When Elaine Duillo Paints It, a Romance Novel's Cover Is Worth a Thousand Steamy Words

updated 05/15/1989 AT 01:00 AM EDT

originally published 05/15/1989 AT 01:00 AM EDT

The hero is a handsome rogue. His ruffled shirt is open to the navel. His tautly muscled arms, burnished by a life of adventure and swordplay, are wrapped around an obviously well-born young woman, whose ample, perfect bosom threatens to do a half gainer out of her straining décolletage as she reclines across his lap. On the grass between their feet lies the hero's unsheathed sword—and you don't have to be Sigmund Freud to figure that one out.

Postmodern it's not, but Elaine Duillo is proud of her latest painting. "The sword on the ground is a symbol for his manhood," she says, with a sweep of her hand. "Everything is subliminal." Well, maybe not, but Duillo's skill can't be challenged; in the last 15 years, she has painted covers for more than 500 romance novels, including Johanna Lindsey's recent New York Times paperback best-seller, Silver Angel. Next month, Duillo, 60, will have her own exhibition at the Museum of American Illustration in New York City, making her the first romance artist so honored.

"My people live and breathe," says the painter, whose ouevre consists entirely of scenes depicting lust and longing. "You can have plenty of ripped clothing and cleavage, but if the people don't relate to each other, it looks ridiculous."

And in the world of romance novels, where you can judge a book by its cover, one good stud-and-maiden picture may mean the difference between selling big and gathering dust. Kathryn Falk, publisher of Romantic Times, the trade journal that stays abreast of the romance business, points out that U.S. publishers offer 100 to 125 romances a month to their distributors. Often, Falk says, the distributors base their purchasing decisions solely on what a book looks like. "The distributors don't read the book," she says. "They go by the cover and the author's previous figures."

Under the circumstances, it's no surprise that top illustrators such as Duillo get, according to Falk, $3,000-$8,000 per cover. For Duillo, the creative process begins when the publisher sends her a fact sheet detailing a novel's characters and historical period—usually 18th-or 19th-century England. "All the sheet usually says is that the characters are very sexy and very interested in each other," she says. "I usually read the manuscript to find out what's going on. Some romance novels aren't written very well, but I get books by authors who are pretty experienced."

Next, Duillo meets with her publisher's art director to plan the cover. "In the last few years," she says, "it's been a lot sexier because there's such competition on the stands. But some people still want a more romantic look." She picks up a sketch for an upcoming romance. "This is sexy enough," she says, "but the author didn't want something where the heroine's clothes were ripped off—where she and the hero looked like they were about to perform the act."

Once Duillo decides on a cover, she calls in live models for the realistic look that she craves. Not that she actually paints from live models—that would be too expensive, so she paints from photographs. The models are outfitted in costumes of the period and instructed to look passionate for the camera. Once in a while, says Duillo, they get carried away. She points to the cover of Uncommon Valor, which she painted a decade ago. "Here's a case of the hero getting a bit excited during the photo shoot, and I painted it in," she says. She's right. He did. And she did.

There have been occasions, though, when customers have found more hidden passion in her work than Duillo intended. Two years ago, a discount chain refused to display A Love for All Time, by Bertrice Small, with a cover by Duillo. "I hadn't planned it that way," she says. "The heroine's hand is laid across her heart, but everyone thought she was touching her breast, so the chain banned it." Pause. "It did exceptionally well."

Duillo does her painting—she works in acrylics—in her studio at home in Hicksville, Long Island, where she has lived for 26 years with her husband, John, a still-life artist she married in 1949. She painted her first romance cover in 1959, and sold it for $150. "In 1969," she says, "an agent saw my work, and I went from part-time to 70 to 80 hours a week. I would work until 4 in the morning, then be up with the children." (She has two daughters, Melissa, 33, also a romance illustrator, and Bettina, 30, a graphic artist.)

These days she paints as many as 20 covers a year and still looks for ways to make each one a best-seller. "I try to use all my talents," she says. "The basic elements you have to put in—the castle, the house—some artists will put them in arbitrarily, but I make them part of the overall design. I don't think that the customers notice this, but I see it."

And when she finishes a painting, doesn't she feel like throwing her arms passionately around her husband and losing herself in a soulful kiss? "No, that's when I feel my least sexy," she admits. "If I paint a brick wall I don't feel like a brick. I do my work and when I'm done, I move on to my next project."

Oh, well, love 'em and leave 'em.

—Michael Neill, Jess Cagle in Hicksville

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