Photography: Ghostly Hoofbeats by Norman A. Fox (Dell Publishing, 1952)/Glenn D. Shirley Western Americana Collection, Dickinson Research Center.

American western novels have a history of featuring detailed covers.

Karen Spilman was in the process of cataloging 4,000 paperback books from the  Glenn D. Shirley Western Americana Collection when she was struck by how detailed and interesting the covers were. “I began noticing a number of artists appearing with the publications and wondered why most of them never moved into what is considered the ‘fine art’ world,” says Spilman, librarian of the Dickinson Research Center in the archives of the National Cowboy & Western Heritage Museum. That curiosity eventually led her to curate the exhibition The Artistry of the Western Paperback, which explores the imaginative creations of Robert Stanley, George Gross, Tom Ryan, and other illustrators of “dynamic and engaging book covers for Western tales of cowboys, villains, duels, and danger.”

Photography: Montana Road by Harry Sinclair Drago (Popular Library, 1960)/Glenn D. Shirley Western Americana Collection, Dickinson Research Center.

The 50 examples of cover art on view span from the 1940s through the 1960s, an era when Western paperbacks were immensely popular and hundreds of illustrators were producing thousands of paperback covers. “Many of these illustrators were only given the title or a brief outline of what the story was to be,” Spilman says. “From this they would generate action-packed and colorful paintings for these covers. Most of the illustrators never knew or interacted with the cowboys they were creating. They lived and worked on the East Coast.” Nonetheless, some — like Tom Ryan and Frank McCarthy, who became members of the Cowboy Artists of America — would go on to develop significant Western credentials.

“These illustrators used the same methods as your typical artists; however, the illustrators had perfected their methods to allow them to finish their paintings in just a few days, whereas a fine art artist could spend months on their works,” Spilman says. “The paintings produced by these illustrators were as detailed and action-filled as many creations of fine art artists.”

The Artistry of the Western Paperback is on view through May 14 at the National Cowboy & Western Heritage Museum in Oklahoma City.

From the May/June 2017 issue.