Saturday, March 1, 2014

Michael Whelan
Source: Google Images - Science Fiction Cover Art
"Don't judge a book by its cover." Metaphorical meanings aside, I often find it difficult to follow this saying when actually searching for a book to read. Anyone who has ever walked through a Barnes & Noble without an author in mind can attest to the difficulty of finding an appealing book out of the masses. I find this especially true for the science fiction genre where literary clich├ęs of time travel, space ship disasters, and humanoid aliens are ubiquitous. How then do you select a book? Besides reading the back cover synopsis, you can examine the illustration on the front cover.                                                  

Michael Whelan is an editorial illustrator famous for his book cover artwork for science fiction novels. Born June 29, 1950, much of Whelan's childhood was spent in transience due to his father's job as an aerospace engineer. During that time, he witnessed many air force missile launches and explosions, which he later stated were an influence in his decision to make artwork for the science fiction field. Whelan attended San Jose State University as an Art, and Biology (Pre-medicine) major in 1968. He did some illustration work for the Journal of Bone and Joint Surgery, but he found the field of medical art too limiting, so he instead abandoned his science studies in favor of the art path. In 1974 he was enrolled at The Art Center College of Design in Los Angeles, but landed his first commercial job within his first year of school.

For the past 35 years, Whelan has had a prodigious career, illustrating hundreds of book covers, and earning himself multiple awards and even a place in the Science Fiction Hall of Fame. Let me show you some of his work that I think exemplifies his skill as a cover art illustrator.

Source: Wonderworks
This set of works details the process behind the illustration for the book "Ensign Flandry" by Poul Anderson, 1979. Whelan starts with study drawings and sketches before his final acrylic painting on illustration board. Note the art director's comments to put the man and alien woman in more aggressive poses and to give the alien woman a more humanoid face.

Source: Wonderworks
Juxtapose the color sketch above with the final cover art on the left. You can clearly see the effect of the aggressive stance for both of the featured characters. There is a lot of information to be gleaned from this simple change.


Source: Wonderworks
This piece was for the book "Time and Again" by Clifford D. Simak, 1976. It is a great example of how Michael Whelan can convey a lot of information from the story in the limited space of the front cover.

Potential readers would want to know why the man's eyes are glowing, why his space suit is ripped, and what he is reading.

Source: Wonderworks
I am also quite impressed by his ability to make aliens and science fiction environments realistic. In this sketch the scale of the human astronaut and the alien creature are believable and even familiar.

Source: Wonderworks


"With Friends Like These," the cover painting for the book by Alan Dean Foster, 1997, actually features Whelan and his wife Audrey. They are sharing ice cream with a colorful cast of aliens. Look at the way the light from the window behind Audrey illuminates the characters, and notice the shadowing on both  humans and insectoids.


Entitled "Trantorian Dream," Whelan utilizes space, with ruins in the foreground, towers in the midground, and a galaxy in the background to show just how small the man is in comparison to the universe. 
The famous science fiction author Isaac Asimov praised Whelan by writing, "It seems to me to be rather marvelous to be able to illustrate not a concrete scene but an abstract imponderable, and in such a way that it seems to brighten and deepen the book even to the writer himself."

It is in this way that I find Michael Whelan's work to be superb. He is given a fictional book, a written world, and is asked to create a single image that can both attract the reader's attention and hint at what greatness there is inside. He must provide the starting point for reader's imaginations to transport them to alien worlds. Whelan's favorite quote, by G.K. Chesterton, sums up his role.

 "The dignity of the artist lies in his duty of keeping awake the sense of wonder in the world."


Whelan, Michael, Polly Freas, and Kelly Freas. Wonderworks: Science Fiction and Fantasy Art. Virginia Beach, VA: Donning, 1979. Print.

Google Images

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