We are very excited to reveal the cover to A Memory of Light, the final volume of Robert Jordan’s epic fantasy series The Wheel of Time. The artwork for this final edition is by, arguably, one of today’s most beloved illustrators, Michael Whelan.
The task of jumping into a 14 volume series on its last installment must have been a daunting one but Michael rose to the occasion. Harriet McDougal, Jordan’s editor and widow remarked, "that is the Rand I have waited to see for twenty years.” when she saw the image. And while the artwork clearly has all the earmarks of a Whelan painting, it’s theme and coloration make it a fitting heir to Darrell K. Sweet’s series of Wheel of Time covers.
In keeping with the series’ covers, the scene gathers elements from a key scene in the book. Here, Rand stands with Callandor on the rocks of Shayol Ghul, heading down into its depths to confront the Dark One even as the sun itself vanishes from the world. Two Aes Sedai follow the Dragon Reborn into the mouth of darkness, two women who have been with Rand since the very beginning.
Below you will see part of Michael’s process and his thoughts about the project:
As you know, there was a specific scene already chosen as the source idea for the cover image, so I was spared going through my usual process of reading the book, then trying to distill it into one image. I often lose a lot of time trying to pick which scene or cover idea to go with from the narrative. On the other hand, there was a lot of research required to familiarize myself with the particular attributes of the three characters I knew were going to be in the image. Not having read the Wheel of Time series yet, I had a lot of catching up to do! I knew a cave was going to be in the image, so the question then became “should we see the characters from the outside going in or from the inside as they are entering?” While I mulled the possibilities over in my mind I began to sketch out some poses and costuming ideas, trying to feel my way into the image.
Then I did several preliminary layouts in monochrome acrylics or digital media, sometimes going back and forth between the two.
After it was decided which concept to go with, I first played around with my acrylics experimenting with making stalactite shapes using paint and a squeegee. After that, I felt ready to start the background work. Usually I work from background to foreground, but this time I decided to work the middle area first, then do the figure of Rand and the background/sky area at the same time.
Here’s a few shots of the painting as it progressed. The background color of the panel was a light grey tone. The acetate in the center was left in place to mask out the sky area and keep it clean until I was ready to work on it.
I was fortunately well supplied with cave photos to use as reference because I had recently gone to Carlsbad Caverns in New Mexico, where I took some pictures of some pretty strange stuff:
But I wasn’t happy with my visualizations of the figures, especially Rand. I tried using myself as a model, without much success.
I was also feeling frustrated about the coat I wanted to have Rand wearing in the picture. Sure, I could have faked it if the figure was small in the picture, but with Rand being so “up close and personal” as it were, I thought I should take the time to get it right.
I mentioned all this in a conversation with Dan Dos Santos, and he graciously took the time to help me find a model and find the kind of coat I was looking for. He introduced me to famed illustrator Edward Vebell, which was a humbling experience, I can tell you. Ed’s had a stellar career and is a real pro’s pro — and there were stacks of his paintings all over the place, amazing stuff from the 1940’s onward.
But the thing is, Ed also happens to own an amazing costume collection which he rents out to other artists, photographers, theatre productions, etc. Dan and I almost got lost in his attic looking through the hundreds of coats and military uniforms. We found a couple of likely candidates, and the next day the model came to my studio and Dan shared his photo and lighting setup with me so I could try out his equipment setup.
It was great; almost too good, actually. I felt a little like a guy wearing several watches and never knowing what the real time is. There were so many good reference photos to work with it was hard to cull out one or two to work from and leave the rest. The main thing I look for in posing a model is to check the reality against my visualization of a pose, and correct any errors. Once I had the information I was looking for, things proceeded at a steady pace until the painting was complete.
The full cover of A Memory of Light:
Now I’m looking forward to getting to read the books!
Michael Whelan is a Hugo, Society of Illustrators, and Chesley award-winning artist. His work can be seen in galleries, book stores, and within many art and illustration annuals.
Irene Gallo is the Art Director of Tor Books and the Creative Director of Tor.com.