Saturday, June 2, 2018

The Lesser Look: “Blue Mascara Tears”

Part of a month-long celebration of Ron Lesser’s artistic legacy.


Blue Mascara Tears, by James McKimmey (Ballantine, 1965). According to Lesser, the cover model used in this painting was Lisa Karen, who also features in his cover—shown below—for The Darkest Urge, by John Nemec (Private Edition, 1966).


This is one of many paperback fronts that have been misidentified over the decades as having been painted by Robert McGinnis, while it’s actually Ron Lesser who deserves the credit. When I ask him about such confusions, Lesser says: “I know my work from the late 1960s until 1978 is often compared to Bob’s. I do take that as a compliment. However, if you study my work after 1978 you will see a very different look. It was at that time I switched to oils and I deliberately changed my painting approach, for many reasons. Before 1978, I was using water-based paint—casein white for body, and then designers’ colors, which have more ‘body’ (covering ability) than watercolors, but less than casein.”

He recalls further how he changed his paint mediums over the years: “When I left [Frank J.] Reilly’s class [at New York’s Art Students League], I continued to paint in oil for awhile. All of the paintings I did in class were in oil, so it was natural for me to paint in oil. But because of the influence of McGinnis and [Mitchell] Hooks, paperback publishers were looking for a more modern-style technique than the very ‘painty’ look of oil art … that was very popular since the ’40s. … So I altered my technique away from what I was doing to what was rapidly a changing market in the look of paperback covers. McGinnis used egg tempera which he made himself. Egg tempera uses eggs in the mixture. I tried making this, but the smell from rotting eggs was terrible. I guess I wasn’t doing it right.”

Finally, I ask Lesser a question that has been on my mind and that of others as well: “If I understand correctly, during the 1960s you were brought in occasionally by publishers to work on some series (I’m thinking here particularly of the Carter Brown and John D. MacDonald books) that were known for their McGinnis cover illustrations. It may have been that McGinnis himself was too busy at the time with other projects, but in any case, you were seemingly asked to maintain a continuity of style. And you did a terrific job of it. As a commercial artist, you knew you were beholden to the clients to deliver the sort of covers they wanted. But did it bother you at all that you weren’t given the opportunity in those instances to come up with something showcasing your own approach and ideas?”

To which Lesser responds: “I never felt that I was not painting what came naturally to me at the time … I was never asked to maintain a style. I knew what publishers expected from me in regard to these kind of covers. As I said, it was a natural fit for me.

“I had a long career painting paperbacks. I strongly believe I succeeded because I never gave the art directors problems. Before 1980, the art directors had a lot of power in regard to the selection of the artist, the content of the art, the sketch approval, etc. For whatever reason, that power was ceded to the editorial department during the ’80s. I knew if the art director gave me instructions, it was coming from editorial. There were times I disagreed with the instructions: from my point of view there was an approach that would have made for a better cover than the approach I was given. I would offer my opinion one time only. After that I would obey the wishes of the AD, knowing he had to please editorial. To argue with the AD would embarrass him, because no AD would admit he had very little control over what the editorial department wanted.

“Note: the only [book-publishing] company I worked for that had female art directors was Harlequin.”

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