Interesting Flights


I’m sure many people have stories to tell about interesting flights they’ve been on – like the time my husband and I were flying home from England, and somewhere over the North Atlantic the stewardesses came around asking for men’s leather belts to tie a man down. That’s all the details we were ever told. We made an emergency landing in Newfoundland and the guy was unceremoniously hauled off the plane in handcuffs. I figured the guy was just drunk and unruly, but my husband was white knuckled the rest of the way thinking the worst possible scenario – we’ll never know. At least we made it home.

When I was in my 20s I was flying a lot due to summer jobs, internships, and family visits.  Most of the time I was traveling alone, and to my happiness found myself sitting next to interesting people. We’d end up sharing a few drinks and have lively conversations. It was a great way to pass the time.

These days, with the way airlines squash you in like sardines, there is a constant dread of being stuck next to someone who snores or who spreads out into your tiny space with arms and legs and loud music in their ear buds. But I can’t recall any such bad experiences back then – funny how that is.

Here are some short accounts of some of my more memorable flights:

I was flying from Toronto to Washington, DC and was in the window seat just behind the First Class partition wall and I found myself sitting next to a senior officer of the US Air Force. I instantly noticed him and his staff when they entered the plane because they looked very serious and were in full uniform carrying briefcases. I didn’t know enough at the time just by looking at his ribbons and stars who he might be, but I knew he was high in rank.

glider pipistrel usa

A glider is a completely silent plane that literally glides on air currents. image from Pipistrel USA

He told me that he had been in Ottawa on official business and was on his way back to the Pentagon. We chatted about my internship at the Smithsonian, and he told me about all the different fighter jets and other aircraft that he’d flown.

Eventually I said that I always thought that it would be wonderful to go gliding.

I told him about how a glider had landed not far from where my parents lived and that I’d seen footage of flights that looked incredibly beautiful. He said that he loved gliding and that he’d love to take me up there sometime. He gave me his card and told me to call him at the Pentagon and he’d take me.       Wow.

I chickened out and never called. I missed a golden opportunity – a lifetime adventure – too afraid of going out with such an impressive and powerful man. (Stooopid me)


On a flight from Athens to Toronto I sat next to the editor of a travel magazine.


I went on a great trip to Santorini. image from

We chatted for several hours (its a long flight) and had several glasses of wine and a couple of meals. We  talked about her work and her trip to Greece. I told her about my work on digs, and my travels around the country, and at the end of the flight she offered me a job writing for her magazine.

Just like that!

She gave me her card and told me to call her, and when I was ready, I’d have a job.

Life was too busy for me at that time, and I never followed up. I was in the midst of writing my thesis and finishing my degree and couldn’t fathom adding to my already heavy work load.  And then –  life just moved on.


On my first flight to Athens (from Halifax)  I was traveling with a friend and we were very late for boarding our flight on Olympic Air.

Olympic 747 staircase (

Spiral staircase on Olympic Airline’s 747. (image from

We ran all the way to the terminal and by the time we got there, there were no regular seats left, so they took us up the spiral staircase to the top floor of the 747 to First Class.

We were the only passengers up there for the entire flight, and we even had our very own stewardess. From where we sat at the front of the plane, we could look into the cock pit.

This was in the ‘olden’ days when cock pits weren’t locked. The pilots came and went, visited with us and the stewardess, and invited us in to see the view.

We were served champagne and great food. It was amazing.

Two poor University kids on our first big adventure to Greece, going First Class all the way.



An example of a modern, carved Iconostasis

On another flight from Athens to Toronto I sat next to a Greek Canadian artist. We talked about art and Greece and our travels. It turned out that he designed and created the massive and intricately carved screens (Iconostasis) for Greek Orthodox churches and that he had commissions all over the world.

It also turned out that his brother was a film director for CBC, and had filmed a documentary on my father – small world!


Barbie doll stewardessOn a flight from Toronto to Washington DC I sat next to an off duty American stewardess. She had perfect blonde hair, perfect makeup and perfect clothes and was very pretty. She looked like a Barbie doll stewardess. She was really nice and fun and we talked and talked during the flight.

She told me about her training, and all about the things that she’d seen go wrong on her flights – fires in the galley, medical crises, and on and on. It was fascinating, but it was also unnerving to hear how often emergencies happened on airplanes and the passengers never knew.



On a flight from Ankara to Athens I didn’t sit next to the dog – the dog had a seat of his his own across the aisle from me. He was a big blonde dog and he had a very elegant, wealthy lady sitting in the window seat next to him.

He didn’t buy me drinks or offer to take me somewhere interesting, but he made quite an impression on me.

The airline was Turkish Air as I recall, and it wasn’t a big airplane. The dog and I and the elegant lady (and whoever sat next to me) were in the front row.

athens airport

image: athens-airport-info

When the plane came in to land at Athens, it took a sudden sharp turn and plunged like a sea eagle does – straight down all at once. The engines were roaring and the entire plane was violently shaking all over. The seats were shifting and sliding around, stuff was falling, and I remember people screaming and praying and crying.

I looked over at the blonde dog across the aisle from me and he had braced himself for landing with great dignity. He had forced all four of his feet into the seat to secure himself during the precipitous descent. His composure during those few terrifying moments kept me from complete panic.

Then the plane suddenly raced to a forceful and abrupt stop. We’d landed. We were alive. People cheered and wept.

The elegant lady was hysterical and shaking as she and Mr. Dog got out of their seats and went down the metal stairs to the tarmac. Then Mr. Dog calmly found an appropriate spot and peeded, and the journey was over.

Best person on a flight ever – Mr. Dog.


Mr. Dog was a Saluki – a sight hound, also known as a Persian Hound. It is one of the oldest breeds of hunting dogs. image:









1980 Atlantic Folk Festival – post 3

I found this clipping from 1980 in some old things I was going through recently. Since people seem to be very interested in my previous posts about the 1980 Atlantic Folk Festival I thought you might be interested in reading it – just click on the image to get a full screen version.

1980 Folk Festival article complete

1980 article about the Atlantic Folk Festival and the Outlaw Bikers Convention

my two previous posts about the Festival:

Queen and Adam Lambert World Tour


Betty 1978

Happy Me in 1978

All I want to listen to these days is Queen, and its all because I went to see Queen and Adam Lambert on their World Tour two years ago in Calgary in 2014. Yup, two years ago and here I am still going on about it…

You see, the sheer energy and brilliance of the music re-lit a fire in me and brought me back to my true self. My happy self. It was life changing.

I know this sounds overly dramatic… but its true – it was a powerful turning point for me.

Like everyone who listened to rock in the 1970s and 80s, Queen was a significant part of the music landscape back then.

And as the years passed, their music became the backdrop of my entire adult life. In a way I took their music for granted because it was ubiquitous; not that I didn’t love their music, but it was just such a familiar part of my life.

All four members of the band were amazing songwriters and musicians. Their blended talents produced some of the most original and memorable music of the Rock Era.

Queen 70s

A great shot of Queen from the 70s – I love how destroyed Roger Taylor looks. From left to right Roger Taylor, Freddie Mercury, Brian May, John Deacon.

When Freddie Mercury died in 1991 it felt like Queen died too.

But Queen is still very much alive – even without Freddie and John Deacon.

Adam Lambert has been touring with them as their new front man, and they rock…

Queen Adam Lambert Idol 2009 finale

Brian May, Adam Lambert and Roger Taylor, 2009 Season 8 of American Idol finale performance. photo Rolling Stone

During Season 8 of American Idol, we watched Adam Lambert dominate the competition with his intense artistry and powerhouse voice. We cheered for him from his first audition to his final performance. And when Brian May and Roger Taylor joined him for a finale performance, it was exciting to see the blending of such great talent. There seemed to be a natural and intuitive bond between them. We knew that if Adam Lambert ever toured with Queen we had to go.

And lo and behold – they joined forces, and as soon as the tour was announced, and the minute the tickets went on sale, we got online and frantically started trying to buy seats.

We lucked out. Our seats were near center stage, only several feet from Brian May and Adam Lambert. We were close enough to see their expressions as they performed, and even close enough to see May’s tears as he spoke of the late Freddie Mercury during one of the more emotional moments of the show.

Queen setlist calgary 2014

Setlist from the Saddledome/Calgary concert 2014, image from (I’m pretty sure they played I’m In Love With My Car at the concert – one of my many favorites – but it doesn’t appear on this list).

The first song they played got lost in the rotten acoustics of the Calgary Saddledome – it took a few moments for the crowd and the band to find a balance, and then we were off…

Queen and Lambert

Adam Lambert and Brian May – and you can barely see Roger Taylor on drums.

I sang and danced and laughed and cried throughout the entire concert just like everyone in the boisterous crowd. It released a pure joy from the very core of me that I hadn’t felt in decades.

I’ve been to other concerts and seen other famous musicians in person before, but in some cases it felt like they were just phoning it in – bored with having to repeatedly play their big hits, and road tired. But Queen and Lambert took on the show with commitment and energy. Each song built on the next, and one hit after another continued to amp up the crowd. It was clear that everyone onstage were of one mind and heart as they played.

INGLEWOOD, CA - JULY 03: Musician Brian May (L) of Queen and singer Adam Lambert perform at the Forum on July 3, 2014 in Inglewood, California. (Photo by Kevin Winter/Getty Images)

Brian May of Queen and Adam Lambert  (Photo by Kevin Winter/Getty Images)

And something that’s new to me – the crowd was comprised of all ages – grandparents all the way down to toddlers – which surprised me, though in retrospect its not so surprising given that Queen music is timeless and known to many generations now.

You hear performers say that they feed off the energy of the crowd, and I’d say that it goes both ways. The crowd got louder and more vibrant as the band and the vocalist threw themselves into each song.

Queen has never shied from the campy, and much of their lyrics are rich with humor; these qualities shone through. Lambert sang and performed with his superb voice and vibrant personality.

lambert killer queen

Adam Lambert singing Killer Queen – he’s an incredibly entertaining performer and a killer vocalist (and he has great outfits too).

And though no one can replace Freddie Mercury, Adam gave all the best of himself and he was truly amazing in his own right.

At one point, at the end of a particular favorite, the crowd went wild and Lambert turned back from center stage to walk back to May. You could see May gesturing and telling him that it was for him – to go back – take his bows – and revel in the mad hysteria of admiration that was flowing from the crowd. It was a surprisingly humble moment to witness. To see Lambert, who is such an incredibly talented and experienced performer, be so unassuming in front of the roaring audience. It was also telling evidence of May’s generosity of spirit and comradery.

I know I sound like a fan girl (my kids call me that) but Brian May’s solo Last Horizon, was some of the most beautiful music I’ve ever experienced.


Dr.Brian May performing his solo on the guitar he built with his father when he was a teen – the famous Red Special. Dr May has been busy all these years. After the concert I looked him up online and found out about all his accomplishments including his PHD in Astro Physics; the scores he’s written for films, TV, radio and stage; his passion for stereoscopic images; his dedication to animal rights; and his commitment to social reform. Plus he keeps on rocking and not just with Queen, he’s had a successful solo career and plays with many other bands and solo artists who want to work with the great one.

It felt like it flowed directly from him across the crowd and into my heart, lifting me from myself – freeing me from the present. It was moving, sensitive, powerful and visionary.  I have never heard the guitar played with such mastery.

The images projected on the screen behind him were of the stars and the vastness of space and they helped pull you into the music, but his presence on stage superseded all the lights and special effects.

He played his piece with passion and soul. He was present in the moment and yet seemingly lost in his own world. The guitar was really a part of the man, and the artist was sharing something private from deep inside.

I was rapt…

… that is… until I was interrupted partway through the piece by my daughter who wanted me to go with her to the washroom. It was extremely hard to pull myself away from where I stood.  But May and his music were filling the entire stadium and I found that even as we hiked across the floor and up tiers of stairs to the tiled washroom, his music was just as powerful.

It was that performance more than any of the other numbers that made a lasting impression on me. It was a privilege to be there.

I found out what so many other people already knew – that Brian May is a masterful musician – a true artist.

After the concert, I began in earnest to listen to the recordings of Queen again. It was with a fresh perspective and newfound enjoyment. Being able to look back and understand the eras in which they worked and know who their peer musicians were, their music has taken on a new dimension for me.

queen-band-aid May and Mercury

Freddie Mercury and Brian May performing at Live Aid in 1985. Queen’s performance at Live Aid has been called the greatest rock performance of all time.

I’ve never been a real aficionado of music (I don’t know much about the technical aspects of composing, playing and recording) but I can now, with age and experience, appreciate the creations of this unique group of artists and more deeply feel the music and lyrics and vocals better than I ever could when I was younger.

In the 1970s their music was revolutionary and was part of the British scene that came over to North America. We only ever heard their big hits like We Are the Champions and Bohemian Rhapsody on the radio and at sports venues, even though they have a huge catalog of original music (including 18 number one albums, 18 number one singles, and 10 number one DVDs*).

Back then, albums were often conceived as fully realized works of art. From the cover to the careful planning of the progression of sounds and songs, the albums deeply reflected what the musicians wanted to express with their music.

queen Brian and Freddie

Freddie Mercury is consistently voted one of the top Rock vocalists of all time and Brian May is regularly voted one of the top Rock guitarists of all time. May and Mercury wrote many of the group’s biggest hits.

Nowadays with the downloading of music you can choose which hits you want on your personal playlist – which has its merits. But the unique flavor and vision of the artist somehow seems more watered down without the almost operatic rise and fall of the plot of a fully realized collection of works.

Within Queen’s oeuvre you can find a full range of styles and themes – hard rocking pieces like Tie Your Mother Down and Hitman; soft ballads like ’39; tender love songs like Love of My Life and Bijou; comical songs; songs about life and death – love and loss (Who Wants to Live Forever); humanity. These aren’t superficial pop songs – they’re far more intelligent and complex than most of the rock music out there (and yes, Fat Bottomed Girls is a smarter rock tune than most of the junk on the radio today).

Freddie and Daffodils

1,001 yellow daffodils and Freddie Mercury. A still from the video of I’m Going Slightly Mad, from the album Innuendo.

It has been a remarkable reawakening for me – to rediscover this band after so many years – its like they are brand new to me again.

Lately I’ve been listening to Innuendo, the last album that Queen recorded with Freddie Mercury. Knowing that Mercury was suffering with the last stages of HIV/Aids at the time of the recording only adds more depth to many of the lyrics and music. His voice can bring tears to my eyes in The Show Must Go On and These Are The Days of Our Lives. While the song Don’t Try So Hard seems to come from a man who wants to share what he’s learned about life.

Queen_Innuendo Headlong, Ride the Wild Wind and Hitman from Innuendo are my favorite driving songs now – they’re great for speeding along the highway and singing out loud, (and also great for dancing in the kitchen).

And the song I’m Going Slightly Mad sums up my general state of mind at this stage of my life.

I’m grateful that these artists shared themselves with the world. It takes a real bravado to do so – to create something completely new and gift it to everyone out there.

And it takes a real commitment to their art to continue working and performing and honing their mastery.

Like many great artists Queen has suffered blistering reviews from critics, but they weren’t making their music to suit the critics or go with what was the next in-thing – they followed their own path, making music that was true to themselves – never getting into a rut, never just making the same old sound over and over again to sell records.

queen adam lambert adamlamberttv blogspot

Roger Taylor is also a prolific and incredibly talented musician. In addition to being a song writer, vocalist and drummer for Queen, he has released several albums of his own. Like Brian May he is a multi-instrumentalist and performs with many major artists. Image from:

And like all real art, Queen’s music stands the test of time.

There have been multitudes of rock bands over the years but in my opinion few have the same breadth of talent, breadth of material, and incredible musicianship of Queen. I guess I really am a fan girl after all.

Queen AL and crew hollywood treatment com

The entire band on their World Tour: left to right: Neil Fairclough on bass, Rufus Taylor on percussion and drums, Adam Lambert lead vocals, Roger Taylor drums, Brian May guitar, Spike Edney keyboard

Note: You can still catch the tour in Europe this year if you’re lucky – everywhere they play they get rave reviews and perform to sell out crowds (wish I could go again!). For a full listing of venues check out Queen online at

To finish, I’m including some quotes that speak to Brian May’s unique and brilliant musicianship: 

“May delivers the magic dust that makes the music insanely interesting and provides an everlasting durability.”

“Brian May plays very dynamic solos. His riffs are often just running scales, but he does it with incredible variances in timing and attack. Other guitarists can attempt to copy his style, but they fall short of his abilities. He injects such emotion into his work that the listener not only hears his solos, but feels them, as well – often with lightening bolt intensity. He rises above most all other rock guitarists and certainly deserves a spot in the top ten.”

“…the greatest guitar-god fans say Brian May is one of the greatest, if not THE greatest, guitarist of all time…”

“Even other guitar greats admit they cannot replicate what BM does. His sound is unique, his solos so intricate and clever, his playing is precise. He dips under the radar because he operates in his own incomparable universe.”

(the quotes are from the following website:

* statistics from

The Syrian Sea Captain


View towards Mount Lycabettus (seen in the center of the picture) from the Areopagus in Athens, image: shutterstock.

With Easter approaching this Spring,  I am reminded of a charmed night I spent in May in Athens in 1983. It was the Holy week of the Greek Orthodox Easter. I’d just arrived in Athens to draw pottery at the Ancient Athenian Agora and was staying at my professor’s apartment until she arrived later in the month.

easter bread

Greek Easter bread called tsoureki

It was my first time to be in Greece during Pascha (Πάσχα – pronounced páskʰa).

All that week the bakery windows in the city were full of an assortment of delicious Easter cookies (koulourakia) and treats, including the glossy braided breads with red dyed eggs baked into them called tsoureki. I bought myself an enormous bag of koulourakia that lasted weeks.

On Good Friday – the most important day of the Greek Orthodox religious calendar,  I remember standing on the roof of the building where the apartment was located, and looking down to see a somber parade of people including clergy, carrying crosses and a holy bier with the Epitaphios, and a beautiful statue of the Virgin down the street to the sound of church bells ringing.

greek priests good friday

Greek Orthodox priests during a Good Friday ceremony. Mt. Pendeli. image from

Someone I worked with at the Agora had told me that there would be fireworks on Easter Saturday (The Anastasis – The Resurrection)  and suggested that I should go up to Mount Lycabettus to see them at midnight.

I loved going up to the top of Lycabettus – there was a funicular that ran up the hill side in the neighborhood of Kolonaki, and I had gone up several times before. Kolonaki was (and I’m sure still is) a very elegant, well to-do neighborhood in Athens and it was where the American School of Classical Studies, The Canadian Mediterranean Institute and the British School at Athens were based (as well as other archaeological institutes) and a number of embassies and several of the apartments that I stayed in over the years.

mt-lycabettus- stairs to funicular

Stairs to the Mt Lycabettus funicular in Kolonaki

In Kolonaki it was very likely that you’d see Greek celebrities having coffee and shopping at couture boutiques (I used to longingly walk by Valentino to see what was new in the window). So it was a very pretty place with lots of trees and elegant neoclassical architecture everywhere.

At the top of Lycabettus there is a beautiful little chapel to St George in which candles were always aflame. As I remember it, only a very small whitewashed room of the chapel was open to the public on a regular basis; maybe two people could stand inside it at once. I remember that it contained a golden icon and a lot of candles. The candles made the small interior of the chapel glow.

Outside the chapel there was a flat paved area crowded with tourists.

From the top of Lycabettus you can see all the way to Piraeus and beyond, and especially see the Acropolis lit up with its sound and light show. There were several large open air cafes up there at the time.

view from Lycabettus

You can see the Acropolis and all the way to Piraeus from Mount Lycabettus

I decided that I’d take a seat at one of the cafes and relax in the clear, warm night and watch the city erupt in fireworks.

easter candlesIn the past I’d enjoyed having a treat of ice cream there, sitting in the sun with the breeze blowing through my hair (one of the first words I learned to say in Greece was παγωτό – ice cream). When you ordered ice cream at a Greek cafe it usually came with more than one flavor (like vanilla and pistachio) and was served in a little stemmed tin bowl on a little saucer with a little spoon and maybe a thin wafer.

easter-athens candles from Lycabettus

A time lapse photograph showing the procession of people carrying lit candles from Mt Lycabettus down through Athens

I was sitting there with my ice cream when a man came over and asked to sit with me. He was very neat and attractive and very polite, and somehow I knew instantly that he wasn’t pushing himself on me or trying to harass me, so I invited him to join me.

He ordered drinks for us and we talked.

He was a Syrian sea captain who had arrived in Piraeus that day and had been told that it was Greek Orthodox Saturday – and like me, someone had suggested he come to Lycabettus to see the city in its festivities. He showed me his official papers just to prove himself.

He spoke of how long he had to study and how much he had to learn to be the captain of his ship, and he told me about how he had sailed all over the world. He asked me about my studies and why I was in Athens.

The city was like a jewel at night with bright lights glimmering everywhere and happy boisterous shouts erupting whenever fireworks went off at random in the streets. After a while we decided to walk down to the Metropolitan Cathedral in the Plaka – a place I walked by almost every day on my way to work at the Agora.


Monastiraki at night looking towards the Acropolis, photo by Y Skoulas

So we took the funicular down the hill to Kolonaki and then he followed along with me; along my familiar route to the city center. There we found the Metropolitan Cathedral brightly lit with hundreds of candles and shining with all the beautiful gold inside.

The clergy were in full form wearing elaborately embroidered robes, and the incense was literally flying through the air. There was a huge crowd inside and outside on the wide steps and in the square in front of the Cathedral; everyone seemed radiant.

At midnight a huge display of fireworks went off and the sky was filled with color and explosions, and little firecrackers were being thrown all over the streets at our feet.


Fireworks in Athens celebrate Greek Orthodox Easter.

When the main fireworks were over the sea captain walked me to Syntagma Square and we said good night and good bye, and I took a taxi back to the apartment.

He had been a complete gentleman (he never touched me or said anything inappropriate) – we just enjoyed each other’s company in a city of strangers. I never knew his name and I never saw him again.

It was a memorable, and magical night.


Map of central Athens

Three Snapshots of the 1980 Atlantic Folk Festival

Since I first posted about the Atlantic Folk Festival  (The Atlantic Folk Festival and Outlaw Bikers Convention) I found three photos that I took that weekend. There are no photos of the bikers – I was probably too scared to point a camera at them – but you may find yourself in these shots if you were there too…

Atlantic Folk Festival 2 photo by Betty Malyon

Atlantic Folk Festival 3 photo by Betty Malyon

A partial view of the crowd

Atlantic Folk Festival 1 photo by Betty Malyon

A guy and his dog sleeping it off




Bernard Safran Gives a Talk on His Method of Painting – 1974

When you are a practising artist, your limitations become quite evident to you in a very short time. As you meet various situations, some cause you great difficulty and frustration; and if you are concerned with your development as a painter, you quite naturally look for some way to solve them.

Bernard Safran 1974


Introduction/background information: We moved to Jolicure, NB Canada from New York in January 1973. Jolicure was situated about 10 miles from the town of Sackville, where Mount Allison University is located.

Mount Allison University at that time, had an art school led by Lawren Harris Junior – son of Lawren Harris Senior, a founding member of the Group of Seven (a group of 20th century Canadian landscape painters).

The art school had several Canadian realist artists they could boast about – Alex Colville was also associated with the school (we had dinner with the Colvilles that first winter), as were Mary Pratt and Christopher Pratt, and Tom Forrestall. On staff at the time were Ted Pulford an accomplished watercolorist and David Silverberg a remarkable and internationally recognized printmaker.

The Studio, Jolicure by Bernard Safran 1980

This self portrait shows my father Bernard Safran in his studio in Jolicure. The studio was in the kitchen loft of the old farmhouse. The Studio, Jolicure by Bernard Safran, oil on masonite, December 1980.

As soon as we’d moved to New Brunswick, my father’s arrival to the local art scene was celebrated. In 1974 (a year after we’d moved to Canada) my father had a show of his New York paintings at the Owens Art Gallery on campus. In 1976 The Owens Art Gallery purchased a major work of his entitled Canadian Gothic for its permanent collection. He was also commissioned to paint several formal portraits of senior University staff. And he was asked to give several talks to the art students on campus and to other interested art lovers in town.

My father was initially led to believe that he was being courted for the head of the art school position. Not only were members of the art school faculty telling him this, but other leading academic figures on campus and leading business people in the town were forming alliances and pushing for him.

The University eventually hired a more radical, non-representational artist to head the school – it being the 1970s when the tide had already turned dramatically against realism throughout the art world.

Despite the official change in department philosophy, a yearly van of personally motivated students would venture out to our remote farmhouse in Jolicure to spend a day with my father. He would take them up to his studio in the kitchen loft and show them his work, talk to them about how he painted, and discuss art.

life drawing lesson sketch Bernard Safran

A quick sketch my father drew for me to show how to the figure’s weight is balanced.

He would have enjoyed being a professor – he was a good teacher, and understood the business end as well as the creative end of the art world. He’d had extensive training in all forms of art and was open to everything…

He was a patient and supportive teacher, and was able to clearly demonstrate how to do things. He gave me one-on-one instruction one summer when I was a teenager… so I speak from experience.

But the head of the art school job never came to passwhich only fed his theories about being black balled by Time Magazine and their minions.

(Please see my previous posts about his paranoia – )

This is one of the first talks he gave to students in 1974. In it he describes in simple terms how he chose to paint – his basic approach, and the basic techniques he employed to build a painting.


 “My Method of Painting” by Bernard Safran

Gardner Fine Arts Building  – Mount Allison University, March 11, 1974

Mr. (Ted) Pulford has asked me to talk to you today about my method of painting. Some of the things that I will speak to you about are elementary, and I’m sure that you have heard them before. For this I apologize, but I feel that they are necessary to what I am going to say.

Atalanta and Meleager hand detail copy by Bernard Safran

Copy by Bernard Safran, completed July 1956: detail from Atalanta and Meleager by Rubens, Metropolitan Museum of Art.

There are two primary ways of painting in oil. One is the direct method which is in the most common use today. The other is the indirect method which is the one I use.

When you paint directly as you all know, you mix whatever color you want on the palette and apply it to your canvas, aiming as closely as you can for the final result. You are painting in the old phrase “alla prima”. This allows great flexibility, because anything that you do as the painting progresses can easily be changed. The basic design can be altered as you go on, if you so wish.

The indirect method, or underpainting and glazing is based on a diametrically opposed concept. Here your picture is built as a house is from a plan, on a sound foundation, and in several stages. Therefore your picture must be conceived before you begin to paint, and any innovations should take place then or in the early stages. After that you cannot easily alter your original idea.

As you can understand this is a far more complex procedure than painting directly and places a severe restriction upon you. Why use it then? The answer is that in spite of this shortcoming, which really has not in practice hampered anyone’s creativity, this way of painting draws the widest range of possibility out of the paint. If done properly, its superiority in terms of its life-like qualities, greater subtlety, and the chance of a profounder statement, when compared side by side to the other method are, I feel, instantly obvious to the most casual observer.

Titus copy by Bernard Safran

Copy on canvas by Bernard Safran, August 1956: Titus by Rembrandt, Metropolitan Museum of Art

When you are a practising artist, your limitations become quite evident to you in a very short time. As you meet various situations, some cause you great difficulty and frustration; and if you are concerned with your development as a painter, you quite naturally look for some way to solve them.

In my case, after nine years as a free lance illustrator in New York, I decided that I really did not know how to paint very well. I wanted a way of painting that would allow me complete freedom from the process. In other words, it seemed to me that I was spending way too much of my time fighting the paint; trying to make it do things that I or it was not capable of doing.

So I thought that the best place to learn what was wrong and how to correct it was to go to the best painters of all time, and see whether I couldn’t learn something from them. These artists were in my view the old masters.

bernie copying

A double page spread in Life Magazine on Bernard Safran copying Rembrandt’s Self Portrait at the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York City. photo by Farrell Grehan 1964.

I chose Rubens, Velasquez and Rembrandt to emulate. The pictures were available to me in New York. I decided to copy these artists. This is the old method of learning and has been practiced by almost every artist of note in the history of painting. It was my idea to try to reconstruct the pictures I was copying with the intention of learning how they were done. I had for many years read many books which described the various ways of doing this. They frequently are contradictory, give many confusing details, and are valuable where they agree on general lines only.

Holy Family with Saints copy by Bernard Safran

Copy by Bernard Safran, June 1958: Holy Family with Saints by Rubens, Metropolitan Museum of Art.

It is a very different matter to approach this problem brush in hand than it is to read about it, and I concluded that it was necessary for me to take and empirical point of view, that is – if it works it is good; if it doesn’t work it is no good.

Rubens and Velasquez knew each other. Rembrandt lived at the same time and geographically close to Rubens. It appeared to me in looking at the paintings that they used the same methods. The different results were due only from the differences in their backgrounds and personalities. The paint quality seemed to me very similar. The striations of the brushes in the paint looked alike to me.

I chose Rubens to study primarily. For one thing he was the most versatile of the three. He could and did paint an enormous variety of subject matter and everything from very small pictures to acres and acres of canvas. He is the most brilliant colorist of the three and for sheer beauty of the handling of his paint, is in my opinion the most superior. His method is the most obvious and there is also a good deal of material on how he worked. Velasquez watched him at work in Madrid, was strongly influenced, subsequently went to Italy to study on Ruben’s recommendation, and completely changed his work as a result. From a very good court painter of stiff labored portraits, he became one of the greatest painters of all time.

So what I tried to do was to construct my pictures the way I thought Rubens did based upon what I had read and what I could see.

The theory is fairly simple. As you know you cannot reproduce life. If you have tried only to copy the model the result is something poor. What you can do is transpose the conditions that exist to the paint, and through the use of the qualities of the paint contrive an effect of life. You are in reality fooling the eye. It is much like an actor who must whisper on stage. If he actually does whisper, he will not be heard beyond the first few rows of the audience. But he must whisper into the upper reaches of the balcony! So that is what you are doing in paint; giving an impression bound by the limitations of what you are using. If it is well done, you should achieve something which gives to the observer an increased awareness of life, and, this is where the art lies.

What I mean by transposing the conditions is this: You look at a model for example. Most models are painted under a north light which is cool. If the light is cool, the absence of light is warmer. The shadows are therefore warmer than the light. The strongest light on the model is the highlight. The strong light washes out the color so there is little color in the highlight. Where there is no light there is also an absence of color. Therefore there is a minimum of color in the shadow and the highlight. The color is in the areas between them – the half tones.

Between the half tones and the shadow there must be transition tones. If you actually place a model in a strong cool light with warmer shadow and stare hard at the model, you will find that the transition tones are quite cool. You can see a bluish cast to them. As you continue to gaze at the model, you can see that the lights have an opaque quality and the shadows have a translucent quality. These then are the conditions that actually exist, and these are the conditions you must reproduce in your paint if you wish to give the feeling of life.

How do you go about doing this in a practical way First you must consider the ground that you will paint on. Remember that I tried to follow Rubens’ procedure. He went to a gesso ground. This was considered a regression in his time to the early tempera painters since painters of his day to aid in rapidity in finishing had been painting on dark grounds. The reason for the white gesso ground in his panels was because, as oil paint ages, it darkens and also becomes more transparent. The white gesso ground tended to counteract this and also provided in effect an inner light which gave a glow to the color superimposed on it. In his canvases I believe he used a white lead ground. Many writers speculate that gesso grounds were used on canvas, but anyone who has tried it finds that on the first pressure of the brush, the ground cracks. The paintings on canvas also have a slightly lower tone than those on panels.

After the white had been suitably applied, Rubens covered it with a grey coat. The purpose of the grey was this: To paint transparent shadow the paint must be thin, and this is possible with a toned surface. On white your tendency is to paint the shadows too heavily to counteract the white. Also on the grey, as you put your lights in they stand out. So that when you apply your shadow and your lights, you immediately get something of a three dimensional quality. Rubens’ streaky grey also had the purpose of livening the ground, and because of its uneven nature breaking and vibrating the color that was to be placed above it. This grey coat, in addition, isolates the white ground from the rest of the painting and allows it to function as I have previously described it.

oil study of hands by Bernard Safran

In this study piece, you can see how Safran prepared the board and put down the color following the directions laid out by Rubens. Study of hands by Bernard Safran, oil on masonite, 1963

When this was done, the next stage was to draw the composition on the picture and paint its value pattern. This way of painting is a logical division of the labor. You must think only of one thing at a time, and therefore you make fewer errors. This underpainting was done in a brown which is neutral and will not adversely affect the color upon it. The shadows were loosely and thinly done, the lights were painted in grey. So then, you had a monochromatic underpainting which defined the composition and the black and white pattern. It was then allowed to dry.

The next stage was the color. This was put on at first very thinly. The color in this method is mixed very simply. Never more than two colors and white, mostly one color and white, and the shadows in translucent glazes without white. The color mixed in this way is very fresh and is actually blended on the picture. The grey ground and underpainting are allowed to come through here and there, and what happens is that you mix the colors with your eye. This is known as the use of optical greys.

The ground and underpainting add to the unity of the picture subliminally. As you all know one of the chief characteristics of painting is that it presents an idea at one blow as it were. This is of course its greatest strength and severest limitation. Anything that adds to the unity of the idea advances this and the optical greys are a means of exploiting this quality. In the final stage, the impastos or thick paint in the lights is strengthened and the form is finally defined. The picture is actually worked from dark to light.

I would like to quote something attributed to Rubens himself. Quote: “Begin by painting your shadows lightly. Guard against bringing white into them; it is the poison of the picture except in the lights. Once white has dulled the transparency and golden warmth of your shadows, your color is no longer luminous, but mat and grey. The same is not the case with light areas. There one can set in the color as one thinks proper. They have body still one must keep them pure. Good results are obtained if one sets down each tone in its place, one next to the other, lightly mixing them with the brush, while taking pains not to torment them.” Unquote.

Atalanta and Meleager copy630

Copy by Bernard Safran, July 1960: Atalanta and Meleager by Rubens, Metropolitan Museum of Art.

Another quote from Rubens on the painting of skin. Quote “Paint your highlights white; place next to them yellow, then red, and use darker red to carry them over into the shadows. Then fill the brush with cold grey and go tenderly over the whole until it is subdued and softened to the desired tone. Since flesh is of a soft nature, we find pearly reflexes playing on its surface, and for the most part they are visible where the color is tenderest.” Unquote.

At this point, I would like to discuss something related to all of this. You are all familiar with linear perspective which is what everyone thinks of when you say perspective. There is another kind of perspective called aerial perspective. It had been used by painters before Rubens, but he applied it systematically in his work so that it is possible in a general way to codify it. I will partially quote from Jacques Maroger who says, “This is the perspective of values – the gradual fading in intensity of tones and colors as they recede into distant planes, and are veiled by the intervening atmosphere. Such effects could be produced on canvas and the impression of reality could be greatly enhanced by contrast in transparence and opacity.

composition studies Goya by Bernard Safran

Studies of the compositions of three paintings by Goya by Bernard Safran. Safran used this method to study many paintings to better understand composition and the use of tonal qualities in masterpieces. From one of Safran’s sketchbooks – early 1960s.

What we use to obtain these effects is one of the artist’s chief weapons, that of contrast. The light and shade; the contrast of transparence and opacity; the contrast of emphasis or accent by means of the brush stroke; the contrast of the quality of the color – that is of warm and cool color. So that the center of interest carries the most of these contrasts; the greatest transparency and opacity; the greatest differences between light and dark and warm and cool, and the sharpest accents. The subsidiary parts of the painting are all graded to their proper place. The furthest horizon has the least contract for example. Even in individual details this principle is applied so that the picture is orchestrated toward whatever purpose is applied so that the picture is orchestrated toward whatever purpose the painter has in mind.”??

In considering the color of these pictures, I would like to say again that the chief aim in this type of painting is to present a single unified idea. Therefore the color scheme is adapted for this purpose. Only a minimum number of colors are used. The smallest number compatible with the main purpose. This limited use of color means that a greater unity is achieved. By the use of contrast as I have said it is possible to draw endless variation of color in this way and also contribute to the completeness of the whole. So that in Rembrandt’s pictures there are only a few colors on his palette – rarely any blues or greens. My analysis says that he used Naples yellow, yellow ochre, an earth red in the skin and accessories, what corresponds to alizarin crimson, one or two browns and black and white. His effects are achieved by the extensive use of the contrasts I spoke of; by varying the texture of the paint; by scraping it with his brush handle; by rubbing it with his fingers; by laying it on with the knife. So that with a very limited color scheme and by using his materials ingeniously and to their full capacity, he displays works that have and are exciting wonder to this day.

There is one more aspect of this and a very important one. That is the medium that is used to paint in this way. You can see that you must have a proper material to do all this. It cannot be achieved with linseed oil alone. There are many theories on what mediums were used and a good deal of controversy on this subject. There are endless formulas, some that work many that don’t. Again this can be very subjective. It has been supposed by many writers, that the painters I have discussed did a very careful tempera painting before they glazed with oil color. While I believe that this was true of a great many painters into and beyond the Rennaisance, I don’t believe it is true of Rubens, Velasquez and Rembrandt. I believe their underpainting was loosely done with the same medium that was used for the overpainting.

ingredients for making paint medium

An assortment of some of the raw materials Safran used to make his Black Oil Medium and to paint with.

I also believe that the medium had to contain one of the soft resin ethereal varnishes such as mastic or damar, since they do reproduce the paint quality of these men when used properly. Restorers complain about Rembrandt because of the fragility of his glazes, which indicates a soft resin was used.

The medium that I use was formulated by Jacques Maroger, former technical director of the Louvre and President of the Restorers of France. He spent his life working on the reconstitution of the painting media of the old masters from Van Eyck through Velasquez. I believe that the formulas that I have tried are pretty near what was used. Of course the materials and how they were produced long ago are not the same as today, so there is some difference.

Time frontpiece on Safran's methods detail

Safran preparing Black Oil Medium in his studio in Bronxville NY. From Time Magazine’s Letter from the Publisher, 1961

Maroger’s work has been derided by contemporary technical experts because it basically is a cooked linseed oil with lead, and has a dark brown color. In my case it is combined with mastic. This is contrary to the modern concept of using the most refined and colorless oils. I can only say that in my experience of nearly twenty years of use, it has stood up beautifully. None of the whites have yellowed, none of the pictures have changed. They are as they were painted. I don’t think anyone can ask better than that.

What I have told you is general. It is applied in a multitude of ways, and must be thought of as a guide and not a series of hard and fast rules. It may sound complicated, but after you are accustomed to it, it is not. It permits a rapid result. The evidence is the great quantity of work that was done by these painters in relatively short periods of time.

That is my way of working. Everyone has his own preferences and finds his own answers. It has given me a much larger scope in what I am able to do, and hopefully allows my work to evolve and inspire as time goes on.

I have brought a few examples of what I have been talking about, and we can talk about them now.

The Window

One of my father’s original works from the New York series, The Window by Bernard Safran, oil on masonite, June 1970.