Making Paint

Time article Safran Nov 17 1961

This is a Time magazine letter from the publisher about my father Bernard Safran (Nov 17, 1961) and how he made his own paints and medium.

Many pigments and oil paints used through the ages were made from poisonous or rare ingredients. My father worked regularly with toxins and pigments that were still readily available to him in the 1960s and 1970s to make his own paints (many of these ingredients are no longer available). For those colors that were more difficult to obtain the raw ingredients for, he purchased premade tubes of paint.

Most of these things were available for purchase in New York City – for others he would buy by mail order – like the mastic tears (the sun dried resin from the mastic tree Pistacia lentiscus) that came all the way from Chios, Greece, in a  completely raw form .

Raw materials from Bernard Safran's studio

Some of the ingredients he kept to make his materials: mastic tears from Chios; rabbit skin glue for finishing boards; lead oxide for making the Maroger medium. Note that he kept turpentine in a wine bottle. In fact he and my mother kept a lot of dangerous stuff in wine bottles including their film developing chemicals. As a child I just had to learn not to touch anything I wasn’t given permission to.

My Dad mostly bought tubes of paint when it was an especially rare color like Mummy Brown (made from the flesh of ancient Egyptian mummies), or if it was highly poisonous and he couldn’t get the raw materials – like the white lead paint that he preferred because it was the purest white (and a long involved process to make) or the rare tube of Paris Green that was made from the extremely dangerous copper(II) acetoarsenite (used historically for killing insects and rodents).

Cochineal Lake was a red pigment made from the body and eggs of the cochineal beetle; it produced a brilliant red when glazed. Another red, Vermillion (then made from mercury sulphide), was toxic and not light fast – which my father soon found out after painting the background of his self portrait with it – it turned a nasty black over time after exposure to sunlight. He then scraped off the bad color and repainted it with Cadmium Red – another highly toxic compound that has proved stable.

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Bernard Safran’s paint box with matching palette that he used for sketching outside or for doing on-the-spot color sketches of clients for portraits at their homes or offices. I’ve also included his folding stool for sitting outdoors, one of his plein air sketches of our red house in Jolicure, and some tube paints that he used for convenience when away from his studio.

In his studio, lined up along the back of his work table (made from a door set on two trestles with shelves) were many brightly colored jars of pigments and the ingredients for the black oil that he made – including large quantities of lead oxide.

A selection of pigments remaining from Safran's studio

A selection of some of the pigments remaining from my father’s studio. Also included – two of his mortars and pestles – the one on the left is made of marble.

I remember him explaining the history and use of some of these pigments to me and he showed me a book that had information on each color and how it was historically made and used. He didn’t consider it a safety hazard to have these things in the house or to handle them on a daily basis, as he was fastidious in their use and as he said – he never put any of it in his mouth.

Bernard Safran's reference books on materials and methods of the Old Masters

Some of my father’s reference books on the materials and methods of the great artists of the past. Open on the left is the book by Maroger The Secret Formulas and Techniques of the Old Masters (1948). I opened it to Ruben’s method which is what my father followed. Open on the right is the book The Artist’s Handbook of Materials and Techniques by Ralph Mayer (1940) that he showed me when I was a kid so I could read about all the weird things paint has been made out of over time.

When he cooked the Maroger black oil medium he always did it outside on a temperate day. It took several hours as I recall and smelled pretty bad. He had a dedicated set of scales, pots, measuring and stirring tools, and a two burner hotplate that he could plug in outside. All of these things have lasted for decades – my mother was still using them up to about 5 years ago to make the medium for herself.

He was very disciplined about his work and got up at the same time each day to have breakfast and then go to his studio by 9am at the latest. The first thing he did was to make the paints that he would need for the day. With his years of experience he was able to estimate how much of each color he’d need – and the amount was always small since he painted in thin glazes and in a paced manner required by the nature of the medium that needed to be dried between sessions.

Bernard Safran's palette

This was my father’s palette. After his death my mother used it for her painting because its quite large and sits comfortably on the arm. My father kept the palette very clean by scraping off the dried accumulated paint after work every day and wiping it with a cloth – you could see the grain of the wood. My mother however didn’t keep it so clean, as you can see from the build up of paint on its surface.

He would first measure out the raw pigment into a mortar and pestle and grind the pigment finely. Then placing the ground pigment onto a glass sheet, he would mix some of the medium into it by using a palette knife. He did this by scooping up the two ingredients and then slapping the oil and pigment down together over and over again til it was completely mixed and smooth.

Then he would transfer the freshly made paint onto his palette. The order of the colors on the palette was always the same from tradition, and so it became rote as to where the paint was and could be used without even looking directly at the palette.

Bernard Safran's old swivel chair from his studio.

My father’s old swivel chair from his studio – I think it originally came from his father’s business supply store. It really creaks and its a sound I associate with my father working in the studio.

He had a large easel that could accommodate large paintings but he also used his drawing table to support smaller works. He used the same old wood swivel chair everyday and with the same taboret at his side – on which rested his palette. Sometimes he used a maul stick to support his hand while doing fine work.

And the radio or a cassette player was always on – his favorite music to work to was opera.

 

Bernie in studio blk and white

This photo shows my Dad in his studio in Bronxville, at his easel with his drawing table on the right and his taboret on the left. He’s holding an artist’s tool called a maul stick – he’d lean it against the top of the painting or easel and then was able to steady his painting hand against it while painting.

 

 

 

 

 

1970s – Magical Moose

In Jolicure, NB, we lived in a pretty remote area, surrounded by empty fields and bordered by miles of forest and Long Lake, so we had our moments with the wildlife out there.

The red farmhouse from the lake in summertime

The Red Farmhouse from the lake – summertime. You can see the upstairs hall window on the left of the house – its the upper dormered window

The first winter we were there in January 1973, we had just moved into our old farmhouse and were in the process of making the house liveable – and we didn’t really know the area at all. We didn’t have a dog yet so we weren’t going for walks everywhere everyday and it wasn’t spring yet with the impassable mud road that we had to hike along. Also we were newbies to the countryside having lived in the NYC area for our entire lives and weren’t quite up to speed with the natural world that we had just launched ourselves into. So we had not yet met our wildlife neighbors.

One wintery January day close to dusk, I happened to look out our upstairs hall window. The view was across some fields and a hilly incline to the abandoned white farmhouse that stood between us and the forest – just down the road that went by our house to the tiny community of Midgic (which was about 7 miles of forest away).

The abandoned white farmhouse, Jolicure

The abandoned white farmhouse near our house on the road to Midgic. You can see the forest in the distance.

Anyway, I saw what looked like 4 horses frolicking around in a circle on the distant rise in front of the white house – they were big and very graceful and looked like some magical vision there in the wintery dusk. I called to everyone to come see – and as I stood there watching I realized they were moose. I couldn’t believe that these giants could look so light on their feet. Big lumbering awkward, funny looking moose – but these were so graceful – like ballet dancers graceful. It was a beautiful sight and one I never saw again… though we saw moose frequently thereafter…

Bullwinkle the Moose

I grew up watching the cartoon Rocky and Bullwinkle – I think this is actually a very realistic portrayal of a handsome moose.

We had one giant bull moose that lived somewhere behind our house by the lake. We would see him pretty regularly swimming across the lake in the evening as the sun went down – his big head and enormous antlers seemingly floating along the still water. And we could hear him sometimes – a big deep bellowing/honking kind of sound that echoed off the forest wall and across the lake. (click on the word ‘HERE’ at this link to hear a bull moose http://moosetique.com/moose-sound/)

The other moose seemed to live in the forest on the road to Midgic. It was uncanny how sometimes we’d go for a walk with the dog down the dirt/mud road and it would be clear of car tracks and animal tracks – washed clean, say, after a rain.

moose tracks, image from all-about-moose.com

Moose tracks
(image from all-about-moose.com)

When we’d turn around to go home along the same stretch of road we’d see our tracks from earlier. But it wasn’t just our tracks anymore – the entire surface of the road would be covered with moose and deer tracks. They’d apparently watched us go by, and then come out and run up and down the road. Then when we were returning, jump back into the brush before we could see them.

This is the honest truth, really. It happened all the time.

I spent many hours out in the forest alone with just the dog, and I never ran into a moose. The dog and I would follow game trails and old logging roads and find animal tracks, and droppings and see where wild animals had nibbled the trees and plants or left the remains of a kill.

A big moose seen in McAdam New Brunswick, http://northerncomfort.info/bigmoose.html

A Big Moose seen in McAdam, New Brunswick,
image from http://northerncomfort.info/bigmoose.html

I never encountered anything dangerous and only ever heard things breaking twigs or crunching through the underbrush off in the distance. I knew the moose were there, and I’d heard about bears, and I’d seen wildcat tracks. But these animals were elusive and though they may have been interested in us, they never approached and always kept a distance.

I was never afraid of the wildlife there. Even when I knew they were watching us…

I’ll be writing about some of the other wildlife near our house in Jolicure, in a future post.

Learning Greek

… and please don’t say “its all Greek to me”…

I entered my first year at Mount Allison University thinking I’d major in French. I’d been pretty good at conversational French in High School where that’s all we did (little reading and even less writing – it was an educational experiment) and because I was in Canada I thought being a French major would guarantee me work somewhere…

Harry Hamlin as Perseus in the Clash of the Titans

Who doesn’t enjoy some Ancient Greek history now and then?
Harry Hamlin as Perseus in the 1981 movie Clash of the Titans

However, I took one elective through the Classical Studies Department – a survey of ancient Greek and Roman art and architecture and I enjoyed this class so much I changed my major to Classical Studies and Greek – and that naturally meant I had to learn ancient Greek.

Languages have never come easily to me (and when I look back on it I wonder why I ever thought I would major in French). Some people thrive studying languages whether ancient or modern, but not me. It was a daily struggle with all of it. I can honestly say that I had to look up just about every word and parse it for every kind of ancient Greek text that I read (and I read a lot during my academic career).

I finally started to really enjoy it in graduate school when I took a class on Homeric Greek and we read the Illiad and some of the Homeric Hymns. But even for that class I had to pretty much write out each word and study it. But, as I said, I eventually found the Homeric Greek a joy to read.

Ancient Greek texts

Just a couple of the texts that I read in school – one by Plato, another by Sophocles, and my two reference books that I couldn’t survive without.

When I started going to work in Greece on archaeological digs it meant that I also needed to learn some modern Greek so that I could get by on my own. When I was in Athens I generally lived by myself in apartments that I rented from other (much more well to do) graduate students or professors who kept places there year round.

I became very adept at taxi Greek, groceries Greek and restaurant Greek. I also got very good at reading the entertainment paper to find movie listings.

My conversational Greek however left much to be desired, at least until just before I left Greece for good in 1985 – by then I actually spoke more like a native, and a woman at a clothing store kept asking me if I was Greek – well I had to have Greek parents, I must be from some Greek family… and so on. I was buying sport socks so this was something of an achievement for me.

Betty on 2nd floor of the Stoa of Attalos

Me striking a pose on the 2nd floor of the Stoa of Attalos at the Athenian Agora. The offices were behind the partitions… and my cheapo camera has really distorted the columns – but you get a sense of the space and how huge and grand the building is.
c 1981

Going back to the second season that I went to work at the Agora (see my previous post Travels to Aphaia) I mostly traveled alone and lived alone.  I was determined to experience everything I could in the time that I was there including learning more about modern Greek culture. I wanted to be open to whatever came my way…

It was literally my first day back in Athens and I headed down to the Plaka to find a pair of handmade sandals. I knew the store I wanted to go to and headed straight there. Afterwards, I poked around in some of the other shops killing time. And though I had little or no money I wandered into a jewellery store. I was hankering for a pair of silver Bronze Age style axe head earrings (which I eventually got).

the Plaka in Athens, source: wikimedia commons, photo by Spyrosdrakopoulos

Once you get away from all the tourist shops, the Plaka is very beautiful and quiet.
The Plaka, image source: wikimedia commons, photo by Spyrosdrakopoulos

The guy working there persisted in talking to me and since he didn’t have anyone else in the shop he spent some time showing me jewellery. Then out of the blue he asked me to join him and his family for dinner that night. So having made the commitment to myself to live life as an Athenian, I said yes.

I returned later in the evening when he closed up the shop, and he took me home to meet his family. They lived in a very modern apartment building. I remember that the living room had white marble floors and walls and was very spacious with a big picture window.

My modern Greek was non existent at this time (except for my taxi Greek and grocery Greek) and the entire family was there speaking a mile a minute. I think there were about 14 people – brothers, sisters, parents, aunts, cousins – I don’t know…

Soon we all got in cars and drove a long way to a restaurant in an area I’d never been to before. It was packed with local people, and we were put at a long table so that the whole group could sit together. The conversation went rapidly back and forth and I didn’t catch any of it. The fellow who invited me was very polite and solicitous – but I felt like such an outsider and also like an intruder into this family outing.

At one point when the table was completely covered with dishes of food I asked politely for the bread to be passed – or at least that’s what I thought I’d said. Well, apparently the woman across from me thought I’d asked for something that sounds a lot like bread but actually is the street word for penis… all Hell broke loose…

Betty at bakery in Athens 1981

Here I am with my friendly neighborhood baker during my first trip to Athens in 1981.
I guess its obvious why the word for bread is similar to the word for you know what…
I thought I was pronouncing “bread” fine in Greek – after all I bought bread almost everyday from this bakery – but maybe that’s why this man was so friendly when I went in?

People started screaming at me – at the guy – at each other – I understood enough Greek curses to know that I was being called some not very nice things.

At that point the guy took me out of the restaurant – thank God. I was hoping that that was it for the evening. But no. He took me to the most expensive, newest hotel in Athens, to the bar for a drink.

After all the insulting things I’d been called at the restaurant, I felt really uncomfortable going to a bar in a hotel. I was really suspicious about his intentions by then, so I got out of there as fast as I could and grabbed a taxi back to my place. And thank goodness my taxi Greek was good enough then to take me where I needed to go.

I was so scarred by that experience that I avoided that street in the Plaka for the next few years – I couldn’t bear to see that guy ever again. And believe me I was very – very careful from then on with my pronunciation of the Greek word for bread.

Jack Paar – Host of The Tonight Show

August 1958

Jack Paar

Jack Paar

The Managing Editor of Time Magazine, Otto Fuerbringer, called my Dad into the Time offices in the first week of August 1958 to do some some quick sketches for a cover portrait of Jack Paar the comedian and host of The Tonight Show.

Fuerbringer chose an idea from the my father’s sketches, and told my Dad he had one week to do the painting. Usually my Dad had two weeks to paint a portrait, though sometimes, like the portrait of Germany’s Ludwig Erhard (October 28, 1957) he was given as little as 2 and a half days.

Jack Paar and Judy Garland - The Tonight Show

Comedian Jack Paar hosted The Tonight Show during the late 1950s and early 1960s, and all the top celebrities of the day made appearances. This is Jack Paar with Judy Garland.

Fuerbringer told my Dad that there were no photographic references of Paar yet – Paar was in Cuba at the time and was apparently being uncooperative. So my Dad started painting the background first.

The reference photographs of Paar didn’t arrive till two days before deadline – meaning that the most important part of the portrait had to be rushed.

(There were other occasions like this that I remember, when my father was under a lot of pressure and we had to be very quiet in the house because he was working hard – no running and screaming with my friends (a favorite past time).  I remember not being allowed to disturb him or go into the studio til the rushed painting was done – or at least until my father was through the worst of the work.)

My father managed to deliver the cover on schedule.

Jack Paar by Bernard Safran, August 18, 1958 - source: Time Archives

Jack Paar by Bernard Safran, August 18, 1958 – source: Time Archives

And while delivering it he met for the first time the Senior Editor Henry Grunwald. Grunwald liked the painting and said that all the “lights in the windows of the houses in the background were all the people in their bathrooms during commercial break”.

NBC Peacock logo designed by John J. Graham in 1956

NBC Peacock logo designed by John J. Graham in 1956

NBC ran the cover during their station breaks the entire week after it was published – it was a great success.

A few months later in December my Dad was invited to a luncheon for Jack Paar held in a suite in a Park Avenue hotel. Also attending were Otto Fuerbringer, Jim Keogh, Louis Banks, Baker and a couple of other senior editors.

Apparently Parr talked throughout the entire luncheon and didn’t eat. My father was seated next to him and it came up that my father was building a house in Bronxville. Paar asked “Where did you find the land? I had a choice of two lots,” and my dad answered – “I had a choice of one” – Paar didn’t find this very funny.

According to my father’s notes Paar built himself up publicly as a nice guy but everyone who knew him thought “he was a swine”. Throughout the lunch he proceeded to bad talk everyone he knew in show business – talking about their ingratitude towards him, etc.

After eating, the senior editors presented the cover portrait by my father to Paar as a gift from Time.

Time gave many of the cover portraits away to the people in them – usually to the great delight of the receiver… but Paar was unhappy. He complained that my father hadn’t got the color of his eyes right and that he’d made his eyes too baggy.

As they left the hotel and were walking down the street, Feurbringer said to my father within hearing of all the Time people, “I thought you caught him very well to me”.

Travels to Aphaia

For a change of pace, I’m going to jump from the 1960s to the 1980s – to when I was a graduate student and working in Athens at the Athenian Agora as an assistant and pottery profiler for Dr. Susan Rotroff.

Dr. Rotroff along with several other scholars and dig staff had offices on the second floor of the Stoa of Attalos – the reconstructed, long porched building found below the Acropolis.

Stoa of Attalos - Ancient Agora, Athens Greece - source wikipedia.org

The Stoa of Attalos is the big red roofed building in the picture. It’s a full restoration of the original 2nd century BC building. The lower floor houses the museum of the Athenian Agora; the top floor has offices and storage for the excavation; the basement is storage as well.
photo source wikipedia.org

I was there for my second season in 1983 and shared an office with the dig architect William (Bill) Dinsmoor Junior (Bill’s father William Dinsmoor Senior, had also been site architect).

Betty drawing pottery at the Stoa of Attalos, Agora Excavations

Betty drawing pottery at the Stoa of Attalos, Agora Excavations, Athens, Greece

The office space in which we worked was a replica of the ancient commercial space that was in the original 2nd century B.C. building. It was a square room just off the large roofed,  colonnaded terrace of the second floor of the Stoa. In the office were many of Bill’s (and his father’s) site drawings and elevations and drawn reconstructions of all the wonderful structures of the ancient market place. The large flat files contained other drawings for the dig, including the most beautiful watercolor paintings of pottery I have ever seen, done decades earlier by very talented artists.

Temple of Aphaia, c 500 BC

Temple of Aphaia, c 500 BC

I was restless to do some weekend traveling and not spend all my time in the city, so I decided to do a simple trip to Aegina – an island very close to the Mainland –  about an hour by ferry from Piraeus. I had been there a couple of times previously and had fallen in love with the Temple of Aphaia.

Fallen Warrior from pediment of the Temple of Aphaia

Fallen Warrior from the east pediment of the Temple of Aphaia. The original sculptures are in the Glyptothek of Munich.

Head of a Sphinx, Acroteria from Temple of Aphaia

I’ve always been partial to Archaic Greek sculpture – I love the clean planes and gentle smiles. The sculptures from this temple are particularly beautiful in my opinion.
Head of a Sphinx, Acroteria from Temple of Aphaia

It was a simple trip from Athens: I took the train to Piraeus, then the ferry to Aegina and the public bus to the temple, from where I could walk down the hill to the village of Agia Marina below and find cheap lodgings for the weekend stay.

When I told Bill my plans he insisted I go visit the German archaeological team working at the temple and he quickly wrote me a letter of introduction to take.

Betty on Aegina in 1981

On my first trip to Aegina, a friend and I rented this little house for about $8 for the night – it was situated on the slopes above the village of Agia Marina and below the Temple of Aphaia.
Betty on Aegina in 1981

I arrived sometime just after lunch and found the guard and gave him my letter from Bill and explained who I was. He went off behind the temple to a building I hadn’t even noticed on my previous visits. And when he came back he ushered me to the dig buildings where I met the team.

Some of the publications for Aphaia

Some of the publications for Aphaia

They spoke some English and  I spoke no German, but it didn’t matter. They were so generous with their time and showed me all their recent finds, the storage areas, and took me to see the beautiful casts of the sculptures from the temple (the originals are in the Glyptothek of Munich).

After tea and giving me copies of all the publications that they had, they insisted I stay with them overnight.

Betty on Aegina c1983

Here I am – the intrepid, serious student of archaeology – never without my handmade Greek sandals and my camera. I’m up on the hill where the Temple of Aphaia is located.
I can look at this picture and still hear the thrumming of the insects, feel the soft heat of the sun, and smell the strong clean pine scent in the air – its a very special place.

A young woman about my age, a graduate student like myself, from the Universität Tübingen, took me to her pretty quarters set in a profuse and wild garden, and set me up on a cot.

We had fun making dinner and talking and we became friends. She and I corresponded for years until she moved and I moved… and somehow we lost touch.

Because of that trip The Temple of Aphaia became even more treasured to me – I owed that wonderful experience to Bill’s generosity and kindness and the generosity and kindness of the scholars I met there.

Tennessee Williams

One of my favorite portraits that my father did while he was at Time Magazine, was of Tennessee Williams the great American playwright.

Night of the Iguana original playbill - opened Dec  28 1961

The original playbill to the first stage production of Night of the Iguana. Bette Davis was the lead role for the first four months – she was replaced by Shelley Winters for the remainder of the run. The play ran for 316 performances.

In February 1962, my parents were given front row seats for a performance of Williams’ play Night of the Iguana in New York City, and then afterwards met Tennessee Williams and his partner Frank Merlo for drinks at Time’s theater critic Ted Kalem’s apartment.

My father greatly admired the playwright for his forthright manner and honesty, and for bravely conquering subject matter that was considered taboo at the time like rape, homosexuality, cannibalism and alcoholism (and more…).

I recently discovered that my Dad had done a quick, casually rendered pencil sketch of Tennessee Williams – which he gave to Williams. It might have been a preliminary sketch that he did prior to painting the oil portrait, or, given the free hand that it was done with, it might have been done that night after the performance.

The drawing remained in Williams’ private collection along with a copy of the 1962 Time cover, and it’s now kept with Williams’ other papers at the University of Texas at Austin at the Harry Ransom Humanities Research Center.

sketch of Tennessee Williams by Bernard Safran

Sketch of Williams by Bernard Safran

The original oil painting is in the collection of the National Portrait Gallery at the Smithsonian Institution in Washington, DC.

When I was an intern at the Smithsonian in the early 1980s I unexpectedly walked into the NPG and saw this painting hanging in the gallery – it was a thrilling moment for me.

My father painted Williams staring straight at the viewer – when you look at the portrait it’s his piercing blue eyes you see first. It’s as if he’s caught Williams in a private conversation, and it’s the moment when he has just paused to take a drag on his cigarette between words.

Tennessee Williams by Bernard Safran, March 1962 - source Time Archive

Tennessee Williams by Bernard Safran, March 1962 – source Time Archives, original oil painting in the collection of the National Portrait Gallery, Smithsonian Institution, Washington DC

His expression suggests that he is about to say some brilliant, perhaps, caustic remark.

Tennesee Williams new crop hresIts clear that my father really enjoyed playing up the textures in the portrait – the rough weave of the jacket; the thick knitted softness of the sweater; the glossy hair; the fine smoke from the cigarette; and the thickly painted swirling colors of the backdrop. All these elements serve to set off the finely realized head – the emotional center of the work.

I once asked my father why he painted an abstract background on this cover when he never painted abstract works, and he explained that he could do abstracts if he wanted to, he just never found it as compelling or challenging to create. However, for this work, he felt it was the only choice.

He told me that good abstract art relied on the same principles of composition and color as figurative realism. It’s why he always felt that art schools should teach the fundamentals to every student no matter what they ended up pursuing.

My father never explained it further but perhaps he used an abstract background because it best exemplified the turmoil and modernity of Williams’ subject matter.

The Power of a Face

In previous posts I’ve written how my father, Bernard Safran became a Time Magazine portrait cover artist in 1957 (see Getting in the Door at Time Inc).

Several famous artists were already working for the weekly magazine when my Dad was hired, including Boris Artzybasheff, Robert Vickrey, Boris Chaliapin and Henry Koerner.

Artzybasheff and Chaliapin befriended my father when he joined “the stable” of Time’s portrait artists, and they called themselves the Three Russians.

Other artists who created cover art while my Dad was there include (in 1965 alone) Marc Chagall, Saul Steinberg, Ben Shahn, Bernard Buffet, Tamayo, and Andy Warhol. So doing Time Magazine covers was a pretty respected achievement.

Time Magazine covers were meant to be compelling on newsstands and to communicate quickly to the viewer what the lead story was about. To do this the background art was often reduced to an easily recognizable image or symbol: a hammer and sickle for Russia; a flag for the European Economic Union and so on.

In many cases my father chose the content behind the head himself to emphasize the unique qualities of the person – and sometimes, to reinforce his feelings about the individual… such was the case with the portrait of the Nazi war criminal Adolph Eichmann. My father abhorred the man and its obvious in this portrait – he painted Eichmann in as unsympathetic a way that he could – lizard like; the color of death; unrepentant; surrounded by a non representational background suggestive of black ash and red flame.

unpublished Time cover portrait commissioned for Eichmann's arrest and trial Bernard Safran, March 1961

unpublished Time cover portrait of Adolph Eichmann
Bernard Safran, March 1961

This use of thematic props and background images falls well within the tradition of portraiture – think of the portraits of Holbein, John Singleton Copely, Vermeer, David Hockney and Cindy Sherman – in many of their portraits (including self portraits) the artists show the interests and attributes of the sitter by including props, symbols or settings that amplify the character’s interests and qualities.

And, if its a good portrait it will also embody the unique personality of the sitter through the physical qualities of the person: the gestures and expression, the posture, the set of the facial features, the hair – making the head and whatever amount of the body that’s shown, the most compelling part of the painting.

My father was particularly adept at making the heads appear three dimensional because of the way he painted the form of the head and the texture and color of the skin through his use of paint.

If you go to the Time Archives and look through the covers from the period in which my father worked, I guarantee that you can see his portraits pop out of the crowd – his heads are fully formed, expressive people full of emotions, opinions and energy.

He approached each portrait with the same amount of intuitive attention, and gave each the same amount of… shall I say love?

The cover portrait was compelling just by itself – it could subtly impact public opinion by means of its emotional impact on the viewer…  was this person good or bad, strong or weak – should we like them or not?

detail of Time's1960 Man of the Year - President Eisenhower by Bernard Safran

detail of Time’s 1960 Man of the Year cover
President Dwight D. Eisenhower by Bernard Safran
Collection of the Smithsonian National Portrait Gallery, Washington, D.C.

The portraits could be heroic like the one my father painted of President Eisenhower (a man he greatly admired) or cold and unpleasant like the one of Indonesia’s military dictator Achmad Sukarno.

Sukarno by Bernard Safran, March 1958 - source Time Archives

Sukarno by Bernard Safran, March 1958 – source Time Archives

The portrait of Sukarno was one of the first portraits my father did for Time in 1958, and it was so unflattering to Sukarno that the leader was incensed by the cover.

The reaction so pleased the senior editors that they decided to bring my father on full time with a guaranteed number of cover portraits per year on the condition that he work exclusively for the corporation.

My father always said it was much harder to paint someone he didn’t like – because his personal feelings came across so clearly in the final work despite himself.

In upcoming posts I’ll focus more on individual covers and the stories my father told about them.