I had the pleasure of meeting Sarah Wendell, owner of the amazing website devoted to romance novels, both past and present: Smart Bitches Trashy Books
I recommend visiting the site to see the full context of the article, as well as getting her fun, interesting and informative look into the paperback industry.
Here's an excerpt, including the cover process I used before the advent of Digital Painting:
Sarah: For the covers, I'm really curious how you got started doing cover illustrations.
Joe: When I was an art student at Pratt Institute, Charles Gehm was one of my instructors. He was a wonderful Paperback artist and an excellent teacher as well. At the time, in the early eighties, he was known for creating almost all of the Danielle Steel covers for Dell.
Charlie took me under his wing, and shared all the details of the creative process for creating a romance novel cover. I soaked it all up and followed every bit of his advice.
He was fantastic, encouraging, offered firm criticism and great influence. He helped guide me with my final portfolio and by the time I graduated in 1984, I was doing portfolio “drop-offs” with all the major publishers in New York.
I was lucky enough to land my first job one month after I graduated; with a cover for Scholastic Books that featured two kids in front of a haunted house. When I turned it in, the art director David Tommasino liked it so much he assigned me six more covers on the spot! Well, that's proof that it only takes one lucky break, and I was in the right place at the right time.
After that, it was a bit easier to get work with the other publishers, because I had some real published work to show. There were a lot of Young Adult books being published in the mid 80's, and a lot of category romance as well. Many illustrators specialized in both genres, so it was a natural progression for me to take on romance cover assignments in addition to my Young Adult work.
It wasn't long before I was working on Dell's Candlelight Ecstasy series and many Harlequin series, including Silhouette Desire, Man-of-the-Month, American Romance, and Harlequin Intrigues.
Sarah: What cover portraits were memorable for you? Are there some that stand out?
Joe: Probably the most memorable assignment I had was in that first batch of six covers I did for Scholastic, three of the assignments were a trio of covers for the Collier Brothers books–starting with My Brother Sam is Dead, followed by The Bloody Country and The Winter Hero. I was 22 when I created those covers and Brother Sam is still in print today, so it's easy for me to remember much of the process. I designed all three covers together, and each featured the main character with a montage of scenes from the book along the side of the design. Each one was slightly different, but had a similar composition.
I remember getting all the costumes together; revolutionary war uniforms and clothing styles from the1770's. I shot all three covers at once to save some money, since the costumes and props were so elaborate. It was so early in my career, I must admit that I was a little overwhelmed, but I was determined to do a bit more than the standard cover of the young hero fighting in the war-torn fields. I wanted to focus on the main characters, since they were each so strongly depicted in the context of the novels.
I still look back at those covers with some fondness, although they technically show that I was young, and had lots to learn ahead as an artist!
Sarah: What was the process of creating a cover?
Joe: All of my covers were done as photo-realistic oil paintings and they were scanned or photographed for the printing process. I was only responsible for the image, the Art Directors created the title text and general layout of the final cover. I was usually given a story fact sheet with the exact requirements of the cover, the look of the characters, and locations.
I then assembled my research reference materials to match the story and the scene I was illustrating for the book. I always used professional models and a photographer to shoot my reference. I used Michel Legrou, owner of Media Photo Group, and he is one of the best photographers for romance!
After shooting the models in the photo studio, I edited all the photos down to a final pose that fit the story.
Using the photographs, I created a black and white pencil sketch with lots of detail to show the layout, design, and pose of the purposed cover.
After the sketch was approved by the Art Director, I had the sketch photographed, and the reference slides printed out to full color prints. I transferred my approved sketch to the final canvas, and sometimes did an under-painting in a warm monotone to start my painting.
Finally, I was ready to start painting the final artwork, usually taking about a week to complete the final oil painting. I can remember carrying many wet paintings on the crowded subways of New York as I was delivering the art to the client!
Sarah: I find the changing images on romance covers fascinating. In the years you were working on cover art, did you notice any changes or trends?
Joe: Yeah, there were many trends that came and went over the years! I can remember a long run of male heroes portrayed as cowboys or mountain men. Another trend was the female heroine as a bride, complete with wedding gown, veil, and bridal nosegay. I think the most unusual, if not short-lived ideas was showing the heroine pregnant with child! And let's not forget the poses with a dominant heroine versus a passive hero, that was always a favorite.
However, with all these trends the one constant factor in every cover was the publisher’s commitment to research what their readers wanted to see. We took great care in matching the cover images to the stories that the readers themselves wanted to experience and read about. I never forgot that I was creating a cover that would spark the imagination of the reader, and my goal was to keep it as realistic as possible.
I always tried to make the characters and situations believable. When I look back over my work, I can see my own artistic trends and styles that have stayed constant. I typically used warm earth tones with some cool accent colors to offset the warmth. I created nearly 200 covers over my career, and each one was a learning experience–I never took the work for granted.
Today of course, the covers are created in Photoshop and it's a completely different way of working from the days of oil paint and canvas. I left the romance field in 1998 to pursue a career as a Digital Artist for motion pictures, and so I lost touch with paperback publishing over the many years. Although now, I must admit I miss the cover work, and I often think of going back to book illustration someday. I would be interested to see just how I might approach a cover with my computer skills, and how my film career might influence my thought process. I know I will always work to create something of visual interest to somehow connect with the viewer. After all, that's the fun of being an artist!