Covers Covered by Carol

Artist John Ennis
From Lady’s Tutor to Bewitched Viking, & Everything In Between

April 8, 2000

Cover artist John Ennis is a classy guy. We’ve given him hell six ways from Sunday over his cover for the Bewitched Viking, which, according to our readers, was one of the worst covers of 1999 (see 1999 Covers Contest). And yet, he’s been nothing but gracious in his replies as we’ve worked on this column. Here is everything you’ve ever wanted to know about the inner workings of the cover art process from an artist at the pinnacle of the book biz.

I asked Ennis, point blank, what made him use the much-hated finger and smirk combo on his Bewitched Viking cover.

“That direction came from the publisher,” John replied. “We are always looking for some new ‘angle’ to sell books. I did a series of fairy tale novels, a series of books that had a dog in every story, SF/Romances, and so on. In this case, we were trying to have the hero ‘interact,’ if you will, with the book buyer. I know your readers hate that book cover and I understand why. The publisher tells me it did great on the bookstand though.”

I then expressed our collective bewilderment over how he could also then be the same artist who did the enormously popular The Lady’s Tutor cover, which placed second in the Best Single Cover Historical category. In fact, this cover may have been tied for first place but for reader guilt in voting for it because of its explicit sexuality.

“The idea here was not what we put into the cover, but what was left out. Leaving the reader to guess at what the hero and heroine’s faces might look like created mystery. It forced the viewer to dwell on the untying of her bodice.

“Occasionally the publishers give me creative latitude, and the results are like The Lady’s Tutor. But I am a commercial artist, and I give my customers what they ask for.”

I asked who the actual customer was, the person who hires him. Readers often think authors are more involved in the cover process than they really are. As John confirmed, “It’s always the art director for the publisher. However, I often get asked to do a cover because the author has requested me.”

Ennis had three sources of training: private instruction by an individual artist while he was in high school; a college degree in art; and additional study at the superb Art Students League in New York City, after college, at the start of his career. I asked him if he had to pick only one of those as his source of training, assuming the other two were closed off to him, which he would he pick. He answered, “That would be an impossible choice. If it weren’t for my early tutoring, I would never have chosen the path to be an artist. On the other hand, my training at the Art Student’s League was so good that my previous learning experiences pale by comparison. The least useful was my experience at the Maryland Institute, College of Art in Baltimore.”

We then explored how John got into doing romance covers.

“I originally wanted to illustrate sword and sorcery book covers. I was impressed with artist Frank Frazetta when I was a student. But during my time at the Art Students League, I took a night class with the then Art Director of Pocket Books. He was looking for young artists (meaning beginners who wouldn’t charge a lot) to kick-off the new Silhouette Romance line they had just begun publishing. I always figured I’d get around to sword and sorcery someday, but my career as a romance illustrator took off like lightning, and it’s been like that ever since.”

We are very fortunate that Sandi had that very first cover illustration in her huge inventory of books and we have pictured it here for you.

I then asked John if he was the person who picked the entire scene setup for the cover, such as model, costumes, props and so forth and whether he photographed the scene.

“Yes, all of the scene elements are under my control. Some information comes from the publisher or author, such as time period and costume description, and suggestions are made about what elements could possibly be on the cover by the editors. I choose the models. The backgrounds vary from hand painted, to photographs (taken by me) to scenes created in 3D on the computer.

“I arrange the pose. I start the shoot with a predefined idea, but very often, the shoot takes on a life of it’s own. Opportunities and ideas present themselves during the process, and a lot depends on the talent of the model.”

Ennis uses model John DeSalvo on many of his covers and I was curious about why he used one model so frequently. A few readers have even complained to me about seeing too much of him as the model for the hero.

“I began working with John years ago when a demand for muscular heroes evolved. First, there was Fabio, of course, but he left for California in the early 90’s. Then I worked with Steve Sandalis until he signed an exclusive contract with NAL as the Topaz Man. Then John DeSalvo came along. You might think that we (cover artists) have a lot to choose from, but in fact, it is very hard to find someone who is good-looking, muscular, and extremely talented, and John is all three. He appears on many of my covers because the alternative is to use a model that is lacking in at least one of those three qualities.”

I wondered if Ennis ever painted these models from life instead of from photographs. He responded that he doesn’t paint with live models due to the expense. He last painted with live models while still in art school and finds working from photos lends itself well to illustrating covers.

I am glad to report that via Mr. Ennis we finally have a juicy story to relate regarding a cover shoot!

“Mostly, the shoots go very smoothly. I’ve had a few where the models were as stiff as boards. One shoot in particular comes to mind. Unbeknownst to me, the man and woman had recently gone out on a date and had apparently had a bad time. On the set, the woman was making perfectly clear that she couldn’t stand this guy. Unfortunately, we only had an hour and I had to coax her into pretending she was in love with this guy for the sake of the shoot. That was a painful hour.”

I asked him a hypothetical: If he were allowed to do any romance cover, what would its image be? He answered that he likes “painting beautiful women. It would be even more interesting to paint women who were, what’s the phrase, ‘scantily clad?’ But the covers wouldn’t sell and we’d never get them into KMart.”

I told John how poorly flowers featured on the front cover had fared in our Cover contest semi-finals and asked him why they are used so much on romance covers when readers complain to us about them.

“Sunsets, tall ships, knights in shining armor; these things we consider romantic. Flowers, birds, animals, jewelry, these are things most people consider feminine, and our audience is almost entirely feminine. I can’t say why flowers put off your readers. Perhaps because it’s overdone, perhaps because it represents something typical, and they see themselves as more than typical. The reason you see still life treatments for romance novels today, is that the ‘clinch’ became a cliché for representing the ‘typical’ romance novel. Authors who considered their work as something more, often requested covers without clinches to set themselves apart.”

I was also curious about whom Ennis would pick as his models if he could choose anyone in the world.

“I was completely taken with Madeline Stowe and Daniel Day-Lewis in their performances for Michael Mann’s Last Of The Mohicans. I think they would be an interesting couple to paint. I also like French actress Isabelle Adjani. And Tom Cruise has an interesting profile.”


I asked if John had any preferences for hair color, skin tones, height, weight and the like for the hero and heroine on his covers.

“Well, it’s not up to me; that’s the domain of the author. But if it were up to me, I might suggest that the men look more masculine with dark hair. Also, women look good in any color, as long as it is not the same as the colors for the man. The author might describe the hero’s ‘unruly chestnut hair’ and the heroine’s ‘brown curls’, but when it comes down to painting it, those two are the same color and that’s a potential problem.”

I wondered if he ever read the underlying novel or a summary/synopsis of it as part of the idea process.

“I read whatever material the publisher gives me. Sometimes it’s a manuscript; sometimes it’s a synopsis. Usually the information comes from the editor, although in some cases I work with the author directly.

“It’s been my experience that the author’s input is very helpful and I always welcome it. On a very few occasions, authors have tried to exert undue control over the cover art, but that’s rare. I understand their desire for the cover to express what they consider the essence of the book. However, it is the publisher’s responsibility to sell the book, and I work for the publisher.”

I wondered if there was anyone else in the romance genre whose art and/or illustration work Ennis admired. He responded that, “As a painter, I have always admired Pino. I don’t think I have ever met anyone as talented as Pino. As a digital artist, I am drawn to Franco’s work, and he keeps me in constant amazement. It was Franco who introduced me to the computer medium.”

I already knew Ennis painted all of his cover art on his MAC computer and that he’s even recently authored and published a book about computer illustration. He also instructs on the subject. Some artists have a hard time viewing the computer as equivalent to other media as a painting medium. I asked Ennis, who used to work in oils, his feelings on the computer’s being looked down upon by purists in art.

“Contrary to what one might think, working in oil is not much fun when the art is for illustration. There are many limitations, including the time it takes for the oil to dry. I can remember boxing up wet paintings and hauling them into New York, because of a deadline.

“The computer is far more usable as a medium. There is no drying time, changes can be easily made, and the image can be emailed to the publisher for approval. The process is far more convenient, and versatile, and allows me to make better art.

“Since I began working on the computer I’ve had much greater opportunity to explore other genres. I finally got to illustrate sword and sorcery stuff, sci- fi, general fiction, adventure. I like doing hardback covers for the creativity they allow.”

I wondered if he read the romance genre and what his preferred kind of book is in his own leisure time. Ennis admits to enjoying “a good romance novel, but since I read them as part of my job description, I don’t seek them out in my spare time. I’ve read John Grisham, Anne Rice, Tom Clancy, and some other mainstream authors. I like a good book; it doesn’t matter what the subject is.”

Like most artists, has own favorite artists and illustrators who he feels have influenced his own work. According to Ennis, “It’s a long list. My favorite nineteenth century artists are Jacques Louis David, Guillaume-Adolphe Bouguerreau, and the pre Raphealites. Twentieth century artists are John Singer Sargent, and Alphonse Mucha. Twentieth century American illustrators include Maxfield Parrish and J.C. Leyendecker. And, of course, my favorite contemporaries are Pino, Franco, Elaine Duillo and Bob McGinnis.”

Ennis is able to work outside of New York because he’s so well established, but he’s not far from it. He told me that though it’s possible to live anywhere, it would be difficult to start a career without living in New York City. Though he used to live there, he now works at home in Bucks County, Pennsylvania.

When John described his personal life, it reminded me of what many of our romance authors and readers have posted regarding their own personal lives.

“I have a family. My boys are 9 and 7, and I am involved in their lives, coaching soccer, boy scouts, skiing, things like that. I just designed the set for the elementary school play, “The Secret Garden”. That was a lot of fun. My wife is a watercolor artist. She and I share the studio and a passionate interest in art, both visual and performing arts.”

Ennis rarely has time to pursue his own fine art work, adding that he occasionally does “an oil painting or a digital painting just for fun, but pursuing fine art is an involving and continuous process. I no sooner get going on something, and then I get overwhelmed with book cover work. When I finally get back to it, the trail is cold. I see it as a retirement career.”

We’re just about to take you to the next part of this article, a good sampling of John’s cover art, so I asked him to share his own personal favorites with us beforehand. He answered that Waking Beauty (written by Paul Witcover), which graces the front page of his website, is his favorite. Second favorite? The cover for Acorna, which launched the SF series by Anne McCaffrey.

Ennis also sells the art prints from his book covers at his website. The great thing about the art prints is that the writing and insignia are not on them and the viewer can use them just like any other piece of art work, e.g. hang it on the wall. This is the way we are going to show them to you so you can see the work exactly the way the cover artist does when he’s looking at his finished art work. I also asked Ennis which of his art works sold the best.

“I am not always privy to book sales information, so I can’t give you an accurate answer. But I remember some of the Dinah McCall books, like Dreamcatcher, selling in big numbers.”

This was what worked the best on Ennis’s books but I was also curious about the art prints themselves, used by customers outright as works of art. As I expected, it’s a different selection. He sells the most of A Midsummer Night’s Magic (the cover to an anthology written by Emma Craig, Tess Mallory, Pam McCutcheon, Amy Elizabeth Saunder).

You will see all of the art works just mentioned, above, in our next section.


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