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In the early 70s, artists the likes of Jeffrey Jones and Michael Kaluta congregated at Neal Adams’ studio in New York City. There they would speculate about some theoretical kid walking in off the street, fresh from who knows where, and blowing them all away with a style they’d never seen before.

That was the background chatter when Michael Whelan arrived from California in late 1974 to show Neal his portfolio, and indeed Whelan went on to transform the landscape of illustration for decades to come.

He accepted his first paperback cover assignment, The Enchantress of World’s End, from Donald A. Wollheim of DAW Books. He would soon add ACE and Del Rey to his list of clients making the ’70s busy years.

By the turn of the decade, Whelan was churning out iconic images: the consummate anti-hero Elric, the majestic dragons of Pern, and the vibrant landscapes of John Carter’s Mars. The early ’80s continued that trend in Sir Arthur C. Clarke’s 2010, Isaac Asimov’s Foundation series, and the first volume of Stephen King’s Dark Tower opus.

Whelan’s ascent was meteoric, earning him a Hugo by 1980. It would be the first of 13, not including a SuperHugo for the Best Artist of the Last 50 Years in 1992. Readers of Locus Magazine voted him Best Artist a staggering 21 years in a row. In 2009, his induction in the Science Fiction Hall of Fame was the first for a living artist.

But awards alone fail to convey Michael Whelan’s impact on the publishing industry. Whelan advanced illustration through a vibrant palette, a masterful grasp of anatomy, and an uncanny sense of wonder deeply grounded in realism. His influence can be seen in the work of so many fine illustrators today.

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