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Interview: Fantasy art legend Michael Whelan relates his vision of Deathwing

Fantasy art legend Michael Whelan's vision of Deathwing
Sometimes we're so busy geeking out over the ways Blizzard inspires us with World of Warcraft that we forget that behind the curtain, the folks at Blizzard are busy geeking out over the people and things that inspire them. So when we learned that Blizzard had commissioned fantasy art legend Michael Whelan to create a painting of Deathwing for Blizzard's headquarters, we knew we had to bring you the inside story of how this singular vision of the iconic dragon came to fruition.

The most honored artist in science fiction, Whelan has created book and album covers for authors and musicians like Isaac Asimov, Stephen King, Ray Bradbury, the Jacksons and Meat Loaf. He was inducted into the Science Fiction Hall of Fame in 2009, the first living artist to join such luminaries as H.G. Wells, Steven Spielberg, and Ursula K. Le Guin.

While Whelan actually executed the commission for Blizzard early last year, his enthusiasm for the project remains undimmed. The world-renowned painter of imaginative realism chatted with us about his rueful discovery of Deathwing's unique draconic qualities, his admiration for Blizzard's art team, and the special project he's working on now in memory of "Dragonriders of Pern" author Anne McCaffrey.

WoW Insider: Your artwork is such a part of the fantasy world that we need to go back a bit to get the full perspective of what you've done here, the long view you bring to an upstart like Deathwing.

Michael Whelan: It's been a little ways ... (laughs) I've been working at this for what, 35 years?

We have a Pern fan on staff who's curious about how you reconcile the stylistic differences between the art for Pern and art like what you've just done with Deathwing for Blizzard. Now that you're focusing more on fine art than illustration, was it odd to switch back to working on a commission with someone else's vision?

Yeah, it's really hard. Try as I might, there's always a period of adjustment between working on a commission piece and doing something for the gallery, where I'm just trying to satisfy my own aesthetic and intellectual sensibilities. It's funny; it can take me days, even, to switch gears and go from one mindset to the other.

Michael WhelanIt was particularly hard at the beginning of the project for Blizzard because I wasn't aware of all the specifics that surrounded the design of the dragon's body. I was a little freewheeling with that at the beginning, and I wasn't really paying attention to the details of his structure and what they were looking for in terms of character accuracy. But you know, after a while I got the hang of it, and having frequent email exchanges with Jeremy (Cranford, senior art manager at Blizzard and his contact for the project) was very helpful in that regard.

Deathwing is definitely not your average dragon, is he?

Yeah. With the Pern dragons, I've been working on them off and on so long that I feel like I have them in my blood. It's a funny thing you should mention that right now, because I'm in the middle of a painting for a Pern cover right now. Even though I'm dedicated to my gallery work, the illustration does pull me back every once in a while. It's just too much fun to resist. (laughs)

It must be hard to step back from any of those ideas and projects and approaches.

These days, I feel like I have to pay attention to all aspects of things. It gets really hard when you start thinking in terms of presenting yourself in social media or whatever. There's still some bias, especially in New York City for example, in the galleries, against illustration. So it's a weird thing. Even though I spent months developing my new web site, which just went live about a month ago, now I've got to start the process all over again because I want a separate website just dedicated to my gallery work.

It's exhausting sometimes that I have to spend time on that when I'd rather just be here in my studio painting. But you know, it's a reality of how the world is now, and we just have to deal with it.

Early concepts of Michael Whelan's vision of Deathwing
What caught your interest about the Deathwing project specifically?

The attraction of doing something specifically that had no connection with type. Virtually all my commissions during the course of my career have been from publishers or book companies, and with rare exception, and in most cases I've had to compose things to work around title type, the author's name, a UPC code on the back cover of the book, and considerations like that. To be able to do a commission piece where none of that was in my way of developing a grand and sweeping composition was extremely enticing. (laughs) So I jumped at that opportunity.

And plus, the exigencies of working in the publishing field kind of put a restriction on how large you can go with a painting. For Jeremy to commission me to do a painting that was sizable -- in this case, it was over 3 feet by 4 feet -- was also a very significant inducement for me. I didn't hesitate to jump at that opportunity.

Was there anything else that you found particularly compelling or unusual about the project?

Well, the sweep of the vision. Jeremy did a very good job, I gotta say, in our initial conversation in exciting me with the vision of Deathwing and the explosive energy that I had to get into the painting. A lot of my gallery work tends to be rather intellectual and sedate. The figures are almost statuesque, and there isn't a lot of action and movement in my gallery work.

So I had done a run of that, and Jeremy's timing was very good and I was really up for doing something that had some power and majesty and some fiery action in it. It couldn't have been better timed.

I like variety in my work. If I do a very large piece, a lot of times my response to that is to do a couple of small pieces. So if I've been doing things that one kind of feeling to it, I'm just naturally attracted to something that's on the opposite end of the spectrum.

It's funny -- I just finished doing a painting for a holiday card, and it's all sweetness and light and happy, furry animals and things like that. And yet the previous paintings I'd done just before doing that were horror pieces with monsters and mutants. I'm constantly ping-ponging between points of view on the world and what my work is showing. I kind of enjoy that. It makes life more interesting and fun for me.

Head study of Michael Whelan's Deathwing
Well, you certainly have plenty of fans interested in your work -- millions and millions of World of Warcraft fans who are intimately familiar with Deathwing!

The scope of the game and the base of enthusiasts who are involved in it is really staggering. You know, when I started in the world of publishing, I would be excited if I heard that the readership for a book that I'd done a cover for had reached as far as Europe, for example. I'd get feedback from a reader in Germany, for example, who'd seen a cover for one of my books, or someone in Great Britain.

But the gaming field is so worldwide and so international in scope that you feel like if you're involved with any aspect of it, as an artist, you're reaching to the entire planet. That's just an incredibly humbling realization.

Absolutely. And what was Blizzard's reaction?

It was very positive. I couldn't have been more pleased at the response; it was great.

Was there any feeling that you'd brought something new to Deathwing?

To be honest, when they first presented the project to me and I started digging into the reference material that Jeremy sent me, I was really humbled by the quality of the work already being done. The artists working for Blizzard, the names of whom I still don't know, who did the initial concept renderings of Deathwing are phenomenal. I remember sending an email to Jeremy saying, "These paintings are so good (laughing) -- why are you hiring me to do one?" Because they really were -- they're extraordinary. The artwork being done for this series is just legendary.

So I felt really honored that they wanted me to make a contribution when the work already being done was so good. My approach to it was I would try to be as accurate as possible to their modeling of the character but do it through my eyes and through my vision and try to satisfy my artistic concerns and also the expectations of the company and its fan base all at the same time.

It's kind of daunting, if I sit down and consider all the people I'm trying to please at the same time, but in the end when I'm standing in my studio in front of my easel looking at the artwork, I forget about that and it's just a dialog between me and the painting. Ultimately, I'm trying to satisfy the artist in me and hoping that my instincts in that regard are going to work for everybody else. And nine times out of 10, it does, thank goodness.

Early Michael Whelan sketches of DeathwingDo you know if there are any plans to produce prints of this that would be available to the game's millions of fans?

I haven't heard. I would dearly love to see such a thing happen. I've had numerous requests filter down to me through my website, so it's something I'd like to see happen. ... In fact, your mentioning that -- I'm going to make a note on my blotter here to make some phone calls and see if I can find out what the status is of that and if we can get the ball rolling.

We can only hope! I do want to touch briefly on some of the other work you've done related to games. Tell us about your Magic The Gathering card. What was it like doing something for a game with such a legacy of great art and an intense community interest in it?

Well I'm embarrassed to say I had no inkling of what I was involved with. The one card I did was done as a giveaway, a promotion at Dragon*Con many years ago. They asked me to do it, and they told me what they were going to do is print them up and then throw handfuls of them out to the crowd from the balcony during the course of the convention. So it was literally something that I did overnight. I had no inkling of what it was going to become.

It ended up being a very collectible card. In fact, I was fortunate to get my hands on a box of them early on when they had them printed, and I've exchanged several of those cards for things like doctors' visits and what-not. I have a doctor whose son collects the Magic cards, and he waived his fee in exchange for a signed card from me.

So that kind of thing has happened quite a bit, and I've come to realize how highly regarded the card is. In fact, if I'd know that it was going to be such a big deal, I would've spent more time on it and done (laughs) a better image. But I've been gratified by the response.

Early Michael Whelan sketches of Deathwing
What are you working on now? It's a Pern book?

It's a book honoring the memory of Anne McCaffrey. They asked me to do a painting for the cover of the book. It's not a large-press client that I've worked with before, but I was friends with Anne McCaffrey and enjoyed her writing so much that it was something I couldn't say no to. So I'm doing a painting that was one of the concept sketches for a book cover I'd done which she'd wanted me to do but we ended up doing a different cover approach for that book. So she's gone, but I'm hoping she'll be somewhere and be able to see I've finally done the painting that she wanted me to do.

So I'm doing that, and then I've got three or four book commissions to get out of the way and then I've got a lot of gallery work to get done, so I've got a full schedule for the next nine months, anyway. I'm thrilled -- I'm enjoying every day, I gotta say that. It's been terrific.

Visit Michael Whelan's extensive home on the web to learn more about him and his art, plus see the sketches and layouts that went into the production of the Deathwing commission.

"I never thought of playing WoW like that!" -- and neither did we, until we talked with Game of Thrones' Hodor (Kristian Nairn) ... a blind ex-serviceman and the guildmates who keep him raiding as a regular ... and a 70-year-old grandma who tops her raid's DPS charts as its legendary-wielding GM. Send your nominations to lisa@wowinsider.com.

Filed under: Interviews, 15 Minutes of Fame

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