In the admittedly highly specialized realm of American romance fiction Elaine Duillo is heralded by readers of that genre as “The Queen of Romance Cover Art,” but she is far more than that. The artist’s commitment to stories of romantic adventure is what gives her work its inspiration and its edge, but she is, also, easily, as skillful as an artist who has ever been inducted into the Illustrators Hall of Fame. Her superlative draftsmanship, her exquisite sense of design, her feeling for gesture and nuance, and the striking command of mood through use of color, are coequal and exceptional attributes of her work. One might say, not knowing of her passion for this kind of story, not for the literary merit such stories can often attain, that the qualities of her art go far beyond the needs and limitations of the genre with which she is so well associated. But this is the mark of a truly great illustrator—to be able to transcend the inherent limitations of a subject and too take with equal commitment, each assignment as it comes along, producing, with flawless veracity and dependable consistency, works of true artistic excellence.
Elaine, who retired formally in early 2003 (to the utter disappointment of those of us who hold great paperback cover art in the highest regard), began her career in 1959. Illustrating a broad range of subjects—from men’s adventure stories, to gothic novels, to murder mysteries, and even science fiction. She attended the High School of Music and Art in Manhattan where she met (at the age of fourteen) artist John Duillo, whom she later married. Eventually she graduated from the Pratt Institute in Brooklyn. John was an exceptionally gifted adventure illustrator who, in the late 1970s, left the commercial art field to pursue a career in gallery painting.
I encountered Elaine’s work firsthand in the early 1970s in the art department at Berkley books, long before I ever had the pleasure of meeting her. A proud art director showed me paintings that John and Elaine had delivered—an atmospheric gothic from her, a blazing, two-fisted western from him. Long before making a mark in romance art in the late 1970s, Elaine’s moody gothic cover paintings stood out from the crowd. Working in a slightly more painterly mode than now, her works excelled for their characteristically flawless draftsmanship, evocative mood and compositional power.
As stunning as her covers appear in reproduction (no mean feat these days, given the great volume of books being printed and the speed at which they are produced), one has truly not seen a painting of hers in the flesh. Her masterly control of the completely inert medium of acrylic paints will truly take your breath away. As one who struggled mightily to master acrylics for decades, I am in utter awe of her ability to bend this unforgiving medium to her will. She is, in every sense of the word, a true master artist.
In discussing her many virtues with friends, her generosity in giving praise and advice to others is the attribute most frequently mentioned. Doreen Minuto, her protégé and a fellow romance artist—and the one person who was most instrumental in bringing her work to the attention of the Hall of Fame Committee—notes her continually enthusiastic and supportive nature, the soundness of her professional advice, and the heartfelt joy she takes in the success of others. In describing the virtues of Elaine’s paintings, Doreen uses the word “poetry” and talks glowingly about the rhythm, the movement and the fundamental sensuality of her art. How it reaches out to its audience and “just grabs you.” Irene Gallo, the art director at Tor Books, who did not know Elaine when she saw the artist’s presentation during the Society’s recent lecture series, raved to me about the brilliance and consistency of her work and her absolute commitment to her chosen subject. “Inspirational” was Irene’s empathetic comment. Lauren Raio, a recently graduated illustration student of mine from the Fashion Institute of Technology, had asked Elaine to be her mentor on a project for my class. Lauren was astonished by Elaine’s generosity and, after having been taken to Lunch at the society by the Artist, rushed home to e-mail me that she was proud to have “such a famous and talented mentor.” The simple, youthful honesty of Lauren’s remark says it all—Elaine is a star.
The simple fact is that, beyond the brillant artist and narrative picture maker that she is, Elaine Duillo is also a decent, kind, generous, gracious and wonderful human being—a perfect lady, A magnanimous friend, a kind, considerate, dear and gentle soul. What a joy it has been to know her, and to now see her honored in this special way. Her talent alone would have been enough to assure her eventual induction into the Illustrators Hall of Fame. The fact that Elaine Duillo herself is a work of art—a wonderful and very special human being—makes the honor seem all the more well deserved.
Vincent Di Fate