Books about love stories for teenagers have been popular forever. Just as the modern romance genre exploded in the 1970s, so too did the teen romance genre. Especially in the 1980s and 1990s, these books were ubiquitous.
There were dozens of paperback imprints for every kind of teenage romance. Historicals were just as popular as contemporaries. Bantam Starfire, Scholastic Sunfire were just two of the more popular series. Who among us who grew up during that era never read one of these love stories?
21 of the Best Historical Romance Cover Illustrators
I adore romances from the 1970s, 1980s, and 1990s, partly due to the beautiful cover art. Over the years, I’ve amassed thousands of dazzling images. It’s a fun hobby trying to discover the artists who created them.
This compilation began as an attempt to list the ten artists every lover of old-school romances and clinch covers should know. Ten became fifteen, then twenty. Finally, I settled on 21 illustrators to identify.
This catalog of names consists of some of the best romance cover artists of all time.
That doesn’t mean these are the only artists to know, as this list is limited to historical romances written in the last third of the 20th century.
These 21 entries provide a starting point for the novice learner.
1. Robert McGinnis
Robert McGinnis illustrated Gothic books before he turned to mainstream romance.
His first bodice ripper was Avon‘s reissue of Kathleen E. Woodiwiss‘ The Flame and the Flower. McGinnis then designed the cover for her sophomore outing, The Wolf and the Dove. His suggestive clinches for Johanna Lindsey, Patricia Hagan, and Laura Parker gained him acclaim and notoriety.
McGinnis worked almost exclusively in tempera paints.
His mature, angular style was an instant draw for romance. McGinnis created the first naked man covers, which delighted genre fans.
But it was the McGinnis woman who was a being of legend. McGinnis depicted the feminine form in a most alluring fashion.
“The McGinnis Woman possesses a whirling narrative force all her own, a perfumed cyclone of sexuality, savvy, mystery, and danger. She also sells books—lots and lots of books.”
The strokes are broad yet precise. Hall’s scenes contain a dark, smoky essence. The heroines’ long locks flow wildly, while the heroes’ faces are shadowed and inscrutable.
Hall had a sensitive, respectful touch when portraying people of different races and ethnicities. Thus his illustrations were prominent on paperbacks set all over the world.
3. Harry Bennett
Harry Bennett‘s dazzling style of swirls and whorls of flowing hair may be especially familiar to fans of Pocket Books‘ early historical romances. He created memorable covers for Victoria Holt, Phyllis Whitney, and Jude Deveraux.
While his work inspired many other artists, Harry Bennett’s covers have been confused with those of H. Tom Hall. While their depictions might appear similar, a keen eye needs only to look at the faces of the male models to spot the difference.
Of his artwork, Bennett’s son Tom, also a painter, said:
“My father had a great facility with mediums, and he experimented and adapted to new trends with different techniques. His favorite medium above all, in both his painting and illustration, was oil.
He also worked extensively in egg tempera, inks, and various combinations of tempera and oil. In the 1950s and early ’60s he worked a great deal in water-based media like gouache.
Later, he would occasionally work in acrylic. But late in his career, it was almost exclusively oil with a black oil medium.”
Elaine Duillo was the undisputed “Queen of Romance Covers.” She started in pulp fiction before moving on to Gothics and romance.
Duillo was not ashamed to be sexy and outrageous with her art. She embraced camp to the hilt. Her reverence for beauty and perfection made her creative style a wonder to behold.
Duillo’s technique was marked by hyper-realism, unparalleled attention to detail, and a vast palette of colors.
Elaine would paint light hues onto a black canvas. This achieved stunning results for elements such as platinum-blonde or red-gold flowing waves of hair or sumptuous, satin gowns that looked like one could touch them.
Duillo worked in acrylics and oils. She placed her signature, “Elaine,” as close to the bodies as possible.
Her daughter Melissa Duillo-Gallo also produced romance covers, in a manner similar to Elaine’s.
5. Pino Daeni
Pino Daeni’s brushstrokes, the curves of his feminine subjects, and their facial expressions make his covers uniquely recognizable.
Daeni was always willing to experiment with different methods and poses. He was one of the early artists to employ the wraparound cover design and the pose and clinch style.
Pino worked in oils and preferred to stand while painting.
Pino’s innovative technique precedes him. He mixed impressionism and realism to create his own intoxicating style.
“I used to paint in the academic way. Then I changed. I could no longer stay with just one school. Everything was interesting to me. I was curious about various schools of thought.”
6. Elaine Gignilliat
Elaine Gignilliat designed covers for hundreds of romances. Her artwork demonstrated exquisite attention to detail, especially with the textures of fabrics and hair. Her use of bright colors against dark backdrops made for remarkable images.
Like most other cover artists of her day, Gignilliat worked in oils.
Also, like many other of her contemporaries, Gignilliat designed covers for epic historical blockbusters and shorter category romances.
After making the initial sketches for a cover, she would start her paintings by drawing everything in oil with a small brush.
Next, she established the color values, where the darkest, middle tones, and lightest areas would be. Then she would add the general colors in a light oil wash.
Afterward, the real painting began as Gignilliat developed the faces and hands, giving them more color and form. This eventually resulted in a beautiful picture which was then made into a book cover.
Ginsburg’s book covers are more romantic than sensual. The edges of his subjects blur into the background,
While Ginsburg could display the human body in an alluring way, his covers were rarely gratuitous.
He has a compassionate eye that highlights the humanity of his subjects. Like H. Tom Hall, Ginsburg has a talent for empathetically painting people of diverse heritages.
Ginsburg’s style influenced many artists of Avon covers in the late 1990s and early 2000s.
8. Morgan Kane
No one could capture the ornate, intricate patterns of fabrics as Morgan Kanecould.
Whether presenting a lacy gown, a multi-textured cape, or a mosaic of hues on a blanket, Kane can make one can feel the material just as well as one sees it.
In contrast, he depicted human forms in a much softer manner. The difference between the grounded beauty of his subjects against ornate backgrounds, textiles, or flowers makes for a visual treat.
9. Robert A. Maguire
Robert A. Maguire was another of the many illustrators who created lurid pulp covers. While his pulp art was highly sexualized, his romance covers are more sedate.
An emotional connection is the focus, not sex. The faces of Maguire’s females are delicate, with thickly-lashed eyes and rosebud lips.
Maguire played light and dark tones against each other in an enchanting manner. His method is not surreal nor hyperreal. Instead, it is idealized unrealism, approaching the imagined perfection of a cartoon.
Like Elaine Duillo, Maguire often placed his signature–“R. A. Maguire”–as close to the bodies as possible, in the shade lighter than the background.
10. Roger Kastel
Famous for his movie posters, Roger Kastel‘s romance style shares similarities with that of Maguire & most significantly, Max Ginsburg.
Kastel favored a romantic, blurred technique instead of a precise, angular reality.
Kastel’s brushstrokes fused colors together, creating a hazy aura around the couples.
11. Walter & Marie Popp
Walter and Marie Popp designed Regency, Gothic, and bodice ripper covers. Each genre had its own method to it.
The Gothics were shrouded in darkness and mist.
Regencies were marked with a sweet, crisp quality.
For the historical romance covers, the Popps embraced sexy with their curvaceous heroines and muscular heroes.
The female faces look similar, as Walter often used his wife Marie, a model, as his muse. Their expressions are a variation of hers, from their full lips to their round eyes.
12. Victor Gadino
The great Victor Gadino‘s technique is masterful. His attention to fine detail is exquisite.
Note the musculature of the hero’s abdominal and pectorals, the lace on the hem of the heroine’s skirts, the silk pattern of pillows, and the heavy-lidded eyes in the hero’s lusty expression.
His use of jewel-tone colors results in covers that sparkle like precious gems.
More than any other artist since Elaine Duillo, Gadino’s art is typified by a carnal sensuality. His approach is hyperrealistic, with figures as close to perfection as the human eye can conceive.
13. Sharon Spiak
Sharon Spiak’s mentor, the Italian master artist, Pino Daeni, was a massive inspiration to her when she was his apprentice.
She painted in oils, creating an atmosphere of enchantment always backed by passion. Spiak’s paintings for romance novels capture sensuality, beauty, and fantasy by captivating the viewer in the intimacy of the moment.
Her approach differs from cover to cover. There is always a delicacy to the females’ features and a lovely interplay of pastels against darker tones.
14. John Ennis
John Ennis utilizes a “Disney Princess” method of painting, as his human images are beautiful but unrealistic. His covers have a fanciful, almost cartoon-like, fairy-tale quality. His work is based more on fantasy than romanticism.
Ennis played around with shades of light and contrasting hues, resulting in striking covers that made him a natural fit for Zebra.
If one notes the texture of the heroines’ hair, one can see individual strands and curls against blocks of solid color.
Like Franco Accornero, John Ennis was an early innovator of digital artwork.
15. Franco Accornero
Franco Accornero, also known as “Franco,” pioneered computerized art design. Due to his fascination with the capabilities of technology, Franco always pushed boundaries.
Before he transitioned to digital artwork in the 1990s, Franco worked primarily in oils.
As an independent freelance artist, he was responsible for all cover design elements, from setting up the scene to models, costumes, and props. He arranged various poses with different lighting arrangements.
His fine director’s eye created a dramatic and flattering balance of light and shadow.
Franco would use a wind machine in the photo sessions to get that flowing hair look.
16. Renato Aime
Renato Aime worked primarily in oils in addition to other mediums. He frequently designed covers for Dorchester and Kensington, two publishing houses that hired artists with an eye for the outlandish.
Aime captured the curvaceous female forms in contrast against the more rigid muscles of the males in a most pleasing way.
While Aime’s technique is recognizable as his own, it does bear some resemblance to his fellow Italian illustrators. One can see similarities to the covers of Pino Daeni and Franceso Accornero. Note the blending of colors and the identifiable strokes.
Elaine’s work is titillating and highly elaborate. Melissa’s art tends to the sweeter side with more playful emotions. Duillo-Gallo applied flamboyantly bright colors, exemplifying the feel of the 1980s and 1980s.
After she married, Melissa signed her covers as Gallo, not Duillo. Unlike her mother, she usually placed her signature away from the bodies.
Melissa also used less eyeshadow than her mother did, which is saying something!
18. Gregg Gulbronson
Gregg Gulbronson utilized a distinctive approach, making his covers both breathtaking and easy to recognize. Romance, sexuality, fantasy, and reality all meld together in Gulbronson’s art.
Gulbronson used spraying/airbrushing techniques, which made for a striking and individualized look.
Enveloped in a romantic haze, the couples in clinches are surrounded by a dreamy ambiance. The figures seem to glow as the light plays against their hair, skin, and clothes.
19. Ray Kursar
Ray Kursar was yet another artist with a noticeable style. His paintings look more like drawings. Kursar worked with multiple mediums to create his illustrations, such as pastels and watercolors.
He employed various elements to make his covers stand out: emphasis on bright colors, flowers, animals, and fabrics.
Hair is constantly flowing in the wind, while the locks of waves and curls are well-defined.
20. James Griffin
James Griffin‘s covers from the 1980s and 1990s are quite distinct from his 21st-century ones, even though both periods are stunning.
The late-era clinches are made digitally and approach hyperrealism.
Griffin’s illustrations of the “classic” era are more dramatic, with windswept hair and passionate embraces. The couples are shown leaning back or lying down, rarely standing straight up.
His graceful aesthetic resulted in book covers that emotionally resonated with the romance reader.
Geer’s style is so distinct. There is much going on in his images, whether sketches or paintings.
His attention to the tiniest of subjects amazes the eye. He used uniform brush strokes to create spectacular backgrounds, intricate curls in the hair, or elaborate textures in clothing. The bright pigments twinkle like stars against their darker settings.
Geer’s scenes appear dream-like but are far more memorable.
Final Thoughts on Cover Artists
Sweet Savage Flame believes it’s essential to keep the memory of these skilled cover illustrators and their works alive.
Hopefully, by familiarizing yourself with these artists’ techniques, you’ll quickly identify their covers on sight. No more having to confirm with a signature!
Do you think this a fair compilation of some best romance cover artists? Who are your favorite old-school illustrators?
Is there an artist you think we should have placed on this list but missing? What are your thoughts on painted versus digital cover art?
Jon Paul Ferrarais one of the most talented artists/photographers in the industry today. His covers appear regularly in the most select novels, particularly romance. Ferrara started his work in the 1990s for publishing houses such as Harlequin Historicals and Kensington’s Zebra imprints.
Ferrara studied his craft at the New York Academy of Fine Arts. He also attended the prestigious National Academy of Design.
Like Pino or Franco, Jon Paul Ferrera is widely known by his first–and (in this case) also middle–name, Jon Paul. He was one of the early innovators of digital covers. Jon Paul’s style has evolved over the years, but his signature is as noticeable as ever.
Since the fusion of digital, photography, and old-fashioned painting/illustration, he has been one of the most sought-out and popular cover artists.
Ferrara’s artwork has received more than 20 awards for excellence from the Romance Writers of America, often placing in two or more of the top ten positions.
Ever vigilant in expanding his horizons, Jon Paul pursues his fine art as well as his commercial ventures. Both are enjoyed by thousands of fans that visit his website every year.
For our Covers of the Week for Monday, September 12, 2022, to Sunday, September 18, 2022, we’re highlighting the early romance covers designed by Jon Paul Ferrara.
Like bodice rippers of yesteryear, model Fabio Lanzoni has been unfairly maligned and mocked by many modern romance readers. There’s a sentiment of contempt displayed at the old clinch covers, with some even declaring that they, along with Fabio, represented a low point in the genre.
As a fan of Fabio and old-school romance, I cannot emphasize how wrong I think these detractors are.
The painted covers of vintage romances were created by talented artists who used beautiful men and women as models. The covers were works of art, despite–or perhaps because of–their gratuitous sexual nature.
Fabio, More Than Meets the Eye
Lovers of romance should embrace that period in history. They fail to understand that model Fabio Lanzoni was supposed to be over-the-top and outlandish. He was advertising an exaggerated fantasy that we all knew was a bit ridiculous.
In trying to defend their beloved books, some fans take them too seriously. The romance novel industry has always been outrageous and irreverent by its nature, which is part of the fun.
We romance readers in the 1990s were far savvier than our contemporaries give us credit for. We were in on the joke. It was about all of us enjoying the show. Fabio always laughed along with us, embracing his beefcake status.
Fabio Lanzoni was born in Milan, Italy, on March 15, 1961. His father was Sauro Lanzoni, a mechanical engineer and owner of a conveyor-belt company. Flora Carnicelli Lanzoni, his mother, was a former beauty queen. He was raised in a loving family with siblings. As a child, Fabio was even an altar boy.
Fabio grew into a handsome young man. His large, muscular figure made him natural for the camera.
His career began at age 14 when he was discovered by a photographer who asked him to model for Italian Vogue magazine.
Following a stint in the army, Lanzoni came to the United States to further develop his career. He moved to New York City to become a fashion and catalog model and signed with the Ford Agency.
During the early part of his modeling career, Fabio obtained many jobs in print ads, magazines, and books. He also posed on video game covers.
Fabio made his first appearance on the cover of a romance novel in 1987. He posed on the back of the Bertrice Small bodice ripper, Enchantress Mine, as the ironically and unfortunately misnamed villain, Eric Longsword.
Legendary artist Elaine Duillo discovered Fabio through photos. She thought there was something unique about him that would make him a natural fit for her colorful work.
When Duillo designed her first cover for Johanna Lindsey, she used Fabio as the hero. This was the 1987 Viking romanceHearts Aflame. It was a smash hit, reaching number 3 on the N.Y. Times bestseller list.
Duillo would continue to paint Lindsey’s covers for the next decade until she retired in the early 2000s. She used Fabio as her primary male model for Lindsey’s books.
The Covers: Part I
Some Fabio covers:
A Romance Sensation
Fabio was not Duillo’s official muse as a model. Even so, no other artist captured Fabio’s look better than she did. However, Elain and Fabio only worked together on fewer than twenty books. Duillo painted other models— female and male– much more than that, including Chad Deal. (40+ vs. 19).
Fabio posed solo for a couple of Laura Kinsale’s books. The first and most notable was The Prince of Midnight. This romance was a roaring success. This was not just because of the fine quality of Kinsale’s writing.
Editors found that Fabio’s image boosted book sales. All the major publishers were eager to use him. Avon, Bantam, Dell, Dorchester, Harlequin, Warner Books, Kensington (Zebra), and others had him pose as their leading men.
Model Lianna Loggins was undoubtedly one of the female models who appeared on most romance novel covers with Fabio: at least a hundred.
Pop Culture Status
By the early 1990s, Fabio was fully entrenched as a romance genre staple. The now-defunct Romantic Times had him as their centerfold in 1992. Fabio appeared at numerous conventions, to the delight of his many fans.
Fabio’s fame grew more prominent in the cultural zeitgeist after being made the official face of I Can’t Believe It’s Not Butter! He starred in a series of campy commercials that were enormously successful.
Later, he was a spokesman for the American Cancer Society. This was personal to him, as he lost a sister to the deadly disease.
Eventually, Fabio made his way to screen and television, such as in the daytime soap opera The Bold and the Beautiful and in movies like Dude, Where’s My Car?
Fabio, the Romance Author & Modelling Legacy
As time went on, Fabio even wrote a few novels himself. He published several books that–naturally–featured him on the cover. Fabio came up with an overall plot and gave dictation for dialogue.
Journey-woman Eugenia Riley ghostwrote most of his books for Avon. He also wrote three more books in collaboration with Wendy Corsi Staub that Pinnacle Books published.
As a model, Fabio was featured on many romance covers, posing for 466 novels (or more).
Fabio officially retired in the late 1990s, except to pose for the books “he” wrote.
Nevertheless, some of his photos from previous assignments were recycled into new covers. Elaine Duillo used the sketches from the shoot for Rebecca Brandewyne’s Swan Road stepback to transform them into a new stepback cover for Johanna Lindsey’s Joining.
Joining, Johanna Lindsey, Avon, 1999, Elaine Duillo cover art
Fabio became a U.S. citizen in 2016.
He still maintains a grueling workout regimen to keep his body in tip-top shape. Fabio also purportedly sleeps in a hyperbaric chamber, which he says “Helps reverse the aging process.”
Now in 2021, Fabio is still as handsome as ever at the age of 61.
To this day, he remains a bachelor. However, the word is out he’s finally looking for a lady to settle down with. So there is still hope for that special someone!
Final Thoughts on Fabio
Fabio was not the first, and likely, he won’t be the last superstar cover model. During Fabio’s reign as “King of the Romance Covers,” other sunning men like John DeSalvo and Steve Sandalis achieved acclaim.
After his retirement, Rob Ashton, Cherif Fortin, and Joe Anselmo rose to stardom. All of them had long hair like Fabio–although they were brunets. (So is Fabio, naturally. He dyed his hair blond.)
For lovers of throwback historical and gothic romances, vintage pulpy reads and spy thrillers, or old movies and magazines, the name Robert McGinnis might be familiar. If it isn’t, then his works of art surely are.
For lovers of throwback historical and gothic romances, vintage pulpy reads and spy thrillers, or old movies and magazines, the name Robert McGinnis might be familiar. But if it isn’t, then his works of art are. I consider McGinnis, along with H. Tom Hall and Elaine Duillo, the holy triumvirate of old-school pulp-gothic-romance cover illustrators, although who is the best can be debated.
The Art of Robert McGinnis is a glorious book depicting hundreds of beautiful McGinnis images.
Born in 1926, McGinnis has spent over 70 years creating book covers for almost every genre, magazine illustrations, portraits, and movie posters, such as the “Breakfast at Tiffany’s,” featuring Audrey Hepburn. He has worked almost exclusively in tempera paints.
After the paperback was introduced into the US by Pocket Books in 1939, the business model was for tasteful illustrations, and chic graphic design, almost like mini hardcovers.
When other publishers like Dell and Fawcett began producing their paperbacks, they appealed to a more pulp/comic-book-oriented market. McGinnis’s art was tailor-made for these kinds of books, especially the hardboiled mysteries.
Romance Book Covers and More
He started with covers for characters Mike Shane, Perry Mason, and Carter Brown, grew into spy thrillers like James Bond, and eventually entered the romance genre.
It was a logical choice, as McGinnis had a talent for depicting the feminine form most erotically (as well as males). He started in Gothics and then soon became the first Bodice ripper illustrator for works by Kathleen E. Woodiwss, like The Flame and the Flower:
And later, The Wolf and the Dove:
But he became super notorious for his Johanna Lindsey covers, starting with Fires of Winter (Haardrad Viking Family, #1) by Johanna Lindsey, which began a rage of naked men covers, where the hero would wear less clothing than the heroine. I loved that cover and remember sketching it over and over as a young teen. Supposedly, he painted this one where both hero and heroine were nude and had to cover up the heroine as an afterthought. No matter, I always thought the sight of those pale, naked men’s thighs was one of the most arousing things I’d ever seen. I eternally prefer them to jacked-up bare chests that inundate so many modern covers.
McGinnis’s cover for Lindsey’s Tender Is the Storm by Johanna Lindsey was hugely controversial, with many stores refusing to sell the book. Stickers had to be sent to booksellers to cover up the hero’s naked butt. (It does look like the hero is giving the heroine a gold ole titty bang, doesn’t it?
Besides Gothics and Bodice Rippers, other famous books McGinnis illustrated were epics like The Clan of the Cave Bear, Mandalay, and The Merry Adventures of Robin Hood, which required extravagant wraparound covers in intimate detail.
Lover of the Female Form
Whatever modern art enthusiasts may have to say about McGinnis, there is no denying that he adored the female form. “The McGinnis woman” was plastered on hundreds of covers. Lawrence Block of the NY Times notes on the back of The Art of Robert McGinnis, “[He] can paint anything– a movie poster, a western landscape–and draw you in. But when he paints a woman, he makes you fall in love.”
“The McGinnis Woman is a mix of a Greek goddess and man-eating Ursula Andress. While today she might be interpreted as a sex object or adornment, she was conceived, in her day, to represent the empowered woman. The McGinnis Woman possesses a whirling narrative force all her own, a perfumed cyclone of sexuality, savvy, mystery, and danger. She also sells books—lots and lots of books.”
Besides his hundreds of book covers, McGinnis is responsible for famous movie posters such as the aforementioned “Breakfast at Tiffany’s,” “Barefoot in the Park,” “The Odd Couple,” “Barbarella,” several Blaxploitation films, and most famously, the James Bond films.
I’m a Roger Moore fan (of course I would be), and I like this one from “Live and Let Die,” although McGinnis’s representation of Jane Seymour as Solitaire is slightly off.
Some of my favorites:
The Girl Who Cried Wolf:
Cotton Comes to Harlem:
As Old as Cain: (The woman is depicted after Goldie Hawn, the man after James Coburn. Can you tell?)
And this is McGinnis’s own favorite picture:
A Cat with No Name:
Opinion on The Art of Robert McGinnis
Don’t be fooled by the raunchy pictures and book covers. McGinnis has a fine eye for land and seascapes and personal portraits, as he painted Princess Diana.
I enjoy art, but I’m certainly no expert on it. I see what I like and know I like it. For me, Robert McGinnis is a genius of the 20th century, and hopefully, his legacy will live on for ages to come.