The Shadow Rising, volume four of Robert Jordan’s The Wheel of Time, will be available in ebook form January 19th. In celebration of Jordan’s work we have commissioned fourteen artists, each tackling one of the Wheel of Time books in their own style. (Previous editions can be seen here. The first three ebooks can be purchased here.)
When this repacking program first came up, I was dying to tell Sam Weber. For one thing, he’s one of my favorite artists: his paintings have a cold psychology about them—like they have secrets to tell but aren’t about to let those secrets out lightly. Secondly, I knew that Sam is a huge Robert Jordan fan. Huge fan. I knew he would approach the assignment with unparalleled dedication and understanding. And that would also give fellow Tor.commie, Megan Messinger, and me an excuse to visit him at his studio for an interview. So, without further ado, you can hear Sam talk about the Wheel of Time, read his thoughts, and see process photos of his cover below.
I can still vividly recall reading The Shadow Rising, sprawled out on a bunk bed in Pasadena Newfoundland where my father, a research scientist, had dragged us unwillingly for two weeks of exile one hot summer many years ago. In that unairconditioned cabin I devoured The Shadow Rising and The Fires of Heaven (to this day I still can’t separate the two in my mind) and firmly sealed the deal on an obsession with Robert Jordan that I would unknowingly carry well into my adult life over a decade later.
It’s difficult to make a picture about something so close to one’s heart. Sometimes the creative process works best when it’s automatic, almost unconscious, with one small idea sketched on paper leading to another, until some sort of satisfactory solution is reached. Although content is essential, as an illustrator I’ve often benefited from a little distance between myself and the subject matter. Enough space to inject something personal into the process. Those little leaps and instinctual choices are much more difficult to make with half a lifetime of experiences and memories pulling you in different directions. Much harder when that something is so tightly bound to the subject at hand. With that said, I’d like to think that knowing The Wheel of Time allowed me to attack this picture in a meaningful and specific way.
The tension between Rand and Aviendha, our first glimpse of the Aiel Waste, Perrin in The Two Rivers, Asmodean, there’s so much in The Shadow Rising that easily contends with the likes of Dumai’s Well, the death of Rhavin, or Saidin’s cleansing (to name but a few). It’s Mat’s arc and transformation however that I have always found the most compelling, the most memorable. Perhaps because of its far-reaching consequences, perhaps because of the mystery and circumstances surrounding it. From playing cards with Tairen nobles to jumping through the Terangreal in Tear and Rhuidean, Mat comes alive in this book, emerges changed but intact, with his feet firmly planted on a path that will lead him through some of my favorite moments in the series. It’s easy to forget what a dark character Mat was at the onset, sometimes selfish or greedy, and irrevocably scarred at Shadar Logoth, it’s not until book four that he begins to truly emerge as the reluctant hero I’ve come to see him as. Mat is not just the glib and irreverent scoundrel he would like us to believe him to be. Destined to lead an army of dead heros at the last battle with the memories of history’s greatest generals entwined with his own, Jordan’s homage to Odin, complete with Ravens and spear, is deadly and capable, as much a warrior as he is rogue. I wanted to portray this Mat, freshly cut from the tree of life, with his Ashandarei balanced over one shoulder, formidable despite his wounds.
I was lucky to be able to take a trip to Connecticut to hunt for reference. Along with a friend of mine (Dan Dos Santos) we combed through racks of costumes and weapons, a small fraction of Illustrator Ed Vibel’s collection. It felt like sifting through Mat’s memories, walking amongst generations of military uniforms, a piece of armor, a belt or sword leaning against the wall, desperate objects crafted years apart on opposite sides of the world. Is this what it’s like in Mat’s head, a small memory here, a glimpse of something important there?
In many ways Jordan’s world is an artist’s dream. He writes with enough description to get the imagination working, but never with so much that one feels confined or beholden to a specific interpretation. As a reader I imagine that is what has drawn me to his work as well. I ended up basing Mat’s coat on a civil war officer’s jacket. I agree with Leigh Butler completely, Mat has always felt the most American of Jordan’s protagonists, and I wanted to reference that and give his outfit a military flavor. The pattern on his belt is from a piece of Nepali metal work, his cuffs are based loosely on a decorative french pattern. The visual and material culture of Jordan’s world feels unique, unburdened by overt adherence to any single real world analogue. Costumes and surfaces exist as organic expressions of geography, custom, trade, a convincing amalgamation that feels strangely familiar. The Wheel of Time exists in a world with depth that seems to work and function beyond the point of view offered to us at any given moment.
Although some may disagree, I’d like to think my choices they were made with good reason and in a spirit of admiration for one of my favorite characters in literature. The Ravens were an after thought, although in the end I am glad they are there, I think graphically they serve their purpose nicely. Something to let the astute know that this isn’t so much a scene as it is a character portrait, a metaphorical knowing wink from one fan to another.
For me, The Wheel of Time is what Tolkien’s work was to another generation, transformative, the lens through which all subsequent fantasy novels have been perceived and analyzed. It seems an injustice to have to boil a book down into one picture, a bitter sweet feeling I’m sure anyone involved with book jackets has experienced. Doubly so for me in this instance I think, since in many ways I’ve been waiting to make this picture for fifteen years.
The initial thumbnail sketches:
Irene: All of these would make great paintings but we agreed on the first sketch fairly quickly. The second one across is my second favorite, and would make for one awesome painting, but I thought the tone was a bit more languid and sensuous for the book. The third has an innocence to it that I like but the more brooding pose of the first sketch seem to present Mat better. The fourth incorporated many of the same themes as the first but lacked the emotional power that the other has.
After a sketch was chosen, Sam gathered costumes and props for a reference photo shoot. He used himself as the model, getting help for the shoot from fellow artist, Dan Dos Santos and super-cute Uno.
The final drawing.
Sam explaining his process to Megan Messinger, Tor.com’s audio-video producer, blogger, and tons more.
Reference: The original sketch, final drawing, photos of himself in costume, reference books for weapons and, not seen, images of trees and crows.
Painting. Sam uses acrylics and watercolors in very thin applications, slowly building up the painting in fine layers.
To keep up with all of our Wheel of Time posts, including information on the ebook releases, check out our Wheel of Time Index.
More photos of our visit to Sam’s studio here.