Michael Whelan was born in Culver City, California, the son of William and Nancy Whelan. As a child, he had a nomadic existence, moving nearly every other year due to the demands of his father's aerospace industry career. He grew up in Colorado, several cities along the California coast, and in New Mexico (near the White Sands Proving Ground). Whelan's time near White Sands proved a lasting influence; in a 2000 interview, he noted that he couldn't "deny that living near to missile launching sites and Air Force bases had an impact. It was always thrilling to watch them go up...and sometimes blow up" (AudioBookCafe.com).
By the time Whelan was in high school, his family had moved to Denver. It was there that he began his formal training in art, taking summer classes at Denver's Rocky Mountain College of Art and Design. By his final year of high school, his family had moved again; this time to San Jose, California, where he graduated from Oak Grove High School (San Jose, California) in 1968.
He attended college at San Jose State University. While at SJSU, he worked in the Anatomy and Physiology Department, gaining a first-hand knowledge of human anatomy. According to Whelan, his job "involved all sorts of tasks related to the anatomy department, such as preparing cadavers for the classes, stringing bones together to make complete skeletons, making models of body parts, some medical illustration, etc." (Delos). Some of Whelan's college medical drawings appeared in The Journal Of Bone And Joint Surgery.
After graduating from SJSU in 1973 with a BA in Painting (as a "President's Scholar"), Whelan studied at the Art Center College of Design in Pasadena, California for nine months from 1973–1974. In 1974 Whelan exhibited his work at the World Science Fiction Convention in Washington D.C., where it was seen by Thomas Schluck, who first discovered his work and contracted to use it in European publications shortly afterwards. Donald A. Wollheim of DAW Books gave Whelan his first American professional assignment—the cover to Lin Carter's fantasy novel, The Enchantress of World's End, after seeing Whelan's artwork in a set of slides Whelan submitted in August 1974.
Since he was already receiving offers for assignments Whelan left the Art Center College of Design to pursue illustration full-time. In 1975, he moved to Connecticut so as to be near the New York City hub of the publishing industry. There he met Audrey Price—originally his landlady—whom he was eventually to marry.
Whelan quickly gained a reputation as a talented, imaginative, and dependable cover artist, working for science fiction and fantasy publishers such as DAW Books, Del Rey, and Ace. Whelan credits the 1979 publication of Anne McCaffrey's best-selling The White Dragon featuring his cover art as a turning point in his career. He won his first Hugo Award for Best Professional Artist in 1980 at the Noreascon II Worldcon in Boston. In his career to date, Whelan has won fifteen Hugos—more than any other artist.
Whelan makes a practice of reading the entire book that he seeks to illustrate, usually twice. "I try to let the book I'm illustrating determine the approach and subject matter," he stated (Delos). Not surprisingly, Whelan's close attention to the work he illustrates has made him popular with writers. Fantasist Michael Moorcock wrote of Whelan, "I am more than usually grateful for an artist who not only depicts him [Elric] as I imagine (and describe him) but who also manages to capture some of the appropriate atmosphere" (Wonderworks, p. 36). Science fiction writer Anne McCaffrey praised him, declaring, "Fortunate indeed is the author who has Michael Whelan for an illustrator" (Wonderworks, p. 55).
He illustrated the cover for Meat Loaf's 1993 album Bat out of Hell II: Back into Hell. He also provided several illustrations for the insert booklet, which were also used for the single releases such as "I'd Do Anything for Love (but I Won't Do That)". Larger versions of his artwork were featured in the album's 2002 special edition release.
Whelan currently lives in Danbury, Connecticut, where his wife Audrey Price oversees their Glass Onion Graphics gallery. In recent years, he has begun to move away from commissioned illustration work, preferring to concentrate on gallery pieces and "self-commissioned" works.
In 2003, a Flash animation slideshow titled Family Art Corner was released anonymously, alleging that a woman named Jan McRae had plagiarized the work of many artists, including Whelan, for reproduction in proselytization tracts printed by the Children of God cult. Whelan's works, White Wolf and Swords Against Nehwon were compared. After the slideshow was released, Karen Zerby, leader of the Children of God acknowledged that McRae had copied the work of others, as did McRae herself, and McRae admitted wrongdoing.
Whelan's work has been widely honored both inside the science fiction and fantasy field and beyond. His honors and awards include: