Artist Profile: Rowena Morrill (1944– )


Rowena Morrill is considered to be one of the first female artists to have an impact on paperback cover illustration.  After receiving a BA from the University of Delaware in 1971, Morrill studied at the Tyler School Of Art.  After a period spent working for an ad agency in New York, she designed her first horror cover in 1977.  Morrill’s paintings have appeared on hundreds of paperback covers and in magazines like Omni, Playboy, Art Scene International, and Print Magazine.

A small sampling of her work can be found below.

Asimov On ThroneBasiliskDragonSongGhosts I Have BeenIsobelKing DragonThe City of the Singing FlameThe Dolphins of PernThe Dreaming JewelsThe Unknown Five

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6 responses to “Artist Profile: Rowena Morrill (1944– )

  1. It is interesting to see a woman’s depiction of the female form in this context. Having looked at the pictures before reading the profile, I had assumed the artist was a man – the women in a few of these images simultaneously exhibit sexual power, athleticism, and vulnerability, as is so often the case with the physical depictions of heroines in this genre.

    I suppose I just perceived that kind of visual representation of women as being a male thing – by males, for males. Clearly, Rowena Morrill knows what the (male) people want. 🙂

    As does the work of other artists you have featured, these paintings effectively get the viewer interested in the story inside the book

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    • I was actually going to comment on exactly this subject prior to the above remarks. In fact, I made observations recently on Roger Ebert’s blog following an article about whether superhero films would be different if they were directed by women (specifically, the roles of women in such motion pictures).

      Regarding the above illustrations by Rowena Morril, this basically proves what I wrote on the Roger Ebert blog. It doesn’t matter if it’s a man or a woman depicting female characters in visual media such as cinema and illustrated artwork.

      Male artists generally depict women as they would like women to appear. Female artists depict women as how the female artist herself wants to appear.

      Look at female fashion designers–they use the same models used by male fashion designers to display their wares. It’s a myth that men and only men perpetuate society’s expectations of women. Also, note well Rowena Morrill’s illustrations of the male form.

      So with all this in mind, no, I’m not at all surprised that Rowena Morrill draws women in such a manner. In fact, I enjoyed a smug feeling of satisfaction upon viewing the above book covers, going back to my aforementioned comments at the Ebert blog. It confirms what I’d already suspected.

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      • Those are interesting observations. But I have rethought my own initial one.

        Consider that regardless of their gender, the artist has been contracted to do a job – create an image that promotes and sells the product. A female artist who understands the realm of entertainment her work is to represent, as well as the audience therefor, would tailor her work to accommodate, and possibly exploit those factors. That’s what she is being paid to do. If her work did not reflect an understanding of these things, she likely would not receive many more commissions in that particular genre.

        Such an artist may portray women differently in paintings she creates as personal expressions, to be displayed or sold in a gallery. But as a commercial artist, she would need to provide images that sell the product (the book or the film) in order to remain in-demand. Morill was, indeed, giving the people what they want. We don’t know how she actually perceives or would like to depict women.

        As for fashion designers, the same basic concept would apply, but on a more personal; level, as related to the consumer. Models are selected to flatter the clothing (more than the other way around) – to get women to think they could look at least somewhat like the model, if they wear (after purchasing, of course) the same garment(s). So, like the book cover/movie poster artist, the female designer’s choices are strategic, and not (necessarily or purely, at least) personally expressive, or supportive of a principle.

        In both cases, the creations the women produce for their employer, or their own business, if their customers are women, would need to largely conform to the image of women that has developed as a result of a male-dominated culture. That image is rooted in anthropology – it was not fabricated from some extreme or random male flight of fancy. But only a very small parentage of women can even approximate it, and men are not held to a comparable standard. How would you like to have to measure up to that guy you mentioned, on the cover of “The City of the Singing Flame” (and be able to beat up butterfly dragons, to boot)? I mean, sure, I look pretty much like that, but most guys…

        Maybe some images of women produced by female artists are wistful and wishful extensions of themselves. In my opinion, though, that would not generally be the case. But what do I know?

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  2. Yes, I did consider that Rowena Morrill’s artworks for these books might have well been driven more by commercial demands than her personal desires. But this possibility (and I accept that when creating art for commercial purposes, it is often fact) dovetails neatly with my previous comments (at Ebert’s blog) about whether superhero films would be different if they were directed by women. I say they wouldn’t be different from what we see now, because the female director, much like the female storybook cover artist, would be beholden to placate the expectations of her audience.

    Every now and again, an artist comes along who cares little for mainstream commercial demands, yet is still able to make a living from his or her artwork. Robert Crumb springs to mind–he unashamedly illustrated his unconventional ideals of female pulchritude in countless comic strips and books. Crumb himself, of course, is hardly likely to advertise for Gold’s Gym anytime soon.

    I would say that in today’s society, men most certainly are held to a comparable standard of the so-called physical ideal. In fact, the “male standard” is possibly even harder to achieve than the “female standard”. In order to look like your favourite MMA fighter (unless his name is Tank Abbott), you’d need to take some serious chemicals (many not readily available across the counter from your friendly neighbourhood doctor) and spend countless hours inside the gymnasium. Not to suggest that women should be enslaved by the expectations of Madison Avenue, but really, most women that I see could really shape up if they bypassed the golden arches, went easy on the booze and picked up a salad fork for a change. Speaking for myself, I’m not interested in living up to “society’s ideals”. Although I must say, I’ve finally got a better physique than Arnie, albeit due more to his neglect than any of my own hard work.

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    • Hmmm…Well, my comments were not about the superhero film/female director scenario. I think you are probably more-or-less correct about the likely results. But I think there might be more nuance and depth to the characters, the dialogue might be more thoughtful and emotion-based, and the women might be somewhat less sexualized. Needless to say, I would not waste money on THOSE films.

      But seriously…On a related note, how many intrinsically unattractive female superheroes are there? It just wouldn’t be embraced. Can you imagine The Hulk, The Thing, or Swamp Thing as women? (Granted, Swamp Thing is not exactly a superhero, but it works well with the question – how well would…she…have been received if she had breasts, a parasol, and a purse?) The super guys can be butt-ugly, as long as they can throw heavy things or otherwise function as a beneficent WMD. But all of the super gals have to look good.

      A female film director who maintains the tradition of attractive and alluring female characters would be justified not simply because the male ticket-buyers want to see hot chicks. I think it has as much to do with being consistent with the idea that these characters are “super” in every way – the high physical aesthetic better sells the super powers thing. An unattractive and non-athletic male superhero would also be rejected by male viewers. Do you think an obese Bat Man would go over well? “Bat Man! They’re shining the Bat Signal!” “Uh, yeah (chew chew)… Okay, Wobin. (chew chew chew) You’re gonna haf to lower me down the Bat Pole with the winch again. But let me finith my thanwith futh. (belch)” Granted, Wonder Woman would lose a lot of her personal power (and as you are indicating in your comments, much of that power is sexual) if she weighed 400 pounds. And she would need to rely almost entirely ion that golden lasso to catch the bad guys, since running would be out of the question.

      But no, really, seriously…I don’t have much to say about superheroes. I do not agree that “real” men are held to the same physical aesthetic standard as women, at least not by women. I doubt most women could name one MMA fighter, much less have a favorite. Hell, I can’t, either. (Well, now I could say “Tank “Abbott”, since you referenced him above.) How many women could name even one Mr. Olympia? They probably don’t even know or care about Arnold’s halcyon history with that competition. From what I have gathered from women, they appreciate and prefer a guy who is in shape. But they don’t seem to particularly like the extreme physiques, and don’t insist that men they date manifest them. At least, not to the extent men do the equivalent.

      If there is pressure for men to meet such a standard, it comes mostly from other men. I agree that male physical development and refinement has been taken to an even greater extreme, but it is male competitiveness, and perhaps a miscomprehension of women’s priorities that impel some men to attempt to attain that level. It is literally what you called – a “male standard”; it is set and applied by men to men.

      While being physically attractive is a huge advantage for an actor, it is much easier for a goofy-looking guy to have a career than for a comparably attractive woman. And in the recording industry, that disparity is even more pronounced. If a woman is not visually marketable, she will have a tough time even getting started. For every hot female singer with a decent or better voice, how many equally or more talented women are there who just don’t look as good? Yet there are plenty of quasi-Neanderthal male artists.

      When all of this trickles down from Madison Avenue and Holly wood to we common people, it has a more dynamic and consequential effect on women than men.

      As for beer and fast food-ravaged physiques, I certainly don’t think women have cornered the market on those. I think men dominate that particular competition, at least in the beer-bloated category. And since they have greater earning potential, they can compensate with money, even if they look like human sloths.

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