I had the privilege of interviewing Victor Gadino for a weeklong series of posts I did on his romance-cover art and career on Instagram. He graciously gave me permission to post the full interview here. The subject headings reflect the various IG posts I made about Victor during that salute to his art. You can find out more about Victor Gadino by visiting his website, victorgadino.com, or his Instagram account, @victorgadino. Victor also offers certain pieces of his romance-cover art for sale in multiple formats at fineartamerica.com. I’ve compiled a partial list of romance novel covers featuring Gadino’s art as well.
Victor Gadino’s Props
Your cover and stepback art is known for being full of details. What do you enjoy about creating a setting rich with props?
I think it’s fun for the reader to see a specific detail that is mentioned in the book. It makes the story more real to them.
Are the background settings all from your imagination after creating a scene in a studio?
I do a lot of research for each cover. Sometimes I find what I think is the perfect background, but usually I have to combine several images to create a new background. It’s easier now on the computer to do that. It was much more complicated and time consuming when I was drawing in pencil and then painting in oils.
There are a number of props that appear in many of your stepback art pieces: pillows in particular come to mind. Were those personal possessions, since they show in up multiple pieces? Is it the artist’s responsibility to create those settings as part of the shoot?
Yes and yes to both questions. The pillows were right off of my sofa, and I would change the colors as necessary. Sometimes a shopping trip to Bed Bath & Beyond was necessary. An art director would usually ask for a specific scene from the novel, but it was up to the illustrator to make it come alive and be rich in details.
An art director would usually ask for a specific scene from the novel, but it was up to the illustrator to make it come alive and be rich in details.
Some of the props in your stepbacks are unusual: the cat mask in the stepback for Virginia Henley’s Seduced or the vanity set for Henley’s Enticed, for example. Why do you choose to include those, and what helps you decide to give something like this a prominent placement?
I think attention to detail is important, and it’s fun for me to include them. I’m pretty sure there was a Venetian masked ball mentioned in the Henley, hence the mask. The silver vanity set was from my personal antique collection. Since they asked for a Victorian bath scene, I thought it was a perfect addition. Sometimes I would rent props from a prop houses, but If I couldn’t fine what I wanted I would shop for props in department stores and then return them after the shoot. I did whatever I had to do to make the shoot perfect.
Victor Gadino’s Hair
Hair in your art is often carefully lit, often at times almost backlit to give it a bit of a glow. What do you like to create hair in this way?
It’s an old Hollywood trick to backlight the hair with a rim light. It’s just prettier and gives more dimension.
Your models’ hair is often curly, particularly for your female models, with a strong sense of motion. Were those all wigs? What about that sense of motion and shape appeals to you?
Yes most were half or ¾ wings, or hair pieces. I would clip them on to the models. Some models were great and could style their own hair as I requested. Others didn’t have a clue, and I had to play hairdresser. As far as motion…most of the old cover art had lots of wind and everyone’s hair and clothes were always blowing off. It was a popular look at the time. The long wigs I used added so much weight that even with a strong fan they didn’t move. So, I would stand off-camera with a long stick and WACK the hair with the stick as the photographer was shooting!
I always felt I was only as good as my last job.
The stepback for Virginia Henley’s Enslaved has a radical use of hair, in that it is strategically placed to cover the female model’s bare breast. Was this a deliberate choice of yours? Was it something you “snuck in,” or did you have to discuss this with the publisher’s art department?
That’s an interesting one. It was my idea to have a bare breast, and the art director let me get away with it. Back then, covers were more risqué. It was when Walmart and Kmart started carrying the covers that the sales department got very conservative. Those big chains would not allow racy art on their store shelves! BOOOO
Victor Gadino’s Clothes
Do you love ruffles? So many of the dresses your female models wore have flounces and ruffles that fans conjecture that they’re one of your favorite things.
Yes, ruffles are fun to use and paint and necessary for the period pieces.
Some of the costumes and costume elements appear in multiple stepbacks and covers: the fur boots for your barbarian look, the bodices on Rosemary Rogers’ In Your Arms and All I Desire (which appear to be the same). Were these costumes and accessories that you owned and reused for shoots? If not, were you the one selecting them and opted for them as “known” items?
Some items I owned pieces or had to make, like the sarong for Devil’s Moon…but many times I rented from Brooks Van Horn. It was a fantastic, huge, messy, dark warehouse in Long Island City that had costumes from Broadway and TV dating back to the 1950s. I was always afraid of seeing a rat while digging through dusty racks of costumes. Sadly, it’s gone now. But mostly I rented costumes from Sharon Spiak. She is a very talented romance illustrator and costume maker. She was a great help and even assisted on some shoots.
In some cases, the poses are very similar and show a costume in a parallel manner, such as on the stepbacks for Shadow Play and Dream Fever by Katherine Sutcliffe or the covers for Tiger Dance by Jillian Hunter and Devil’s Moon by Suzannah Davis. Were these taken at the same shoots? Were they the property of the publisher to opt to use similar poses?
It was really up to the art director to suggest a pose, mostly. That was fine with me because it made my job easier. The worst is an art director that doesn’t know what they want until they see it.
I think wet and sexy go together well.
In other cases, there’s very little or no clothing, often in poses involving water: Devil’s Moon and Devil’s Deception by Suzannah Davis or A Well-Favored Gentleman by Christina Dodd. Is painting the dampened body something that appeals to you? If so, why?
Well, it’s fun but a lot more work than painting a dry body. I think wet and sexy go together well. I used to use a spray bottle of warm water and keep spraying as the photographer was shooting. The models were good sports and I always had towels handy for them to use.
Victor Gadino’s Legacy
If you had done no other commercial art than the covers for the Gordon Merrick reprints in the late 1970s, you would still be known for your artwork due to the groundbreaking nature of those publications (from a major publisher, and sold openly, which was amazing for the time). Did you realize when you were working on those the lasting impact they would have?
I had absolutely no clue. I was very young and out of Pratt for only a few years when I started doing those covers. I did get some fan mail, which was surprising and moving because those posters over the years; that’s created my reputation. But I never gave it much thought. I always felt I was only as good as my last job.
Were you able to choose the poses for these covers (men openly embracing, holding hands, etc.)? Or was that driven by the art department at the publisher? How much leeway were you given?
The art department and the art director Barbara Bertoli were very open to my vision, and they embraced the gay liberation movement that was forming at the time….and they were smart to see the spending power of the gay dollar.
I tried to make them sensual without being overly sexual.
What things were you able to put into the Merrick covers that you didn’t expect?
I guess just the closeness of the figures…I tried to make them sensual without being overly sexual. The biggest problem was finding male models that were willing to pose. In those days, male models were very much in the closet and worried about appearing gay even if they were not. They thought it would hurt their future bookings. But luckily there were others who were more secure and willing to pose with another man. I’m not sure they all knew how sexual and raunchy Merrick’s books were. They even shocked me!
Victor Gadino, the Artist
You produce both commercial and fine art. Do you differentiate your technique when you’re working in each?
No, not at all. Years ago, illustrators were seen as “less than” fine artists, but that has changed.
You’ve created everything from movie-poster art to book-cover art to galleried and juried pieces. What stands out to you about these different genres?
The only difference to me is now my commercial art is all digital, but I still draw and paint for my fine-art pieces.
How do you keep growing as an artist?
Always trying to challenge myself.
Years ago, illustrators were seen as “less than” fine artists, but that has changed.
Where do you think book cover art will move in the future?
Who knows? Maybe covers that somehow move or change with some new technology.
And one last question: What’s one thing you wish someone would ask you in an interview that they never do?
Where does my talent come from??? But I have no answer. It’s been with me for as far back as I can remember. Some people say I’m channeling spirits….OK!
To learn more about Victor:
- Jacqueline Diaz’s great overview of his work at Sweet Savage Flame
- Article about Victor Gadino at The Advocate
- Damon Suede‘s appreciation of the Gordon Merrick books
- Directory of Illustration‘s entry on Victor Gadino
- Elisa Rolle‘s summation of Victor Gadino’s art and career