Whether or not their dramatic poses and lurid landscapes set your heart afire, classic romance novel covers are arresting works of technical expertise. The scene on this page was painted by Leslie Pellegrino Peck, Illustration ’87, who created more than 700 romance covers over two decades. Often, the artist was better paid than the writer, because a “sleepworthy” cover—as in, “Would you want to sleep with that guy?”—sold the book.
All of Peck’s covers are closely based on black-and-white photographs. In fact, she got her start while assisting a photographer who specialized in shooting for illustrators in publishing—not just romance novels but science fiction and Westerns, too. Art directors for books wandered into the studio all the time; one agreed to let her illustrate an upcoming novel on spec. The result, an image of a nubile couple waist-deep in a moonlit lake, became the cover of The Rialto Affair, published in 1989. From there, assignments flooded in, for the gamut of romance publishers from Avon Books to Zebra/Pinnacle, and, of course, Harlequin.
For each cover, she would style a shoot for a dramatically lit, windblown photo, based not on the novel itself but on a one-page description of the characters and the setting (“I’m sure the authors would be horrified,” she admits). When painting, she kept within the genre’s rigid conventions; outside considerations such as historical accuracy, consistency with the plot, and the laws of physics were summarily ignored.
A few years ago, when the publishing industry’s coffers began to shrink, lush oil paintings were cast aside in favor of inexpensive photos (a glass of wine, a rose, an unmade bed), and digital watercolor effects were used to make a photographed scene look painterly. The genre is still publishing’s juggernaut though, racking up more than $1.3 billion in sales each year, giving it the largest share of the U.S. consumer market, according to a 2012 report.
Peck moved on, but she remembers her “romantic” career fondly.
This Alumni Spotlight originally appeared in the summer 2013 issue of Hue magazine.