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.


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.







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