The Wonderful Paperback Book Cover Art Of Illustrator Shannon Stirnweis
Time for something different. Time for me to pay tribute to a fellow illustrator: Shannon Stirnweis (b. 1931).
I’d never heard of Mr. Stirnweis until a few weeks ago. An item in the local paper caught my eye: Illustrator romances book covers. I began reading about Mr. Stirnweis. I learned that he, too, lived in New Hampshire, in a town not far from me. I learned Mr. Stirnweis had illustrated a great many paperback book covers during his long career. There was going to be an exhibit of his hand-painted cover illustrations. I made it a point to attend.
Mr. Stirnweis painted many Harlequin Romance covers. Here’s the first one he ever did. It’s a wraparound cover: the left-hand side corresponds to the book’s back cover; the tone is lighter to accommodate the text that would be added to the back cover. I got to see the actual oil painting at the exhibit: perhaps 4 feet long by 3 feet high. Very impressive.
Mr. Stirnweis was born in Portland, Oregon, and graduated from the Art Center College of Design in California. He worked as an illustrator in New York City for almost 30 years. He moved to New Hampshire in the late 1990s. Here’s another romance cover.
Like Norman Rockwell and many other illustrators, Mr. Stirnweis worked from photos. Rockwell often recruited neighbors to pose for his paintings. Harlequin, however, used professional models, including Fabio and Marla Maples. Has anyone ever asked me
to pose for a romance book cover? No. And it’s a shame… : )
Here’s one last romance cover, featuring some wonderfully detailed but unobtrusive background elements.
Mr. Stirnweis has also painted a great many western themes. Here’s a classic scene: the mailbag handoff from one Pony Express rider to another.
In an interview with a local paper prior to the exhibit, Mr. Stirnweis said his western book covers were a natural extension of the work he had done for Gothic and mystery novels. He seems to have a particular affinity for western scenes.
Was he always painting book covers? Hardly. Mr. Stirnweis has illustrated 35 children’s books, and done extensive work in both advertising and magazine illustration. He also served a term as president (1972-74) of the very prestigious Society of Illustrators in New York City.
I wasn’t surprised to find that his magazine clients included Outdoor Life, Audubon, and Field & Stream. Mr. Stirnweis has a rare gift for portraying the beauty and majesty of the great outdoors. You can see it clearly in the two western covers below.
One of the most enjoyable aspects of the exhibit, for me as a humorous illustrator, was a set of experimental pieces: stylized paintings where Mr. Stirnweis played with perspective and distorted three-dimensional space. They were a bit like seeing a “normal” painting in
a funhouse mirror. Here’s a restaurant scene. Now that’s a sports coat. And a hat.
To quote Mr. Stirnweis: “Mostly they were an experiment just to try out what worked and what didn’t, as well as to develop some samples.” I know exactly what he means. Here we see some rather surreal croquet at an English manor house.
I love his stylized take on A Christmas Carol: he manages to include almost all the key scenes and players in a single painting. At right: Doggie Bar. Naturally, the only one not drinking is the dog.
“It’s a field that largely doesn’t exist anymore. A lot of very good illustrators took part in that field for a number of years, so when I decided to feature my (cover) illustrations in the show, it was partly as a token of respect to the field.”
A very gracious gesture. Mr. Strirnweis is 81 years old, and still painting. Nowadays, he works as a gallery artist, exhibiting and selling his work through art galleries.
The photo below is from his website. I used Photoshop to give it a painted look. Thank you, Mr. Stirnweis. You are an inspiration, sir!
What do you think? Did you have a favorite among the above paintings? Ever buy a paperback book on the strength of the cover? Ever read a paperback and decided the cover was better than the book?? Hope you’ll leave a comment.
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