Each book released in The Stormlight Archive has become a bigger and bigger sensation. It goes beyond the New York Times Bestseller list and approaches Harry Potter territory. Rhythm of War, the latest volume in the epic fantasy series by Brandon Sanderson, was no exception even in the midst of a global pandemic.
With the cover reveal on TOR.com in August 2020, fan anticipation built to a fever pitch as theories spun around every detail of art. That frenzy of excitement among readers would carry right through the virtual book release in November.
Behind the scenes, Michael Whelan had begun working on the cover art more than a year earlier, before Sanderson had begun writing the book in earnest. Art direction kicked off with a paragraph long art brief from Isaac Stewart:
Shallan in Shadesmar holding her Shardblade. Ahead of her is a giant storm. Around her are crystalline trees. The book underneath the dustjacket will be purple, to match the order of Knights Radiant in the book, so using purples in the obsidian-like stone and trees might be nice. The storm in Shadesmar is different than a normal highstorm. Instead of the clouds getting darker as with normal storms, this one glows almost like mother-of-pearl.
Naturally, so early in the process, details were bound to change, but the setting and character focus meant readers would get their first look at Shadesmar, the plane of reality that bridges the physical and spiritual worlds, and the first cover appearance of fan favorite character Shallan Davar.
ISAAC: In past books, TOR has handled the art direction, but as Brandon’s fandom has grown, his company [Dragonsteel Entertainment] has had a bit more say on the covers. We don’t art direct them all, but in this case TOR’s art director Peter Lutjen was open to our discussing [the art] directly with Michael.
The world of Stormlight had become so big at this point that we hoped it would be helpful for Michael to have an almost direct communication line with Brandon in case questions of continuity and so forth might come up. Also, the manuscript hadn’t even been written when Michael received the commission, so being able to communicate changes that might affect the cover was also a consideration.
MICHAEL: I confess with the passage of time from the last book that I had lost track of who was who and what was important to emphasize in the complex story unfolding. The first thing I did was peruse the books again—a tall order!—to reacquaint myself with the characters, places, and plot threads as they were developing.
Once the nature of the scene to be painted was finalized, I still had a lot of research to do to be as accurate to the narrative as possible, so I visited the Stormlight Wiki often and asked Isaac about specific points I was unclear on.
ISAAC: I reached out to Michael early on and asked if he would like some assistance from us in fleshing out the costumes. He said yes, so then I worked with Brandon and Ben to give us some concept art for Adolin’s and Shallan’s costumes.
Ben drew up several nice ideas. Brandon and I discussed and settled on these images to send to Michael as some good examples of what the pair might be wearing.
MICHAEL: Ben McSweeney has been Brandon’s go-to conceptual artist from early on. It has helped enormously to have Ben’s notes and sketches to use as a check on my visualizations of costuming, landscape and other elements that rounded out the look of Roshar and it’s creatures.
Brandon’s universe is vast—filled with fascinating out-of-this-world ideas, subjects, and mental visualizations, all just begging to be interpreted by a visual artist. That universe is way too big for any one artist! There’s room for multitudes of us, so I don’t mind rubbing shoulders with any of them, be they fan artists or pros.
ISAAC: We later amended [the initial art concept] to not include her Shardblade when we realized that she can’t use it in Shadesmar. That’s about the point where we discussed the idea that Adolin might be there too, holding a normal sword.
We also moved away from the strange storm concept the more we discussed the cover with Michael. We hoped to simplify the concept and hone in on a real strong focal point.
ISAAC: Further into the project, Brandon had written more of the book and had more scenes we could share with Michael, who asked for a few more ideas in thumbnail form, which Ben and I worked through and sent.
This was more of an exercise of helping Michael sift through some more typical compositions so he could spend his time then thumbnailing some more creative ways to portray the cover.
MICHAEL: It was plain to me that there was one scene/place that Brandon was especially keen to see realized on the cover. Since I felt overwhelmed by the task before me, I welcomed the direction.
Now, even with a proposed cover scene selected and the type pretty much there for me to work around, I saw a nearly infinite array of possibilities to explore. My response was to just start pouring them out as best I could, in most cases in the form of black and white compositions, first in pencil, then in acrylic.
ISAAC: We focused on a few different elements, the tower that now appears on the back of the book, the couple traveling in Shadesmar, and a scene where Shallan and Adolin have a moment to catch their breath and just ponder the beauty of Shadesmar.
I feel like Michael was able to portray all three things in the final illustration.
ISAAC: Getting to work with Michael from time to time is one of my greatest professional joys. I loved hearing his ideas and then seeing them. Later, Brandon and I would geek out in art review looking over the concepts that Michael sent and then providing feedback.
Both Brandon and I found Michael’s art in our early teens, and we are lifelong fans at this point. Honestly, the hardest part of the process was detaching ourselves from being so excited about the art in order to provide constructive feedback–we felt like any one of his concepts would have made great covers!
MICHAEL: When I was assigned the cover for The Way of Kings, I had little idea that it was only the start of a huge series, or that I would be asked to do more than one cover painting for the author. My initial efforts floundered around quite a bit, reflecting my inability to decide on what the best scene might be, or who should be most prominently featured in the composition. I mean, to pick ONE image out of a book of a thousand pages? Almost impossible!
My initial concepts were pretty vague and sketchy, but TOR recognized the potential in one of them and so I ran with that idea. I’m a little fuzzy on this, but I think I never bothered with a color comp for TOR, so—hats off to them!—they hardly knew what they were getting until it was delivered.
MICHAEL: I often find there’s a lot more freedom in doing work for an emerging author because there’s a smaller investment at risk and the publisher is willing to allow the illustrator more leeway, though this is not always true.
I’ve always been amused to observe that the amount of trust and freedom an illustrator gets seems to diminish the more successful his track record becomes.
ISAAC: By the time we’re here at Book 4, we and the publisher are thinking about things like “We’ve seen Dalinar, Kaladin, and Jasnah on covers; do we want to repeat that? Should we show someone else?”
There’s also a color scheme based on the Orders of Knights Radiant that goes with each of the books, so that narrows things even further, but in the end really helps each book have its own visual identity from the other books. So in that regard, I feel the scope of the concept was a bit more narrow, which puts some limits on the artist that might not be there for the first book in a series.
MICHAEL: For Rhythm of War, there was much more back-and-forth and requests for updates. I can’t blame them. It was slow going for me, and I’m sure they were worried about deadlines.
Obviously, when a lot is riding on a book–a lot of money, promotion, reputations, and fan attention–the pressure comes on and most editors/art directors are called upon to take a greater amount of control to ensure a successful outcome. This is, of course, to be expected. But it’s never been easy for me to deal with, and it often leads to my overthinking and over-embellishing a visual statement in an effort to please everybody and meet expectations.
ISAAC: The Way of Kings cover illustration has become so iconic that I can see how Michael would feel the pressure to do that again.
I was never for one moment worried about Michael delivering something amazing. He is a master and a professional and conducts himself as such. My hope was that I could be a good support to him, giving concept art when he thought it might be helpful, or providing further details on characters and settings if needed, or being someone who could look at a piece and give a second opinion from an artistic viewpoint.
The deadlines were a bit stressful, less so on us, but Tor would often ping both us and Michael to get a read on where the cover was. The pandemic didn’t help. So many things were in flux that there was this dreamlike sense of “is this really happening? Are we really publishing this giant Stormlight book in the middle of so much uncertainty in the world?”
Michael stepped up, as he always does, and delivered amazing work.
MICHAEL: Many of the acrylic studies were done on flexible sheets of canvas, cut to the size of the book cover, which I’d wrap around a dummy book to judge how the various elements might appear on the printed cover.
It seemed the most direct way to compose the thing, given the exigencies of book covers with their differing sizes and type treatments. I employed this strategy once before in 2004, working on another massive volume of popular fantasy fiction, Stephen King’s The Dark Tower.
ISAAC: Rhythm of War was the first time I was aware that Michael did that. I had seen some of the concepts come in that way, as I think Michael mentioned that he was doing that. I thought it was such a fun idea!
We had provided a Photoshop template to show where the spine and the front cover text might fall, but this took things a step further, to be able to hold the concept in your hands and actually get an idea of what it might look like on the actual book.
This is one of the reasons we like working with Michael. He’s not just thinking about the illustration as a work of art; he’s also looking at the book itself as a piece of art, visualizing the final product in its finished form and wanting that to be beautiful and functional.
MICHAEL: Ever since completing my work for The Dark Tower, I’ve had difficulty meeting my deadlines. The reasons are varied, but one in particular stands out to me: It seems the older I get the more possibilities I see in any illustration project. Perceiving too many potential solutions, all of which seem (at the outset, anyway) equally attractive, really makes it hard for me to proceed at a good pace.
Though TOR gave me a lot of time to get the cover painting done—as so often happens—I was adding finishing touches right up to the last minute…and beyond. As I was racing to the finish, a massive storm hit our area causing widespread power outages in our community, including us. We had no water or power for 8 days.
ISAAC: I think the book had to be to the printer in late August or early September of 2020, or at least the art for the book jacket needed to be. The book released in November of 2020, so that was a tight printing schedule that I’m not sure could be accomplished today with all the supply chain issues.
Late August came, and with it the storm that hit Michael’s area. So he was scrambling under a deadline to get the scan out from an area devoid of water and power. I think it was almost too soon to laugh about a Highstorm delaying the delivery of the scan, but the irony wasn’t lost on us. Now, over a year later, I think we can say that it was certainly a memorable illustration delivery!
MICHAEL: I had the painting scanned before it was fuly finished (there was additional work for me to do on the left side of the painting) so at least TOR would have an image to mock up the type and create marketing images. Alas, because of the storm, I had no way of getting the image to them. In the end, though, I found a computer-savvy friend in a neighboring area who could send the file to TOR so they could use it.
All in all, it was a nerve-wracking time for us.
ISAAC: I’ve mentioned it before, but working with Michael is one of the highlights of my professional career.
Almost all of the hard work fell on his shoulders, so I felt somewhat like a construction manager who gets to experience a new roller coaster before anyone else does, providing feedback along the way as it’s designed and built, but the construction team and others who built the roller coaster are the ones who did all the work. There’s a sense of pride in a project well done, but the spotlight and prestige for this illustration should all go to Michael.
My favorite cover up to this point had been the one for The Way of Kings, and even now, I can’t tell if that one or this one is my favorite of the four. It took my breath away.
MICHAEL: It’s gratifying to read so many nice comments about my work, because I don’t take it lightly. When I look at something I’ve done, all I see are the flaws, ways that I could have done it better. Fortunately I’m under no obligation to reveal any of those thoughts so I pass them by and enjoy the enthusiasm shown to the release.
It’s enheartening to see a book, or series of books, get such a positive reaction in the world! If I can be any part of helping to draw more people to reading books, that’s a big bonus for me.
Be sure to check out the Brandon Sanderson author gallery for more art from The Stormlight Archive and the “making of” features for the previous covers.
Signed prints of RHYTHM OF WAR are available in our shop.
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