My Career in New York – Bernard Safran


My father Bernard Safran had a long career as a fine artist from the early 1960s til his death in 1995. He created unparalleled paintings of city life, rural life, and portraits of family and patrons, but he was always asked about his years in New York City working as an illustrator, and later as a portrait artist for Time Magazine. I guess New York City seemed more glamorous to people than picturing him sitting in his home studio, quietly painting what he wanted to paint. In this talk given at Holland College on Prince Edward Island, he was asked to speak about those years.


 … It was very hard work for me. It had to be good, and I was always very tired when finished, and needed a few days rest as do baseball pitchers – or operatic tenors

Holland College – September 11, 1980

Bernie Safran in park 1950

Bernie Safran c 1950

I’d like to talk to you today about my career in New York. After going to a special high school, the High School of Music and Art where I majored in art, I realized that I wanted to be a professional artist.

I decided to study illustration at Pratt Institute in Brooklyn, which was, and is one of the leading art schools in the United States. I picked illustration because I had to be able to earn my living, and illustration would allow me to do it by painting and drawing. Illustrators at that time were held in great esteem, and earned at the top, a lot of money; the business was quite large and there was a good deal of opportunity. It has all changed in the last number of years with the explosive growth of TV, which eliminated many of the markets by absorbing their advertising dollars. The illustration business now bears no resemblance to what it was then.

The course at Pratt had been set up by a graduate of the famous German Bauhaus. This was an experimental art school formed at the end of the first World War when what is now called Modern Art was already reaching its maturity. The Bauhaus and it’s ideas have exercised a tremendous influence on all our lives since.

Vassily_Kandinsky,_1913_Composition STate Hermitage Museum

1913 Composition by Wassily Kandinsky, State Hermitage Museum

It is responsible for a great deal of contemporary architecture through the work of Gropius and Mies Van der Roh; it invented industrial design (so that the design of our cars, toasters and everything else resulted); it created the current use of layout and typography in advertising; revived such crafts as weaving and ceramics; strongly influenced stage design, and also the development of modern painting through Paul Klee and Kandinsky. It was destroyed by Hitler when he came to power. Many of its people came to the United States, others perished.

Bauhaus Eva Zeisel 1929

Bauhaus ceramic design by Eva Zeisel 1929. Eva Zeisel taught at Pratt when my father was a student there.

So at Pratt this legacy was continued, and permeated the school. We had many experimental classes in both 2 and 3 dimensional design, using varieties of materials and methods. In the illustrative course we also studied figure drawing, painting and illustrative design and color. In the final year we were brought into contact through the Society of Illustrators with some of the leading personalities in the field, were able to see their work and discuss it with them. All in all, I think it was a well balanced, and well rounded program, and it was supplemented by the many museums and galleries in New York.

Bernie Safran army tent Burma 1945

Bernie Safran, Burma 1945

Just before I finished, I went into the Army for three years, and served in the US Army Corps of Engineers in China, Burma and India.

At the end of the War, I returned to Pratt for six months. After the Army I found going to school less than exciting, and though I could have continued further study, I decided to try to be a free lance illustrator. This I might add, was the ambition of us all.

How do you start? First I had to have a portfolio of samples of my work. I made some, and used some of the the things that I had done at school. Then I got the yellow pages out of the Manhattan phone book, and began to go see people. There were three main categories of places that bought illustrations; the advertising agencies; the art studios that did most of the work of the agencies; and the publishers of magazines and books. There were literally hundreds in the yellow pages.

Illustration and ink fawn

Fawn, pen and ink sample illustration by Bernie Safran

I was able to make appointments with art directors at some places, others would see me if I came in. Many were a waste of time, as they handled the kind of thing that I didn’t do. It took a long time, and a lot of shoe leather before I found out where to go, and where not to go; and I soon found out that what I thought was finished work was not, and that I didn’t know anything about the business. I didn’t know anything about production which is the mechanical means of producing a magazine page, or ad; or even what constituted a professional sketch or how to present it.

scale for photos

Back in the old days before computers, you had to figure out proportional sizing of photographs and reproductions for print with a scale like this.

So, I tried to get a job as an apprentice in an art studio to learn how things were done. I did get one in an art studio that did sales presentations. It was fairly small with an art director, and five or six people working on mechanicals (which are preparations of pages for reproduction by scaling photos to fit, pasting in type in place and so on). There was one fellow there that did layouts for these pages, and any finished art and lettering that was required. We became friends and he advised me to re-do my portfolio in black and white line and halftone which is cheap to reproduce. He also suggested that I do it in dyes which look like watercolors, reproduce well, and can be worked over and over without losing the look of freshness, as watercolor does. I then left the studio, did another portfolio, and set out again.

Love Starved Woman Bernard Safran

A pulp cover by Safran. He would have hired a model for the main figure of the woman with the cigarette, and then photographed himself and probably his wife (my mother) for the figures at the piano.

I was soon able to enter an illustration studio run by Gail Phillips who was at that time an illustrator for the Saturday Evening Post. It was an ideal working set up. I was taken on as all of the people there were, on a free lance basis. The studio provided working space, and all art materials. For any work done for the studio, they received a 50% commission, but you were free to have any accounts of your own without commission. The studio occupied a three story brownstone house on 50th Street and 3rd Avenue, a central location. There was a complete photographic studio with a full time photographer who took pictures for you and processed them. There was even a room full of costumes. That is where I learned to be a professional illustrator. I was able to see work being done of all kinds, and learn the methods. All work of whatever kind, by the way, was done from black and white photographs. To meet deadlines and because of the expense of models this is necessary. If, for example, you are doing an illustration of a boy and girl, you must hire models, and at that time their fee would be about $20 an hour each. Obviously if the job paid $200 dollars as some paper back books did in 1947, you couldn’t hire them for long. So you would pose them, and photograph them and the photos would cost something too. Why is it necessary to hire models? Well an illustrator can’t compete if he doesn’t. Pretty girls had to look like the current types, and the models had the proper clothes, make up and look. You couldn’t fake it, or make it up, and expect to get the work. Also there were conventions on how these things were done. The paper back books at that time interestingly enough had a self-imposed censor. Some of the things that were banned were: that men and women couldn’t be portrayed lying down; if a woman was partially clothed there could be no physical contact between her and a man, and despite the allowance of all kinds of suggestive situations for some reason known only to the censor, bare feet were banned.

Gumshoe illustration fishing in canoe pt2198

The right page of a two page spread for Outdoor Life magazine by Safran, June 1950

I wasn’t earning much at this place, and I went from there to another studio, and then another on similar arrangements. By this time, I had several accounts of my own. I also had some of my work with 2 or 3 agents. Illustration agents would cover specific areas and accounts. Agents were concerned primarily with making money, and they would operate on the idea that they did all right, if they had a large number of artists work, and were just able to produce one or two jobs for each one. I never knew an illustrator that didn’t have to look for work on his own to keep busy, though he may have been represented in one way or another by numerous agents.

I found after a while that I was taking more and more work home with me, and finally decided that I’d get more done if I gave up the coffee breaks, and paper airplane fights, and worked at home. I was married at this time, and my wife worked in the art department of a trade magazine publisher. They published such magazines as Aviation Maintenance, Purchasing, and Liquor Store and Dispenser. she didn’t like her job, contrived to be fired, and began to look for another job.

Adele glamorous 1950

My mother Adele worked as my father’s agent in the late 1940s and early 1950s.

She did a series of spot drawings (which are small pen and ink fillers, used when type does not quite fill the space on a magazine page). I added some of my own to her portfolio, and she set out. On the first day she sold three to Women’s Day for $25 apiece. As a result of this, we got the idea that she would act as my agent. This would allow me to concentrate on my work entirely.

It was necessary for an illustrator to continually change his portfolio by adding new samples. Trends and styles changed fairly quickly. In addition any work done must have accurate research so things are correct. The New York Public Library has a massive clipping collection for this purpose, but I also tried to build up a file of my own for research. My wife went out daily and saw people with my work. I stayed home, did my work, painted samples, and worked on the file. We also had arrangements with various agents from time to time. We slowly became known in the business, and were at the point where we had a number of steady accounts, and I did a great variety of work.

The bulk of my work was for book publishers. I did many paper back book covers, and a lot of book jackets for the major publishers. I also worked in magazines such as Outdoor Life, Boys Life and numerous lesser ones; and did an occasional ad. There were times when there was no work, and it always seemed to arrive in bunches. So there would be a lot at once, and great pressure to meet deadlines. I might add that it was a sudden death business. One job not quite up to snuff, and you lost the account.

Golden Treasury of Bible Stories Bernard Safran

The Bible illustrated by Safran

In one six week period that I remember, I did six paper back book covers, 40 pen drawings for an illustrated Bible, two two color halftone paintings, and a line drawing for the first installment of a Boy’s Life serial, and two book condensations for Outdoor Life consisting of about 8 large pen drawings each; one of which was Farley Mowat’s People of the Deer. As I look back on this sort of thing, I find it hard to believe that I did it. The subject matter was very diverse; the research had to be accurate; there were sketches to be made and then approved, models to be hired and photographed, and the finished work done. My wife did the research, got the sketches approved with the inevitable changes, and hired the models. I did the sketches and the finished work. During a spell like this, I was literally chained to the drawing board.

After a number of years at this, we were going to have a baby, so my wife retired, and I returned to selling my work. I found it very difficult to keep it all going. I was in the middle area of the business, and earning a reasonably good living. I decided after a good deal of thought to take a rest, and think the whole thing over. We had saved some money, and I thought I’d just quit for six months. I stopped working, went to the beach, and read a lot. An interesting thing happened. The work began to come in itself, and I found that by the end of the year that I had lost $200. At that rate, I could continue in this way indefinitely.

Father oil sketch 1956 Bernard Safran

Quick 3 hour oil portrait of Bernie’s father, Harry Safran 1956

I got the idea that perhaps I could be a portrait painter. So I let it be known to whoever I met that I would paint oil portraits for $25 apiece. I had not painted portraits since art school and wanted the practice. I did them from life in three hours, and did 40. I then felt that I could paint portraits.

Through all the 10 years that I had been illustrating, I had experimented with all kinds of painting media, and had not been satisfied. Painting had always been a struggle with the paint itself, and I was looking for something that would allow me freedom from this. I slowly came to the conclusion that I must study more. I read as much of the technical material I could find on the Old Master methods, and tried many formulas without success.

I finally came across a book by Jacques Maroger, “The Secret Formulas and Techniques of the Masters”. Maroger had been director of the Louvre’s laboratory, and had spent his life trying to reconstitute the formulas of the masters. Years later I was fortunate in spending a day with him at his home in Baltimore. He was dying of cancer, and had written to me to come if I wanted to see him. When I read his book, it sounded to me like just what I  had been looking for. And so to put it to the test, I went to the Metropolitan Museum of Art to try to copy a Rubens. My idea was to reconstruct the picture. I found that as far as I could see by the striations the brush made, and by the look of the paint, that I had something very similar. I continued doing this, studying the work of Rubens, Velasquez, Rembrandt, and Holbein mostly. This is a time honored way of study, and has been done by almost every artist of note in the history of painting. I found that aside from learning the methods of the painters, the close proximity with the great helped me immeasurably in every way. It improved my taste, improved my drawing and conception of form, and the way that I used color. Of course it is impossible to reproduce these paintings exactly, and I didn’t try. You may just as well attempt to imitate a wild dance.

Safran's study of Ruben's The Holy Family

Safran’s study of Ruben’s The Holy Family, oil on illustration board, 1958

After doing this at every opportunity, and for many months, I noticed that Time Magazine was occasionally using fine artists on their covers. I thought that I would paint a portrait with a non objective background using my newly found knowledge, and take it up there. I chose a fine old photograph of General Grant, and suggested an army behind him.

I was extremely lucky. I had been going to Time which was then at the height of its power and prestige, on and off for years, and had always been told by the art director that they were bought up for 2 or 3 years. This time I was, by accident, connected with the man who was buying covers at that time. He was a senior editor, and temporarily sitting in for the Assistant Managing Editor whose job it was. He was quite busy, but agreed to look at my work if I left it at his office. When I returned a week later, I could see he that he hadn’t. So I asked the secretary who was also temporary if I could just show him one picture, and she said “Sure”. He asked me in and suggested that I leave it with him for a few days. He then called me and asked me to do an unscheduled cover. Needless to say I was elated and worked very hard on the sketches. I had no idea how Time operated then, and was quite amazed when the cover researcher asked whether the man, the Sultan of Morocco, wore the same colored hat as robe. The photos showed it both ways. The editor picked up the phone and said, “Get me Paris,” then said “Send a man over to Rabat, and find out whether the Sultan wears the same colored robe as hat. I got a cable shortly which said that he did.

Sultan of Morocco April 1957

Safran’s first cover portrait for Time Magazine, April 1957

When I delivered the painting I had a few anxious moments as it was taken out of the office and shown to the various editors; but as he came down the hall with it he shouted, “Sold”. I was told by this man that he wouldn’t be doing the job again til summer, and that he might have another for me then. It was months before it appeared, and I wondered if it ever would; but it reproduced well, and they were so happy with it, that they presented it to the Sultan, after first exhibiting it at the US Information Library in Rabat.

I dropped into the office in August eight months later, and the same man gave me my second assignment which was Sukarno. Fortunately he had an excellent head, and the photos for the background were by a great photographer Henri Cartier-Bresson. I did a number of layouts, and this job was handled by the Assistant Managing Editor. He was very happy with the result. He asked me how quickly I could paint a head, and I said three days. He thereupon gave me a cover to do in three days. When I had delivered it, I was asked, “How often would you like to do them?”, and I said “As often as I can get them.” After that I was one of the regular Time cover artists, and was kept busy.

The Time cover begins at the weekly cover conference presided over by the Assistant Managing Editor. All the senior editors who head the various sections of the book are there along with their researchers, the Art Director and the production man. The cover for the coming week is decided on, but this can be changed at the last moment before the magazine goes to press late on Saturday night. There is a backlog of covers ready, and this is called the bank. Some of these are kept active for some time, but mostly where a prominent personality is concerned, they will have one done that is up to date, because people’s faces change. The covers in the bank are there because of things that may be coming up in the news, such as an economic conference at a specific date, or an election where the candidates are known well in advance. It gives the magazine some versatility as to what covers are readily available. For example, when John Kennedy was elected President, I did a cover of Lyndon Johnson the Vice-President as President. When Kennedy was assassinated, Time was able to put the new President on the cover immediately, to everyone’s great surprise.

At the cover conference, know as the College of Cardinals, each senior editor makes a presentation for future covers for his section. He may give a talk on a personality, say in the field of medicine who he feels will become prominent shortly. This is complete with background analysis, and is followed by a general discussion, and a decision on whether to commission a cover, or wait. Once a decision is taken, the cover researcher will search out all background material in the files. Queries will be sent to the appropriate correspondents for descriptive material on the person; a photographer will be assigned to photograph the subject in color and black and white, for the cover. After this has been assembled and many blow ups in black and white made from the photos, the artist who has been chosen in the cover conference or by the Assistant Managing Editor is called in.

In my case, the Assistant Managing Editor would call. Sometimes he’d tell me who it was, and other times he didn’t. I’d go to his office, and the photos would be laid out, both slides and black and white enlargements. The cover researcher would then bring in the background material which in most cases was dozens of pictures. Then we would have a talk about when the cover would appear, what the occasion was, and the general situation that the person was in at the time. We would then go over the “mug shots” of the person, and in the light of the talk pick one as the key photo. Sometimes there would be a subtler or better expression in one of the color slides than in the black and white, and that would then be made into a black and white enlargement. I generally wanted a series. I got a 4 x5, and 8×10 and an 11×14. This was so that in painting the portrait I could look from one to the other; and I found it easier to see the form that way. Where there was an obscure shadow that hid some detail, the lab would make me a light print, so I could see it… All this was ordinarily done while I was in the office. If not, the prints were delivered to me by messenger as soon as possible.

Unpublished cover portrait by Bernard Safran of the Aga Khan, 1952

Unpublished cover portrait by Bernard Safran of His Highness Aga Khan IV, 1957

When we had settled that, we’d discuss the background. The editor sometimes had suggestions, but most often I had to think up an idea on the spot. My background as an illustrator was invaluable for this since I was accustomed to being met by all manner of unexpected situations. We’d go through the background material, and sometimes it would suggest something. For instance, the editor said of DeGaulle, “The So and So thinks he’s a living monument.” I then said, “Well, how about doing him that way.” I suggested that he be done as a statue of a Roman emperor, and the researcher went off and got lots of pictures of Roman busts. Sometimes after a long discussion, and the elimination of one thing after another, for one reason or another, we’d end up with something that I wasn’t happy with. I’d go home and try to come up with another idea, and if it was a good one, they were very quick to change it. It was a very good working relationship. As they came to trust my judgement, the sketches were eliminated. After we talked about it, I’d simply tell him what I would do, and on one or more occasions the material was just sent out to me, and left to me.

Whenever it was possible, I tried to see the person, because the photographs never give you the right impression. President Eisenhower for example looked very pale in his photographs and on TV. I went to the White House to meet him and was very surprised to find that he had a very ruddy face, and exuded a great deal of what I can only describe as magnetism. I went to have breakfast with Richard Nixon when he ran for President in 1960. The pictures of him, and his TV appearances showed him to be pasty faced with a heavy black beard, shaven though he was. In person, he was entirely different, looking very healthy with a normal shaven look. All of the color pictures of Henry Cabot Lodge showed his hair to be brownish with some gray in it. When I saw him in his office, I said “Why, Mr. Lodge, your hair is entirely gray” and he said, “Well — there’s some gray in it.” These are just some examples. I met many of the people after I had painted them, and wished in most cases that I had seen them before the event.

Painting by Bernard Safran. Buddha, 1964. Oil on Masonite, 61cm x 44.5cm (24" x 17 1/2"). Gift of Time magazine

Time Cover painting by Bernard Safran. Buddha, 1964. Oil on Masonite, National Portrait Gallery, Washington, DC

I painted the covers on an average of ten days to two weeks. It was very hard work for me. It had to be good, and I was always very tired when finished, and needed a few days rest as do baseball pitchers – or operatic tenors.

I decided very early to make myself entirely available to Time, and I turned down all other work. This enabled me to continue to study painting, and there were a lot of things that I had to learn.

In 1962, I, my wife and our two girls went to Europe for two months, and we went to go to museums in France, Italy, and Germany, so that I could look at paintings. I thought that this trip was very valuable to me, and my future.

By 1965 I had been working for Time for almost nine years. They were having discussions about a major change in cover policy, which had been in effect since the magazine had been founded. They did in fact change the policy a couple of years later. I thought then that it was a good time for me to leave, and try to be a painter full time. I was 41 years old and felt it was rather late to start, and that if I didn’t do it, I never would. So my family and I went to Europe again for two months to look at paintings. By the time that we had returned, I had definitely made up my mind to leave Time, and I did. It is a decision I have not regretted, and I have been working on my painting ever since.

self portrait Dec 1960

Bernie Safran self portrait December 1960


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