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The Wonderful Paperback Book Cover Art Of Illustrator Shannon Stirnweis

June 13, 2012

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.

Shannon Stirnweis's first Harlequin romance paperback book cover, showing a man and woman embracing on a sandy beach, with ocean waves breaking in the background

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.Romance paperback book cover by illustrator Shannon Stirnweis, showing a man and woman kneeling in a near-embrace next to some ancient Mayan ruins suggesting an archeological theme

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.

Harlequin romance paperback book cover by illustrator Shannon Stirnweis, showing a beautiful couple man and woman about to kiss in front of a gothic Southern mansion with flowers and spanish moss hanging in the background

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.

Paperback book cover for a western by illustrator Shannon Stirnweis, showing a handoff between two Pony Express riders with a log cabin station office and corral and majestic mountain range and western sky in backgroung

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.

In the painting below, I especially like the dust that’s billowing in through the saloon door, suggesting the hero has just ridden up. Is he the hero? I’m sure I see the glint of a sheriff’s badge…art for western paperback book cover by illustrator Shannon Stirnweis, showing gunslinger who's just entering swinging doors to saloon and is confronting several cowboy outlaw bad guys who are about to draw their guns

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.

two illustrations by Shannon Stirnweis for western paperback books, one showing a snow winter scene with a mountain man fur trapper on his horse with a rifle, the other a cabin and corral and a homesteader couple with mountains and brooding red western sky in background

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. experimental, highly stylized painting by illustrator Shannon Stirnweis, distorting shapes and perspective, going for surreal look, exaggeration, showing couple at table in posh restaurant

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.
experimental, highly stylized painting by illustrator Shannon Stirnweis, distorting shapes and perspective, going for surreal look, exaggeration, odd neon lighting effects, showing lawn party and man playing croquet on lawn of 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.two experimental, highly stylized paintings by illustrator Shannon Stirnweis, distorting shapes and perspective, going for surreal look, exaggeration, odd lighting effects, one showing Ebenezer Scrooge and scenes and vignettes from Charles Dickens' A Christmas Carol, the other called Doggie Bar showing couple and a dog in bar with deliberately warped perspective and three-dimensional space

Mr. Stirnweis decided to feature his book covers in the exhibit because hand-painted cover illustrations are becoming a lost art.

“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!photo of illustrator Shannon Stirnweis, who painted many paperback book covers featuring Harlequin romance and cowboy and western themes, photo enhanced in Photoshop to give it a painted look

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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27 Comments leave one →
  1. June 13, 2012 10:39 AM

    Hi Mark,
    You always come up with an unexpected treat when you publish. This is such an interesting collection of hand painted cover images. It’s amazing to me that as I looked at the first few that I thought I recalled seeing a couple of them. My mom read Harlequin romances and had a huge collection of them so maybe I did see them before. What a talented illustrator Mr. Strirnweis is. My favorite images in this collection are the last four images.


    • June 13, 2012 3:38 PM

      Thanks, TT, for that very supportive comment, glad you enjoyed the post.

      Yes, that was quite an exhibit. There’s something lightweight about digital illustration and web graphics. They don’t seem entirely real to me sometimes. But to stand in front of these enormous oil paintings and actually see the individual brushstrokes… well! I was enormously impressed.

      Coming back from the exhibit, I had the same thought I’ve had many times coming home from a show at a regional summer playhouse. I’ve just seen unknown actors turn in performances about a million times better than anything I see in movies or television. How can this be? Why aren’t these people famous?? I felt the same way about Mr. Stirnweis. Still, it’s an old story when it comes to illustrators: for every Norman Rockwell, there are thousands of incredibly talented artists who remain virtually unknown. Take me, for example… : P

      That was funny about your mom and the Harlequin romances. I know there’s a lot more competition now in romance publishing, but when I was a kid, Harlequin Romances were the only game in town. And like mystery readers, romance readers tend to accumulate large collections… : )

      Thanks again for your support and your very kind feedback!


      • June 25, 2012 1:29 PM

        I’m so sorry it took me this long to get back here. I would have loved to have seen this exhibit. It’s my opinion that there are all kinds of artists (like you) and musicans and actors who never get the respect they are due and never achieve “fame,” despite their obvious talent.


        • June 25, 2012 11:13 PM

          A lovely sentiment, TT. It made me smile, and warmed my heart. Of course, blogging is also an art form, and you have yet to see the recognition you deserve.

          On the other hand, fame would surely corrupt our pure and noble natures! Let’s agree to postpone it, at least for a little while… : )


  2. June 13, 2012 10:39 AM

    I love the quality of light in his paintings, it really adds to the mood


    • June 13, 2012 3:49 PM

      Thanks, Tania. I certainly do agree. The light in those romance covers seems to glow and wrap itself around you. And looking at those incredible western vistas, I can almost feel the wind in my hair! Yup, they coulda made some money at that exhibit selling combs… : )

      Thanks so much for stopping by. Wonderful to have feedback from a superbly talented photographer like yourself. : )


  3. June 13, 2012 11:48 PM

    Well isn’t that something that he lives so close to you. Oh I bet it was really thrilling to get to see his art up close and personal like that! Maybe you’ll get to meet him some day. (He looks like Arnold Palmer).

    And Mac Giggles it’s only a matter of time before you and Dolly will be signing copies of your work at your showings. I’ll be sure to come. I’ll bring my collection of science fiction magazines from the 50’s with really cool illustrations too. Now I’m wondering who all these unsung artists were. And thanks to this post I want to learn more about them. Oh and Mark, you’ll never guess where I found them . . . but go ahead and try . . .

    My favorite painting is the lady with the hat and the sports coat. It looks Art Deco. But I really liked them all! 😀


    • June 14, 2012 8:57 AM

      Yes, we’re both in the same little corner of New Hampshire. And what’s really nice is that even after learning I was in the general vicinity, Mr. Stirnweis has made no plans to move. That’s unusual. I like that… : P

      So– you’ve been buying sci-fi mags at the thrift store again! I’m not surprised. And I’ll bet the cover art was a major factor in your reaching for your official Flash Gordon change purse. Treat those mags with respect– don’t be using them for coasters for your Pottery Barn crockery!!

      Thanks for the visit, Linda, you are always a delight– and I hope you can find a hat with a parrot on it on your next trip to the thrift store!! : )


      • June 14, 2012 11:04 AM

        Hahahaha! What? He’s not moving and he knows you’re close by? That Mr. Stirnweis! What a trooper!

        Well, even if I did find a hat with a parrot, Mark, it couldn’t compare with the hat you’re wearing up top! Wait a minute . . . that hat looks just like the one I was going to buy on my last trip to you know where and somebody snatched it up before I could get my hands on it . . . and now . . . well, I’m sure it’s just a coincidence! 😀


        • June 14, 2012 4:10 PM

          Trooper?? He’s a saint! Actually, we illustrators are pretty good at putting up with one another. Who else is gonna do it??

          It is a nice hat. You’ve gotta get up pretty early to beat ol’ Mac Giggles to the thrift store. I was there when they opened the door… : P


        • June 14, 2012 4:18 PM

          Drat! I’ll get you next time Mac Giggles! . . . and your little dog too! 😀


  4. June 14, 2012 5:04 AM

    Hello, really enjoyed this! love the use of colour and tone in the first three. Thanks for posting!


    • June 14, 2012 9:02 AM

      Welcome, and many thanks for your kind comment. Yes, must agree, the color and tone in those three romance covers is absolutely stunning. They enhance the emotional content of the paintings in a big way.

      Very glad you enjoyed the post, and thanks so much for stopping by! : )


  5. June 14, 2012 9:41 AM

    Great tribute, Mark. Mr. Stirnweis is brilliant!


    • June 14, 2012 4:13 PM

      Many thanks, Jayne. I agree with that assessment, and I would say it counts for a lot coming from a wonderful artist like yourself.

      Glad you enjoyed the post, and thanks so much for your cheerful support! : )


  6. June 17, 2012 9:58 AM

    Mark this is wonderful! I absolutely love this illustrator! Thank you so much 😀


    • June 17, 2012 12:46 PM

      You’re very welcome, Jane, so glad you enjoyed the post. Always a delight to see you here! : )


  7. June 18, 2012 4:02 PM

    WOW, Mark! I love your article very much! It really is very inspiring! Love all his works above. Thanks for introducing his works to us, at least to me who didn’t know him at all.

    He’s very talented! 🙂


    • June 19, 2012 7:59 AM

      So happy you enjoyed the post, Inge. It’s amazing how much talent there is in the world, and how much of it flies under the radar, so to speak. Mr. Stirnweis is an exceptionally fine painter and illustrator, and like so many others, he deserves a wider audience and greater recognition.

      Always good to see you here, thanks so much for your cheerful support!! : )


  8. June 19, 2012 8:45 PM

    Great stuff! He has some versatility in his painting styles. And it is a treat that he’s still alive.


    • June 20, 2012 2:53 PM

      Hi Jean, great to see you, very glad you enjoyed the post. Yes, that Stirnweis fellow is one talented guy.

      Agreed: it’s great to discover an illustrator is still alive– like when I wake up in the morning, for example… : P

      Many thanks for stopping by! : )


  9. July 6, 2012 6:58 PM

    Wow, what amazing work! I don’t think I’ve ever seen books as nice as these. Each one is magical! I’m glad you posted!


    • July 8, 2012 1:26 PM

      I’m delighted you enjoyed the post, Olivia. I certainly agree with your assessment: Mr. Stirnweis does indeed have a magical touch: his work is beautifully rendered and wonderfully evocative. He’s an inspiration.

      I sincerely appreciate your comment and support! : )


  10. Robpixaday permalink
    July 7, 2012 12:57 PM

    Wow! What an artist!!!

    Loved this… thank you for sharing about him.

    The restaurant scene painting is FABULOUS!!!!

    Given how brilliantly he did the covers he did, I’m wishing he’d done one for “Wuthering Heights.”



    • July 9, 2012 10:59 AM

      Yes, Mr. Stirnweis is truly brilliant. Perhaps not quite as gifted as you and I, but still… Yeah, right!! : P

      I agree about that restaurant scene– it’s a knockout.

      Yeah, Wuthering Heights– I know just the scene you’re thinking of: when the Wizard gets in the hot-air balloon and Dorothy cries, “Wait for me!” and he wuthers up to a great height and yells, “I don’t know how it works!!”

      Oh, well… maybe next time… : P

      ::closes eyes, clicks heels, turns into monkey, flies off::


  11. soul . to . earth permalink
    October 15, 2013 11:03 AM

    That you’ve never been asked to pose for a cover shouldn’t be a drawback – just make one up with the title, “The arrow has met its mark”… 😀 [Quivering with laughter now]


    • October 16, 2013 8:48 AM

      Ow! Stop that quivering and laughing! Those arrows smart, ya know! I hope I wasn’t bending over to pick up a dime when it struck… : (

      Thank you for that very helpful suggestion, I shall take it under advisement… : )


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