Artist Guest of Honor Michael Whelan is one of the most respected artists in science fiction, fantasy, and horror illustration.
At the Sunday 1PM panel in Hanover G (Hy), he spoke about how he had been an artist since childhood. Having lived close to Vanderburg Air Force Base in California, Whelan was inspired by the sounds of airplanes and rockets and began to read science fiction and fantasy. Inspired by images of astronauts lying on their backs as their rockets blasted off, he imitated them–lying on his living room floor, drawing stars and planets on the underside of the family coffee table, and adding jam jar lids as dials for his own ships. His father was quite surprised when movers later turned over the coffee table and revealed how his son had adorned it.
With his father in the military, Whelan had to move many times growing up. He used his artwork to help him make friends, sitting and sketching in the lunchroom and attracting others through their curiosity.
The audience was treated to Whelan’s insights as he showed images of his artwork, from his early illustrations, which mostly followed the content of the book, to later pieces where he began to use more symbolism. In one piece, The Destroying Angel (used as a cover for one of 1982’s the Year’s Best Horror anthologies), he pointed out the components of the piece that illustrate the effects of drug use, from the chains on the body–to which only the addict possesses the key–to the drug paraphernalia he carries as props.
Whelan was unable to show all of the images he’d brought with him, but if he could have, the panel could easily have gone another half hour or more. When we sat down to interview Whelan afterward, we were able to learn more from him about the process of creating not only paintings but also other kinds of art, including writing and composition.
Daily Dragon (DD): What do you enjoy most about conventions like Dragon*Con?
Michael Whelan (MW): The face-to-face thing is part of what brings me to conventions. It makes such a huge difference…. For me, meeting authors is really great. I can get direct feedback from them. The editor will say, ” [they] really liked your work,” but to have [the author] actually tell me what he really liked about it, and for me to ask him, “What would you improve?” or “Is there anything you’d like to see changed?” That feedback is much better in person.
DD: You’ve said that you often read a book three times before you try to illustrate it.
MW: Three times on average, yes.
DD: Do you think that’s partly why your cover art is so popular?
MW: What I’m telling myself when I’m reading the manuscript is, “What do I want to see when I have the book in hand and I’ve shut the cover? What do I want to see on it to reinforce the book and to confirm it or to resonate with what I’ve just read and yet not have any spoilers on there?”
DD: Do you ever have the luxury of time, once you’ve read the book, to let ideas percolate?
MW: I give myself the time to ruminate for a while, yes, but it’s happening while I’m reading the book and when I’m away from it. I might be lying in bed, and I’ll think, “That armor he described with the jewels…if I used fractal designs around it instead, or if I used the forms that you see in microscopic pictures of diatoms, the structure would have a cool, organic look.” I’ll make notes that will bring it back to me.
DD: Is that how you chose to illustrate the shardbearer holding a shardblade on the cover of Brandon Sanderson’s latest fantasy novel, The Way of Kings?
MW: I’m looking forward to getting a chance to do those covers. What I really wanted to paint was a suit with the armor from the front, with the powerful crystals embedded in them, but I’ll get to it later.
DD: So you’re going to do more covers for the series?
MW: Yes. I’m committed for the series.
DD: That’s wonderful! The series is terrific so far.
MW: Yes, I’m psyched. I’ll do it as long as Brandon will let me.
DD: You saw, I’m sure, Sanderson’s praise of your work in his acknowledgements?
MW: Oh, yes. He was extremely generous with his praise.
DD: You illustrated the first of Anne McCaffrey’s Pern novels. Was that a turning point in your career?
MW: It was, yes. I felt like I’d hit the big leagues when I had my artwork on a cover that made the bestseller list. You can’t not feel that way. It was a big transition point for me. As soon as that happened, when I went to the Society of Illustrators meeting in New York City, I would talk to other illustrators who had covers on the bestseller list, and I would say, “Well, what are you getting paid?” [laughs] I realized that people working in my genre were being underpaid, purely out of prejudice of the subject matter that we’re dealing with. If we’re selling as many books as a certain other genre author whose cover artist is getting $5,000 a job more than I am, there’s no reason why I shouldn’t be getting the same amount of money. So, it helped me from a business standpoint also, to make a living out of it.
DD: Do artists work with agents the same way authors do?
MW: Some do. It never made sense to me to work with an agent. When I heard that Don Maitz had an agent and other artists that I met when I started out, I thought, “You’re giving 25 percent to a guy who’s finding you work.” I felt that I couldn’t make enough mistakes to cost me 25 percent of my income. If I made the mistakes and learned from them myself…I’ll be getting the extra 25 percent, plus I’d have more control over what I was doing.
DD: There isn’t a slush pile in art, where they have to pick your picture out of a pile of submissions for the same product?
MW: Well, there is in album cover work, for example. If someone like Michael Jackson was doing an album, they’d put out a call for portfolios. He’d sit in a room with a stack of one hundred of them, and they’d say, “Here’s a bunch of artists who do work that might appeal to you–which one would you like?” In that respect, there’s some kind of slush pile.
DD: Tell us more about the progression of symbolism in your artwork.
MW: The symbolism represents my growth, my maturing as an artist. [The effects of the symbolism] continues to happen as I grow as an artist.
DD: Do you include explanations/descriptions of the symbolism with the artwork so the viewer might be able to appreciate all of the subtleties?
MW: Anyone who pays ten to 50 thousand dollars for a painting wants to tell a story about it. They’ll put it up in their house and if they have a party, and people ask what the painting is about, they want to be able to [elaborate on it.]
Every work I do is a confluence of themes, ideas, influences of things going on in my mind. There’s the personal part of [the work], the part that deals with the story I’m trying to illustrate, so I can approach [an explanation of the work] from many different angles. How it relates to the book or, if it’s hanging in a gallery, why the colors are the way they are and what symbolism is [embedded in the work].
DD: You spoke on the panel earlier about some unconscious symbols that make their way into the work. Is most of the symbolism consciously added?
MW: I consciously do add more all the time, but unconscious aspects happen and catch me by surprise. Much of my gallery work comes to me in dreams. I can see why the Greeks came up with the concept of the muses, with voices telling me, “I need to be made real.”
DD: When you illustrate for books, your artwork is being seen by thousands of people who purchase the book.
MW: That’s the big advantage of doing illustrations: the dissemination of your work.
DD: Do people in “fine art” circles look down on illustrating versus art for its own sake?
MW: Perhaps. But so many illustrators became famous painters. Andy Warhol illustrated for Vanity Fair and other fashion magazines before he became a “commercial fine artist.” Mark Ryden illustrated two Stephen King covers, but if you go to his website, you’ll only see the fine art. That’s a signal that there might be a taint to it, that perhaps the fine art world doesn’t want to know you’re commercial. It’s all art. My personal work does mean a lot more to me, though.
I try to find a point of tangency between [the author’s] world and mine, and try to invest enough of what’s going on in my life to carry me through a month’s worth of work on one image. If I was just doing a book cover that doesn’t have any relation to what’s going on in my life or it doesn’t present some artistic challenges that I can get behind, I wouldn’t be able to do [the work].
DD: What does it feel like to be requested by authors of such stature as Stephen King, that they want your work on the cover of theirs?
MW: It’s an incredible honor. I would never have guessed when I was in my teens that this could even be a possibility.
DD: You mentioned having a personal connection to your work. Can you tell us about any such connection in your latest illustration for The Way of Kings?
MW: It’s the storm. I grew up in California, and we moved to Colorado when I was 15. I felt that when I moved to Colorado, I hadn’t seen a real cloud before. In Denver, these incredible clouds and storms come over the Rockies, and it was a revelation to me.
When I was reading the book, the storm–the weather and the ecology of the planet that Brandon writes about–is itself a character. I thought I had to start there before I started to paint the characters. The characters are in there, but they’re symbols. It’s about the storm, it’s about the environment.
I did concept drawings of specific scenes in the book–battle scenes and a scene where the main character is involved with the bridges. I have a scene with him standing beside one of the bridges, and this huge knight in resplendent armor riding across the bridge. I thought that would make a great cover, but they wanted to go with the storm.
DD: So you showed them different pieces of concept art, and you developed the one they chose?
MW: Yes. [I gave them] six different pieces to choose from in terms of composition. I do fairly detailed black-and-white paintings, for the most part. Sometimes I put them in a frame and sell them at art shows. I give myself about a month to come up with the whole thing–to read the book, come up with the concepts, and finish the cover. Sometimes it takes six weeks. I’ve done others in three days. The real answer is, a month to do the painting, but 30 years of experience.
DD: When doing book covers, are you limited by leaving space for the title and author’s name, and having a straight stretch in the middle for the spine, etc?
MW: You’re limited and challenged at the same time. If you can work with it creatively and have fun with it, too, then you can look at it as an opportunity.
DD: Do you find it frightening, staring at a blank canvas before you work on a gallery piece?
MW: I’ve never had that [feeling]. There’s a book called The Blank Canvas that’s for people with [painter’s block]. I’ve got more ideas than I’ll ever live long enough to use.
DD: Do you have any suggestions to people who do have a block?
MW: There’s a book called The Artist’s Way by Julia Cameron. It’s essentially a 12-step program for blocked writers, but it applies to any art form. A large part of it is keeping a daily journal. That helped me tremendously. You get out of your mind all the thoughts that will distract you later when you’re trying to get your work done. Once they’re on paper, you close the journal and get to work. The journal for me became a storehouse of concepts.
DD: We noticed you’re wearing a shirt with The Incredibles on it. Would you ever do a comic or a graphic novel?
MW: I did when I was in college, but I don’t talk about them. So many issues and images are waiting for me. I feel like a midwife to them, and I’ve got a stack of patients waiting for me to help give birth to them. If I don’t do it, I don’t know if anybody else is going to.
It’s so liberating. The whole idea of being jealous of another artist’s technique or vision or talent disappeared as soon as I realized I’m here to do Michael Whelan’s artwork. So many people forget that, especially beginning artists.
All of us, in our lives, have had a variety of experiences that are unique to us, and that’s what we bring to what we write, or draw, or paint, or dance, or compose musically. That’s what will make your work unique from anyone else’s. Your job, as a creative person, is to be true to that and not be dissuaded. Your job is to do your work, that’s the reason you’re here, not to do somebody else’s.
Lawrence Block, the mystery/detective writer, wrote two books for aspiring writers. Both are full of information that applies to all the arts: being true to yourself, how to develop a sense of character, how to develop your own style, etc. I found them very interesting to read.
There’s another book that’s a fantastic resource. It’s called Zen Guitar. It’s for guitarists, but it was given to me by another painter, who said, “This is going to help you with your painting, your gallery work.” It really has [helped]. There are so many truths in the book and ways to unlock your own creativity. The truths are universal. That’s another book I can’t recommend highly enough. Zen Guitar and The Artist’s Way are always on my bookshelf in my studio within easy reach.
DD: Thank you for your time. We really appreciate you taking the time to do this interview.
MW: It’s my pleasure.