Art of Robert McGinnis: Guns, Dolls & Gangsters Molls
I must have been around 12. I was a voracious reader and had run out of stuff to read. I remember my mother telling me that Dad had stashed some old paperbacks in our dusty attic and I had clambered up there, squeezed between discarded clothes and a broken ceiling fan picking my way through an old cardboard box. I found an old dog eared signet paperback and was transfixed by the cover.
The girl on the cover had very little on. She was beautifully painted. The colours, even on the dulled old paperback were vivid and seared into my retina. I was hooked. I knew I probably shouldn't be reading it and perhaps my Dad had hidden them in the attic for a reason. But I went ahead.
I read the pulpy Carter Brown novel hoping that the contents within matched the beauty of the cover. They didn’t. It was a fairly forgettable pulp thriller and the girls within were typical noir fare.
But I never forgot the artwork. The colours. The expression on the girl's face. The attitude.
I wanted more.
I went to the lending library near our house and discovered shelves full of Matt Helm, Mike Shayne, Carter Brown, Edward S Aarons and Erle Stanley Gardner. They all had one thing in common. The cover art.
Enticing beauties in all stages of disarray, mean looking square jawed men often in the shadows clutching pistols. They were in the shadows for good reason for who would want to look at them - it was the female form that was so stunningly rendered.
I was never able to decipher the signature at that age. It was only much later I discovered they were all works of the American Artist, Robert McGinnis.
Robert McGinnis was the king of paperback covers. The golden age of pulps was also the golden age of his art. He was an astute painter. There were many who can draw scantily clothed women. But McGinnis has the gift of composition. His lines were clean and sensual, his anatomical details lifelike.
It was the use of colour that sets him apart from other. The little details and the bright and breezy compositions were remarkable. His ability to illustrate and punctuate the drawing with highly coloured accessories is second to none. The atmosphere is always erotic and electric but never lewd.It is no wonder that Robert McGinnis has been one of the most sought after artists during the heyday of paperback and Magazine illustrators.
The Paperback era was an era where pulp writers churned them out at a rate one novel a month, they were cheap and cheerful. They got paid by the word. The quality varied enormously but the conveyor belt of production meant very little promotion or advertising. The product had to speak for itself.
Hanging in the drug store racks, the covers were the only enticing factor. Maybe the word of mouth about the author. People also liked to read the series identity. McGinnis contributed enormously to these.
Robert McGinnis was born in 1926 in Cincinnati, Ohio and was raised in Wyoming. He studied art at Ohio State University. After a brief career in Merchant Marine and advertising, he apprenticed at Walt Disney Studios. He then went to work for Dell publishing in 1958 at the peak of paperback boom and never looked back.
His work has appeared in diverse publications such as Playboy, Argosy, Saturday Evening Post, Time, Good Housekeeping, Ladies Home Journal and Woman’s Home companion.
He has painted over 1400 paperback covers- a stunning achievement. His contributions for the sale of these pulp novels should not be underestimated. Produced at a rate of one a month, often sold from magazine outlets and petrol stations, candy shops the attraction of the beautifully rendered female form to the young teen audience and adult readers must have had a significant impact on the sales.
The Artist's Eye
I have looked at Robert McGinnis's work again and again, trying to see why they attract the eye so much. There are many artists who can draw scantily clad women, many who capture the pulp-noir genre with sensational and dramatic poses. There have been several competent paperback cover artists before and after, but none come close to the allure of McGinnis's masterworks.
Is it his eye for the female form or his unbridled use of colour? Is it his sensational framing or his sense of pose and pageantry? Is it his ability to snapshot drama - to tease us with what might have gone on before and what is yet to happen?
The Female anatomy
Although he used models to compose his paintings ( using an old projector to project his sketches before rendering the paint- in a true camera obscura mode like those renaissance artists) he renders the lines with precise anatomical details. He is able to capture the pose, the expression and the mood very very well, almost as if he knows what needs to go on canvas before he renders it. His artists eye is immaculate. His poses are artistic and while sexy they are never crude or exploitative.
The eyes, the mouth, the body language... McGinnis can do them all. Despite thousands of covers there seems to be no repetition. It is as if he has an encyclopaedic memory of his own work and that he can reinvent the female pose over and over again, showing us countless permutations and combinations. A true master at work.
McGinnis demonstrates an abject understanding of the feminine form. Like a renaissance artist rendering the mood and conveying an emotion, he knows how to compose the pose with the right amount of flirtatiousness, inviting the watcher yet showing an air of mystery, an air of coyness and mischief.
His study of the physiognomy and the feminine attributes are often stunning as if we have walked into the scene ourselves, observer becoming participant. They go way beyond the demands of a humble paperback artist. He is an illustrator of highest order. A genius. A humble, highly talented genius whose work needs wider appreciation beyond the tattered remnants of a paperback.
His use of colours is worth a Ph.D. thesis. I know I gush and it sounds like an exaggeration, but look at the examples littered in these pages. He uses the full palette. No monochrome nonsense in his art. Every colour is touched, always appropriately , never excessively. They way the colours gel together is worthy of much appreciation. They are a delight to the eye of the beholder.
I have a book that lists all his paperback cover art and shows examples of his work. He is a master of colour composition, trying to rejuvenate each cover with a different shade, a different end of the spectrum.
He is like a culinary genius or a musical maestro, choosing various ingredients of his chosen artform to create and compose a mixture that soothes, teases and entices the senses.
The Articles & Clothing
Unlike Most paperback artists, McGinnis paid attention to detail, be it a table, a divan, a carpet, a chessboard or a typewriter (see all the artwork in this page) his paintings captured those little details so accurately and so well.He paid attention to fashion and colours. Although there weren't much clothes to be worn (!) what was there was always colourful and attractive.
They never detract but always complement the main figure. Adding little intrigue and detail to the overall tone and composition.
The Poster Artist
McGinnis grew out of the arbitrary confines of his paperback art to become a famed Movie poster artist with Bond. He created the iconic bond pose, arms crossed, clutching the automatic, draped with assorted feminine arms. Bond owes a lot to McGinnis.
In part II I cover Robert McGinnis' poster art. Do visit and enjoy.
Hope you enjoyed this hub which is a tribute to a great artist. Much loved by pulp fans and art lovers alike, he is only now getting the kind of recognition much inferior artists seem to have got. As one admirer puts it, 'The only person who doesn't understand the Genius of McGinnis, is McGinnis himself'.
He painted stunning artwork for many romance novels and went on to win the romance artist of the year in 1985. He is the member of the society of Illustrators and has been inducted into their hall of fame.He is now 80 and was recently invited to replicate the cover art for a new series of paperback Pulp. He didn't disappoint.
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© 2011 Mohan Kumar