Ron Lesser painted covers for various romance imprints and subgenres, and my favorites are his Harlequin and Silhouette designs.
Artist: Ron Lesser
No, Ron Lesser never painted over photographs to create his ultra-realistic covers! But one could be forgiven for thinking so.
The master artist was a prolific book illustrator from the mid-1970s to the early 1990s. Lesser designed commissions for the top publishing houses of the day, including action-adventure, westerns, and romance.
Ron Lesser was born in New York City and studied at the Pratt Institute and then Art Students League of New York. He has won many awards from prestigious institutions such as the Society of Illustrators.
In the 1970s, Lesser made a name for himself by creating fabulous movie posters. He worked as a cover artist for about 25 years. He utilized white casein early on in his career before settling on oil. When digital art was introduced around 1992, it pushed him out of the field. Lesser maintained a commercial and fine art career, focusing on the American Civil War and portrait painting. He returned to the publishing world in the 2010s.
Ron Lesser painted covers for various romance imprints and subgenres, and my favorites are his Harlequin and Silhouette designs. The modern style of his art juxtaposed with vibrant images of couples in intimate embraces fit perfectly with contemporary romance.
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?
Gordon Merrick, Victor Gadino, and Peter and Charlie
Gordon Merrick created the legendary and popular Peter & Charlie gay romance series. The trilogy portrayed the first mainstream love story between two men that concluded happily ever after.
The books provided another milestone for same-sex fiction when reprinted in the 1980s. A young artist named Victor Gadino illustrated the iconic clinch covers. Never before had male couples been pictured so intimately on the front of romance novels.
On the front of The Lord Won’t Mind, the blond pair are gazing into each other’s eyes and reaching out to hold hands.
Gordon Merrick, Writer of Gay Melodramas and Romances
Gordon Merrick was born in Bala Cynwyd, Pennsylvania, in 1916. The new 20th century was moving on a more socially liberal trajectory. Merrick would be part of that cultural momentum.
The son of a stockbroker, Merrick studied French Literature at Princeton. He then got into acting, performing in several Broadway productions. Later, Merrick became a television screenwriter and journalist.
Merrick made history as one of the first novelists to depict graphic homosexual fiction for a mass audience. His tawdry novels were full of melodrama, sex, and beautiful men. Usually, they concluded in heartache for the main characters. Merrick’s books were tantalizing reads akin to those of Harold Robbins, Judith Krantz, or Jackie Collins, only much gayer.
Modern readers might chuckle at the almost-innocent vulgarity and campy nature of his works. Or they may cluck their tongues at the “outdated” themes and unapologetic preference for ultra-glamorous, gorgeous, continent-hopping, wealthy protagonists. Merrick essentially wrote man-on-man bodice rippers, after all.
Merrick wrote fourteen books over 40 years. He would die in Sri Lanka in 1988.
His final novel, The Good Life, was co-authored with his partner, Charles Hulse, and published after his death. Like most of Merrick’s books, it was a bestseller.
Merrick’s Peter and Charlie Trilogy
The Lord Won’t Mind, the First Mainstream Gay Romance (Sort of)
Merrick’s piece de resistance, The Lord Won’t Mind, came out in hardcover in 1970. The book told the turbulent and forbidden love story of two beautiful, blond Ivy Leaguers–one named Peter and the other Charlie.
It was a graphic page-turner and sold like pancakes at the old World’s Fair. The Lord Won’t Mind spent four months on the New York Times bestseller list.
The mass-market paperback edition was then released by the publishing house Avon in 1971. This was a year before they gambled on Kathleen Woodiwiss‘ slush-pile manuscript for The Flame and the Flower.
The Lord Won’t Mind (from left to right): Bernard Geis Publisher, 1970, first edition hardcover; Avon, 1971, paperback edition; Alyson Publications, October 1995 paperback edition
A Genuine Romance Novel About a Same-Sex Couple
Due to societal changes, there was a hungry audience out there for explicit fiction. Merrick’s work was just that: raunchy and schlocky.
“For the love of God, have mercy on my aching cock. I want you in bed.”
Readers anxiously hoped for the pair to end happily but were left hanging instead. It would take two more books detailing the erotic, taboo relationship for fans to find out what would happen. The sequel came out in 1972; the final book followed in 1974.
Enter Artist Victor Gadino, Another Gay Icon
The success of the series led Avon to give Merrick the star treatment. His books would now receive extra attention to detail—especially the cover art, an area where Avon excelled.
In 1977, an up-and-coming artist named Victor Gadino landed the job of creating new covers for Merrick’s backlist. He started with An Idol For Others. This mass-market paperback showed two males–one in a suit, the other shirtless–in a positively seductive manner.
“Avon books decided to rerelease the Merrick novels as typical mass-market romance paperbacks. Up until then they had simple covers and were sold in specialty shops or from “under” the counter. The head art director was a strong female with vision and a great eye.
“It was the early days of gay liberation and she recognized the time was right. She saw my talent and gay sensibility and gave me the assignment for the first cover, the most conservative one, An Idol for Others. I never met Mr. Merrick, but I was told he was not happy with the mature model I used and thought he looked too old.
“He was, however, very pleased with the eight covers that followed, all using handsome young models.”
One For the Gods (Charlie & Peter Book #2): More Gay Romance, But No HEA Yet
The sequels to The Lord Won’t Mind documented Charlie and Peter’s glitzy lifestyle as the golden duo engaged in a thrilling, illicit, on-again-off-again relationship. The second book, One For the Gods, introduced a third person into the mix to form a crazy love triangle.
First there was Charlie and Peter.
Their love affair broke a lot of conventions… but it didn’t break them all. For Peter and Charlie are in love–with each other–and with Martha. And Martha is passionately in love with them both.
From St. Tropez to Athens to Mykonos, this powerful, moving novel follows their devastating triangle of romance and desire through a world of sun-drenched pleasure and Mediterranean adventure.
The Gadino cover art is more intimate than the previous one, with the couple holding hands. However, the third wheel in this romance is prominently pictured, showing all is not well in paradise.
Forth Into Light (Charlie & Peter #3): A Gay Romance with a HEA
Finally, in 1974, Forth Into Lightconcluded the romantic series.
In the final chapter of the bestselling epic love story of Peter and Charlie, the two men are forced to fight for their relationship like never before
For two men with the looks of Adonis and Narcissus, it’s no surprise that Greece was the destination for a romantic getaway. Once there, however, the two men fall into the beds of others, with the duplicitous Martha striving to steal Charlie away from Peter after he has a moment of infidelity.
For the final installment of the Peter & Charlie Trilogy, Gordon Merrick widens his focus on the couple to include the village in which they’re staying, creating a web of deceit and lust that comes to a head in unexpected and satisfying ways, while the love between Peter and Charlie is tested repeatedly with the emergence of a passionate young man named Jeff. The bond between these two has spanned the years and the globe, but it could well meet its end here on the lush Greek shores.
Below is the original cover for the conclusion to Charlie and Peter’s epic romance. The artwork is neither overt nor titillating. The two hands reaching out to touch the other appear reminiscent of Michelangelo’s work in the Sistine Chapel.
Gadino Masterpiece: A Gay Romance Clinch Cover
Gadino’s clinch cover for the monumental gay romance Forth Into Light is more emotional and evocative than the original. The two men have their arms around each other’s shoulders. Their backs face the viewer as they stare out at an ocean sunset.
Readers knew this was not just another sex adventure by looking at the cover. This was a true romance novel, one for gay men.
The Peter and Charlie Trilogy by Gordon Merrick was monumental mainstream gay fiction. Unlike the slashy melodramas of the pulp era, the love story finished on a positive note. The protagonists got a joyful ending.
Merrick’s audience-pleasing, optimistic conclusion, and Gadino’s sensual clinch cover make the Peter and Charlie series–and Forth Into Light especially–pivotal in gay romance history.
Have you heard of or read Gordon Merrick and the first gay romance novel with a HEA? Did you know about Victor Gadino’s history-making 1980s clinch cover art for the reissue of the series? What do you think about these romances and covers?
As always, please drop a comment, and let’s talk romance.
Legendary romance cover artist Elaine Duillo passed away in June. We celebrate her life and career byt spotlighting her beautiful illustrations for some beloved books.
Artist: Elaine Duillo
The Queen of Historical Romance Covers
Elaine Duillo was the undisputed “Queen of Historical Romance” cover artist. She was a major force in the competitive field of pulp fiction artwork, where women were few and far between. Duillo painted hundreds of book covers and was an inductee of the prestigious Illustrators Hall of fame.
All that, plus Duillo was the matriarch of a talented artistic family.
Sadly, she passed away on July 30, 2021, at 93.
This amazing artist influenced generations of illustrators and revolutionized romance cover art. She helped give rise to the pop culture phenom Fabio. One of the covers I chose, Defy Not the Heart, features Fabio and was a favorite of Elaine’s. It is also my all-time favorite cover.
Although she created many gorgeous stepbacks, or “tip-ins,” as those in the industry called them, Duillo was not a fan. She believed the eye-catching covers she designed were meant to be seen, not hidden away. Yes, to that, I say. Display those gorgeous illustrations displayed proudly!
Sweet Savage Flame Remembers Elaine
Sweet Savage Flame laments her passing. Our thoughts and sympathy are with her family. We celebrate Elaine Duillo’s life as she brought much joy and beauty to countless tens of millions of readers worldwide.
Her legacy lives on through her stunning cover art, which will continue to inspire and captivate future generations. Thank you, Elaine, for your incredible contributions to the world of romance novels and cover art. Rest in peace.
The Covers by Elaine Duillo
Here is a small sampling of my favorite romance covers painted by the late, great Elaine Duillo for this week of Monday, August 16 – Sunday, August 22, 2021.