Michael Whelan: The Brush Behind Metal’s Iconic Imagery

Meet Michael Whelan, the artist behind metal’s most iconic covers. From Sepultura’s chaos to Obituary’s death, his brush strokes are a visual anthem to the genre. Rock on through the art that’s as legendary as the music it represents.

Michael Whelan

The Birth of a Legend: Culver City’s Finest

Born on June 29, 1950, in Culver City, California, Michael Whelan was destined to paint the town red – and black, and every color in between. His childhood was a whirlwind tour of the U.S., thanks to his father’s career in the aerospace industry. Living near places like White Sands Missile Range and Vandenberg Air Force Base, young Michael was exposed to rockets and radars, but it was the paintbrush that truly launched his career into orbit.

At the tender age of 15, Whelan began formal art training at the Rocky Mountain College of Art and Design. Who knew that the boy sketching landscapes would one day sketch the landscapes of our nightmares? After earning his BA in Painting from San Jose State University and a stint at the Art Center College of Design, Whelan was ready to conquer the world, one canvas at a time.

From the Rocky Mountains to metal albums, Michael Whelan’s art is a journey through imagination and metal mayhem.

The Illustrator Extraordinaire: 30 Years of Visual Magic

For over three decades, Whelan worked as an illustrator, creating book and album covers that would make even Stephen King’s spine tingle. From Isaac Asimov to Ray Bradbury, from Brandon Sanderson to the legendary King himself, Whelan’s art adorned the covers of literary giants. But his brush didn’t stop at books; it rocked on to the world of metal music, painting covers for bands like Sepultura, Soulfly, and Obituary. If you’ve ever headbanged to a metal album, chances are, you’ve headbanged to a Whelan cover.

Since 1995, Whelan has pursued a fine art career, selling non-commissioned paintings through galleries and his website. But don’t think he’s gone all Monet on us; his art still screams metal, even when it’s whispering in a gallery. With over 350 book and magazine covers, including Anne McCaffrey’s Dragonriders of Pern series, Whelan’s art is as diverse as a mosh pit on a Saturday night.

Symbols, Quotes, and the Sense of Wonder

Whelan’s paintings are rich in symbolism, offering layers of meaning that would make even a philosophy professor’s head spin. His favorite quote from G.K Chesterton, “The dignity of the artist lies in his duty of keeping awake the sense of wonder in the world”, encapsulates his artistic philosophy. And let’s face it, if anyone can keep the sense of wonder awake, it’s the guy who painted the cover of “Beneath the Remains”.

Michael Whelan’s Iconic Album Covers

Sepultura: A Symphony of Skulls and Chaos

When Max Cavalera of Sepultura stumbled upon Michael Whelan’s “Nightmare in Red” from a series of H.P. Lovecraft books, he knew he’d found the perfect cover for “Beneath the Remains”. This iconic skull painting kicked off a fruitful collaboration between Cavalera and Whelan, resulting in classic album covers that are as legendary as Sepultura’s riffs.

“Beneath the Remains”: A Skull’s Tale

Whelan’s dark personal inspiration behind this iconic skull painting, combined with his connection to Sepultura’s energy and outrage, made this collaboration a headbanging success.

“Arise”: Lovecraft Meets Metal

A commissioned piece specifically for the album, “Arise” combines ancient relics with Lovecraftian horror vibes. The sepia tone and wide, ever-seeing eyes invoke a sense of esoteric terror that’s more metal than a guitar solo in a thunderstorm.

Other Sepultura Covers: A Gallery of Greatness

From “Chaos A.D.” to “Roots”, from “Slave New World” (EP) to “Third World Chaos” (Video), Whelan’s art adorned Sepultura’s discography like spikes on a leather jacket.

Obituary: Painting Death with a Brush

“Cause of Death” by Obituary is known as “Lovecraft’s Nightmare B”, and it’s easy to see why. This surrealist art captures the nightmarish, horrific atmosphere of the music, complete with gnarled trees composed of trapped souls and a blood-soaked death pit. It’s like a haunted house for your ears, with Whelan as the ghostly guide.

Demolition Hammer: A Violent Vision

“Epidemic of Violence” by Demolition Hammer features a detail from “Lovecraft’s Nightmare A”, expressive of a chaotic, mile-a-minute maelstrom with mangled skulls on poles. It’s the visual equivalent of a mosh pit, and it’s pure metal magic.

Cirith Ungol: From Moorcock to Metal

Whelan’s work for Cirith Ungol’s “King of the Dead” utilized his cover art from Michael Moorcock’s “The Bane of the Black Sword”. It resonates with Tolkien’s lore, particularly Aragorn’s encounter with the King of the Dead. And let’s face it, anything that combines Tolkien and metal is cooler than a frost giant’s freezer.

Other Notable Works: Meat Loaf and Magic

From creating album covers for iconic musicians like Meat Loaf to crafting images for Magic: the Gathering trading cards, Whelan’s art transcends genres and mediums. His Nalathni Dragon card is as legendary as his album covers, and that’s saying something.

Michael Whelan’s Lasting Influence in Metal

Whelan’s artwork has become synonymous with the visual representation of metal music. His distinctive style and ability to capture the essence of the music have made his album covers a badge of honor in the metal community.

His collaboration with bands like Sepultura and his unique style have left an lasting mark on the visual landscape of metal music. It’s like having Eddie the Head and Vic Rattlehead over for a jam session, and Whelan’s the lead guitarist.