Art of Robert McGinnis: Guns, Dolls & Gangsters Molls

Updated on November 29, 2018
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Mohan is a family physician, film and TV aficionado, a keen bibliophile and an eclectic scribbler.

Paperback Dreams

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.

Paperback Hero

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.

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Cover Artist

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
Robert McGinnis

Robert McGinnis

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.

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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 Expression

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.

The Pose

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.

The Colours

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.

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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.

Mohan Kumar

© 2011 Mohan Kumar


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    • Danette Watt profile image

      Danette Watt 

      7 years ago from Illinois

      I very much remember those pulp fiction covers. You wrote a wonderful hub here, very thorough and covered all aspects of this artist and his illustrations of the women - the poses, clothing, etc. Voted up, useful and interesting.

    • DanaTeresa profile image

      Dana Strang 

      7 years ago from Ohio

      "The atmosphere is always erotic and electric but never lewd"- This is a perfect description. I was not familiar with Robert McGinnis until reading this article. You have made me an instant fan. His treatment of the female form is beautiful. The poses are sensual but not slutty, the expressions are interesting, the colors are fantastic. His work reminds me of why I like Playboy (yes. You read that right) I find that it is sexy without smut. And I like the articles :)

      Thank you for introducing me to an amazing artist.

    • Docmo profile imageAUTHOR

      Mohan Kumar 

      7 years ago from UK

      Mary- you are very kind. I am glad you enjoy his paintings and my writing. Hopefully they complement each other here. Much appreciated!

    • Docmo profile imageAUTHOR

      Mohan Kumar 

      7 years ago from UK

      Glimmertwinfan- like you I couldn't believe how many paperbacks I had that had McGinnis cover art. He is a prolific painter. Thanks for your visit.

    • Docmo profile imageAUTHOR

      Mohan Kumar 

      7 years ago from UK

      bdegiulio - thanks for your visit and comment- appreciate it!

    • Docmo profile imageAUTHOR

      Mohan Kumar 

      7 years ago from UK

      Peanutritious- thanks for coming by and reading this. Much appreciated.

    • Docmo profile imageAUTHOR

      Mohan Kumar 

      7 years ago from UK

      Judi - I am glad you have discovered McGinnis through this hub. He's a gift that keeps on giving! I may add few more of his work here.

    • Docmo profile imageAUTHOR

      Mohan Kumar 

      7 years ago from UK

      Julie- thanks for reading this and sharing it to a brand new audience. I am glad you found this as I am quietly pleased with the way this has turned out. The companion hub talks about all his poster work from Bond to many other films. Much appreciated!

    • Docmo profile imageAUTHOR

      Mohan Kumar 

      7 years ago from UK

      mvaivata: your insight into similar artists shows you have a good knowledge of this era and the creators working in this field of similar ilk. I am glad you enjoyed McGinnis's work laid out here. Thank you!

    • tillsontitan profile image

      Mary Craig 

      7 years ago from New York

      It appears from all your examples that McGinnis truly was an artist with a touch of genius. His work is really stunning and I'm sure very inviting as cover art.

      I would liken his ability to illustrate and punctuate the drawing with highly coloured accessories to your ability to punctuate your writing with highly colored phrases and descriptions! An artist writing about an artist.

      Voted up, useful, awesome and interesting.

    • Glimmer Twin Fan profile image

      Claudia Mitchell 

      7 years ago

      This is terrific. I have to go check, I think I may have an old paperback with his art or a lookalike on the cover. Really enjoyed this and being a Bond fanatic, loved the pictures.

    • bdegiulio profile image

      Bill De Giulio 

      7 years ago from Massachusetts

      Great Hub. Can't say I'm familiar with Robert McGinnis. Amazing artwork on his covers. Well done.

    • Peanutritious profile image

      Tara Carbery 

      7 years ago from Cheshire, UK

      Great hub and love his artwork. He really caught the exotic sensuality of the women he painted. I look forward to reading more from you. An excellent thorough piece of work.

    • Judi Bee profile image

      Judi Brown 

      7 years ago from UK

      Like Jools I've never heard of Robert McGinnis, but you've made a fan of me. This is a great hub, loved it!

    • Jools99 profile image

      Jools Hogg 

      7 years ago from North-East UK

      Mohan, fascinating hub. I had never heard of Robert McGinnis and I really like his style - very 'of its time' but they're so stylised and sultry.

      Voted up and shared.

    • mvaivata profile image


      8 years ago

      This is a truly fascinating article. I know that something of a cult following has grown up around the pulp novella cover art, and I won't deny that I've also developed a particular love for it. Although there's a bit of a crowbar separation, the work of artists like Robert McGinnis always puts me in mind of Alberto Vargas, and, to a lesser extent, Roy Best.

    • Docmo profile imageAUTHOR

      Mohan Kumar 

      9 years ago from UK

      Thanks- Yes the paperback art is glorious.

    • moncrieff profile image


      9 years ago from New York, NY

      Glad I stumbled upon your other hub about McGinnis' poster art to come here. I agree with your statement on excellent composition, anatomy, color and details. Thanks.


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