EDITOR’S NOTE: Tragically author Robert Jordan died in 2007 after struggling with a rare blood disease. Fans feared his work would go unfinished, but his widow and longtime editor Harriet McDougal enlisted author Brandon Sanderson to complete The Wheel of Time based on notes left by Jordan.
With the publication of A MEMORY OF LIGHT, which debuts at #1 on the New York Times bestseller list, Jordan’s signature series stands complete, spanning 14 books (plus a prequel) with sales exceeding 44 million copies worldwide.
The publisher commissioned Michael Whelan to illustrate the last cover after Darrell Sweet, cover artist for the series since it began in 1990, passed away. Harriet McDougal said of Whelan’s bold vision of Rand al’Thor, “that is the Rand I have waited to see for twenty years.”
My approach to A MEMORY OF LIGHT was dictated by unfamiliarity with the series. Not having read The Wheel of Time books, I focused on the scene provided and the characters therein while also keeping in mind that this book was the culmination of many years of reading for devoted fans.
It seemed best to start with the focus of the painting: Rand himself.
My initial sketches explored the pose he might adopt as he entered the dark confines of the cave. I attached light sticks to a wooden bokken and descended a flight of stairs with the lights off, trying to get a feel for how he would be holding the sword to light his way into darkness. (Since early in my career, I’ve found a kinesthetic sense of the figure’s pose is helpful before attempting to recreate it in it’s variations.)
With an idea of the drama and abstract design qualities I felt had to be part of the picture, I went back to my drawing board and sketched out poses that might work. These started as scribbles on waste paper which soon transitioned to line drawings on a short stack of Yupo paper I had.
Variations were either sprayed with fixative and painted on (so I could better evaluate their fitness for the task) or scanned into a digital file, printed, and painted over on watercolor paper with the line drawing underneath as my guide.
After I had a set of poses that offered possibilities, I set about visualizing the cave entrance, both from the inside and without. For these I primarily used pages from a 9″ x 12″ pad of Fredrix canvas, which I find handy for quick studies.
The interior scenes were interesting but I was especially taken with the idea of showing the cave entrance from the outside. The fracturing in the rock surrounding the cave, I felt, could work as a suggestive metaphor for the tentacles of dark power emanating from the evil forces within.
I kept painting compositional approaches—from inside the cave and outside it. Soon they littered the floor of my workplace. It was hard to step anywhere without treading on one. Of course, having all these alternatives didn’t make my choices any easier!
I re-read the manuscript to reacquaint myself with the feeling and drama of the scene described.
I questioned whether to include all the characters in the scene or only the two women who actually descended into the cave with Rand. Portraying all the characters outside at the mouth of the cave would clutter up the composition too much; the background itself was already too busy to read well.
I abandoned the approach outside of the cave in favor of scenes from within the cave, featuring Rand and his two female companions following behind.
My attention then was devoted to featuring Rand front and center on the front cover. Having examined all the previous Jordan covers, I was aware that there hadn’t yet been a close-in portrayal of Rand. I felt it might be a welcome change of pace for the readers, especially in this final volume of the series, to have him thus singled out for attention and decided to try to make that happen.
I digitized all the existing cave and figure visualizations I had accumulated. In Photoshop, I played around with combining them in ways that might work. On my studio laptop, I set up a slideshow of the more appealing approaches and painted the figures selected into the backgrounds I had chosen. These I sent to Irene Gallo at TOR books for selection as a cover approach.
Some were more highly developed than others—I learned long ago that the powers that choose such things tend to favor more finished concepts than looser ones—so naturally I tended to favor the concepts I was most interested in developing into a full scale painting.
TOR selected an approach that was essentially the same as what ended up on the cover, only the version I had shown them was much looser (of course) and painted in monochrome (browns and blacks), not in full color.
I saved pinning down the color scheme until just before beginning the painting. My usual practice is to paint many small abstract color treatments. Each color sketch here was 3″ x 4.75″, and I did 8 of them in all.
Deciding between the different options was extremely difficult as they all looked like viable to me. In frustration, I seriously considered pinning them to the wall and throwing a dart. But instead I brought them to Audrey, and as usual she helped me make up my mind.
While talking with her, I recalled how much I enjoyed the blue background in my cover painting for A Princess of Mars many years ago. I came around to thinking I’d really enjoy revisiting that territory and voila! The color scheme evolved from the one on the lower right.