldn't possibly reflect the story. BZZZZZ, Wrong answer! Thank you for playing, come back and try again soon!
nawa crike
53. nawacrike
I was initially underwhelmed with the completed dustjacket artwork on Sanderson's book. The big type on the front & spine, and the blurbs on the back obscured too much of Whelan's painting. I didn't fully understand what I was looking at. I just now looked at Gallo's branded & unbranded wallpapers and WOW, the beauty of Whelan's painting comes through! I now more fully understand what's going on in the background of the image (a highstorm is approaching the Shattered Plains).
Bethany Vanderputten
54. Doctor Professor Heather
Holy crap, it's a painting!

I honestly thought it was computer-generated. Wow, good work, Mr.Whelan!
Nick Marino
55. njm1492
This cover art doesn't just say epic fantasy - it yells it to the heavens. Awesome in so many ways
Bethany Vanderputten
56. snash
i love all of those covers i want posters of each and every one. i cany wait for the next book!!!!
F Shelley
57. FSS
Hi everyone. At the risk of no one reading this, or the people who do read it thinking I'm an idiot...

..a.what scene does the cover depict? I can't think of one that matches it.
58. Freelancer
The scene is not textual to the story. It is simply bringing together numerous elements of life on the Shattered Plains. A Shardbearer saluting another (presumably opposing) warrior. Details of his Plate and Blade, the rockbuds, the plateaus, the rolling Highstorm, etc.
Bethany Vanderputten
I don't recall anyone mentioning this, but the figure in the foreground appears to be Eshonai, the Parshendi general who wishes to meet with Dalinar and end the war. My evidence for the above is that the figure is wearing an orangeish cape rather than the blue of the Kholin house, i.e., it is not Dalinar. Moreover, the icon on the cape is certainly not the tower and crown of the Kholin house, but more reminiscent of a chasmfiend. Furthermore, the Parshendi shardbearer is cited in the book as saluting Dalinar. It turns out that the general is a female (don't let the mannish features mislead you, there is little outward physical difference between male and female Parshendi in the war forms - except the beard, see the Eshonai interlude excerpt on the 17th shard forum website). She is a minor figure, however, in WOK, and it is surprising that she would be highlighted in the cover art. Perhaps Whelan had seen material from early drafts of "Words of Radiance", or had full character descriptions from the author when he chose the subject of his artwork.
Roger Powell
60. forkroot
Micheal Whelan stated (at JordanCon 2013) that the characters were Dalinar (closer) saluting Kaladin. Freelancer@58 is correct that the scene is not textual to the story.

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