Jersey City Illustrator Don Sipley Carves Out a Niche in Fantasy Romance

Jersey City artist Don Sipley is one of the most prolific illustrators in his field, a sub-genre of fiction many never think about, but one that has a small, intense, and largely female fan base.

Sipley designs cover art for fantasy romance novels. The books he’s worked on include A Witch’s Beauty (seen at right), Vampire Mistress, Wait for Dusk, and the amusingly titled Divine Misdemeanors. He does about 50 covers a year.

After earning his degree in illustration from the School of Visual Arts, Sipley spent much of his early career doing fashion illustration. He first entered the cover art field in 2004, when his agent from Lott Representatives got him an assignment to do a Harlequin Romance title. After a few mainstream romance covers, the commissions evolved (monster-like!) to the fantasy romance sub-genre.

It was an area he purposely sought out, after a sit-down with his agent about what kinds of cover work was available. Fantasy romance seemed a good fit.

“Don’s work has a current, hip look to it and art directors like the edginess,” says his agent, Peter Lott. “His work isn’t done in soft focus like many peers, it’s sharper and more aggressive. In this particular field, you want the covers to look borderline erotic and dangerous, and Don delivers that.”

Publishers send Sipley brief descriptions of a book’s hero and heroine — their hair color, wardrobe, and the situation they’re in — then it’s up to him to interpret how the cover should look.

An avid photographer, Sipley sometimes sets up a backdrop and shoots models out of his apartment on 1st Street in downtown, but usually he arranges and oversees shoots at the Shirley Green Photography studio in Manhattan. He says he likes that particular studio because they have a large roster of models on call, as well as their own cadre of props and costume items like fishnet stockings and chokers.

A Witch's Beauty by Don Sipley

A Witch’s Beauty by Don Sipley

“They have a bulletin board absolutely covered with photos of men and women,” Sipley says of the Union Square studio. “So, if I need, say, a red-headed woman paired with an especially tall guy with black hair, they can get the appropriate people in.”

After getting a few dozen shots to work with, the real task begins. Sipley finds the picture he likes best and then spends up to four days whipping it into shape using editing programs like Photoshop and Illustrator. He adds backdrops — hilltop castles, darkened alleyways and raging seas — and manipulates the models’ looks to match up with whatever supernatural being they’re supposed to represent.

“If the book is about a vampire, you might make his or her eyes yellow,” Sipley says. “If it’s about a shapeshifter, I’ll show a shadow image of an animal behind him.”

Couples in Sipley’s cover art are almost invariably in a “clinch” — a passionate embrace.

“What I’m trying to portray is the moment before a guy rips a woman’s clothes off,” Sipley says.

What he does not want to portray is anything too offensive to be displayed publicly at your neighborhood Target. Sipley’s covers never show actual sex, for instance, or anyone clinching with a character who’s not identifiably human(ish).

Sipley works with publishers Harlequin, Berkley, Penguin, Harper Collins, and Simon & Schuster. Most runs are about 25,000 copies.

These publishers pay, on average, $2,000 for a completed piece, but sometimes up to $5,000 if the printing includes a hardcover. Out of that, Sipley has to pay the models — who earn a flat $180 an hour — plus buy studio time and purchase any props or equipment he may need. His agent also gets 25 percent off the top. Though most of his commercial art is in the fantasy arena, he does still occasionally work in the Western, historical, and contemporary romance genres.

In addition to his work in publishing, Sipley also teaches a drawing class in Manhattan’s Fashion Institute of Technology and exhibits his paintings each October during the Jersey City Artists Studio Tour. His personal art is realistic, but much more stylized than his commercial art. Images are stripped of superfluous lines, with a two-dimensional look, typically rendered in vivid colors. Sipley is often compared to the late Patrick Nagel, who was active in the 70s and 80s.

So, what are the most popular monsters these days?

“I do a decent number of shape-shifters, ghosts, and witches each year, plus a few zombies, demons and the paranormal investigators who fight them,” Sipley says. “But vampires have really taken off since Twilight came out. These days, about half of my total work is in vampires.”

Do you read any of these books yourself?

“No comment.”

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is a writer with 20 years of journalism, corporate communications and ad copywriting experience. He currently covers how nonprofits invest their assets for Institutional Investor. He also produces Shut Up & Laugh, a monthly comedy show held in Jersey City.