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

Bernard Safran – The Use of Photographs in Illustration

Precis: This talk was given by my father, Bernard Safran, to Mount Allison University’s Art School in 1974.  (I have previously published several posts on this blog about my father’s 10 years as an illustrator in NYC)


I have been asked to talk to you today about the use of photographs in illustration. I was an illustrator in New York doing magazine, book and advertising illustration from 1946 until 1956.

Bernie as happy cowboy173

Reference photo of himself as a cowboy c 1950

From 1957 through August 1965 I worked for Time Magazine painting covers. The illustration business has changed drastically since then. When I began it was quite a large business. Illustrators were held in great esteem, and at the top earned lots of money. All that changed with the explosive growth of TV, which by absorbing advertising dollars destroyed many of the major magazines, and also other markets once open to the illustrator. The business now doesn’t resemble the business as it was then.

I am certain however that illustrations are done the same way. The things that govern the methods are time and money; and these have if anything become more important because of the competition of photography which is both cheaper and quicker. And which art directors turned to when their budgets were cut.

I went to Pratt Institute to study illustration. It was and is one of the leading art schools in the United States. In school, in that long ago, the use of photographs in illustration was regarded as not only grossly immoral; it smacked of not playing the game; and had a large odor of larceny about it. So a severe prejudice against photographs, and their use was held up as a fundamental canon.

Remarkably after all this time, I understand that this attitude still survives in art schools intact. In this era, it is astonishing to me how hardy it has proven to be.

After I graduated, it was some time before I found out that you simply could not compete or survive as an illustrator without using photographs. Having made this unequivocal statement, I’d like to leave it for a short time, and turn to a broader subject.

What I would like to discuss briefly is the use of mechanical devices used by artists since antiquity to help them in their work. The most important element of any work of art is the idea that it projects. The finished result is what you see, and only that counts. How the artist arrives at that end doesn’t matter. You look at it, and it evokes a response, or it doesn’t. If you are aware of the effort that has gone into it at all, then the artist has failed. His only object is to present his idea whole, full born, and in full force. If you are a professional artist you understand this, and will use any means that will save time and effort. Your major effort is not in the mechanical, but in the philosophical area.

the craftsman's treatiseI would also say that when artists were in a master’s studio years ago, and when artist’s guilds were in being, methods of work were kept closely guarded secrets. The artists regarded themselves primarily as craftsmen. If you read Cennini’s The Craftsman’s Handbook written in 1426 (the first artist’s technical manual that we have), or Leonardo Da Vinci’s Treatise on Painting, you will find that their chief concern was not Aesthetics, but how to do things.

There have been numerous devices used to speed up the actual doing of work. Probably the earliest, and most widely used was the camera obscura. The exact date of it’s invention, the Encyclopedia Brittanica says is unknown, but it is reputed to have been in used in ancient Greece. The first written reference to it that we have is in 1038 AD.


Alberti’s diagram

The camera obscura is an optical apparatus consisting of a darkened chamber into which light is admitted through a convex lens. This lens forms an image of external objects on a screen and can then be traced. The Italian painter and architect Alberti used it in 1437, and so did Leonardo Da Vinci who also left some accurate drawings of it. In 1558 there is an account of it’s application to painting and portraiture. We also know that Canaletto and Guardi in painting their views of Venice used the camera obscura.

canaletto camera obscura

Canalettos camera obscura, Venice

Canaletto’s is now in the Correr Museum in Venice. Since their paintings were commercial art done primarily to sell to tourists on the Grand Tour, they in some cases didn’t even bother to correct their tracings by straightening the verticals. The camera obscura was very popular with English young ladies learning to paint water colors in the 18th and 19th centuries, since they could trace and not learn how to draw.

durer camera obscura

Camera obscura by Durer

There were also tracing devices used by such great painters as Hans Holbein (the Younger) and Albrecht Durer. In fact here is a drawing of one by Durer. It is now quite accepted that Holbein as court painter to Henry VIII used such an apparatus. His drawings of court personalities now in Windsor Castle show clear evidence of it.

Anything that helped was used. The great Venetian Tintoretto left dozens of small sculptured figures, as did El Greco. These were used in small sets which were lit, and then used as reference for large paintings. This method of setting up the lighting of a picture was used by a man I knew – Gail Phillips, who was a Saturday Evening Post illustrator, and ran an illustration studio. He’d make a model of the setting for his illustration, light it, photograph it, and paint from it.

El Greco statuette

An El Greco statuette, Prado

Since El Greco was a pupil of Titian, it is not unreasonable to assume that Titian also did this, and no doubt many others.

Portrait painters such as Sir Joshua Reynolds only painted their sitters heads. The sitter would come in one hour a week over an extended period. Sir Joshua had an assembly line, and painted numerous people daily. The sitter’s clothes were put on a life sized mannequin which had articulated arms and legs, and Sir Joshua’s assistants known as drapery painters, did the rest.

It is no surprise therefore that with the advent of the photograph artists were quick to seize on it for help in their work. The great French painter Eugene Delacroix explored the use of photographs as early as 1853, just a few years after their invention. I found four references to the use of photographs by himself and others, in his journal, just casually going through it. Degas is reputed to have used them, and I have no doubt many others less eminent. We know that one of the finest American painters Thomas Eakins used them, and was also associated with Muybridge in trying to catalog the various actions of the human figure among other species, by photographing them. These photos have been available in book form in the last few years.


Delacroix photo


Delacroix Odalisque

I’m not trying to give you a history of the ways artists have tried to lighten their work, since I really have a small knowledge in this regard, but only want to show that it is not new or unusual.

In fact when you are a working illustrator, you find that you must be able to do your work quickly, and well. You must meet stringent deadlines, or – you may as well forget it.

I really learned to be an illustrator in the aforementioned Gail Phillips Studio. It was in mid Manhattan. There were quite a few illustrators at work there. The work covered the whole range of illustration from billboards to magazines to fashions. All of it was done from black and white photographs. There was a full time photographer there, and a large photographic studio.

Bernie Safran posing with model for pulp cover

Bernie Safran posing with a model for a pulp cover c 1950

If you are doing commercial illustration, you cannot make things up. There must be some air of authenticity. The greatest difficulty in painting a realistic picture is that it is virtually  impossible to invent the subtleties of how light will fall on people in your picture. In an illustration you can somewhat fake the background, but not the people. You must have models. Models are expensive. Beautiful girls, for example of the types in the current fashion, with beautiful clothes, fashionable makeup, and hair dos, cannot be improvised. When I was doing paper back book covers way back in 1949, they paid about $200 for a cover. Models were paid, not the top ones by any means, from $20 to $25 an hour. It’s obvious that you couldn’t hire them for long. So you photographed them in black and white. It was the most inexpensive way; the quickest and most versatile.

In discussing a paper back cover, for instance, with an art director, he’d generally tell you the exact situation he wanted you to illustrate. You then went, and did some sketches. When he had approved one, ordinarily with some changes, you hired models. Then you posed them, and lit them according to the sketch, and photographed them. There was a photographic studio in New York called Fashiongraph, and others that provided this service. They had a large file of models. They would book the models, take the actual photographs, and get the prints to you very quickly. when you worked in a studio as I did which had it’s own photographer, you could have prints within the hour. You’d get light prints so you could see into the shadow areas, and dark prints so that you could see the form in the light areas. If you did this yourself, you were able to make them even more useful by enlarging various details.

It is obvious that the photograph makes things much easier if you are dealing with action, as most illustrations are. The figure is off balance in a pose that can’t be held for long, or at all. If you try to do it from a model, you must do it piecemeal, and it is time consuming. The photograph solves this problem.

Bernie Safran reference photo

Bernie Safran in reference photo

Why black and white photographs instead of color? In doing an illustration there must be a unified color scheme. The illustration only projects one situation. The color sets the mood, and so you make it up to dramatize the picture. Normal or natural color is too drab. Every thing in an illustration is forced. The action, the black and white pattern, and the color. It can’t be very subtle, or it won’t reproduce well.

As an example of the kind of situation that comes up – I once did a Pocket book cover of a Perry Mason mystery. The picture showed a pretty blond holding a gun on Perry Mason who had his hands up. On delivery the art director thought it was fine. However, on a Friday afternoon he called and said that the editor had decided that we couldn’t show Perry Mason’s face since everyone had a different idea of how he looked. Perry Mason had to be turned around to show his back. The painting had to be back on Monday morning to meet the deadline. I ran in, picked it up, got home, and had my wife photograph my back, arms up. After I developed the photos, it was quite late. It suddenly occurred to me that the painting was done in casein, the toughest of materials, and I had no way to remove the figure of Perry Mason. It was a holiday weekend. I couldn’t get a solvent at the hardware store. I did however have a bottle of Cutty Sark scotch, and I sacrificed it for the job, successfully. As you can see, this sort of time frame makes the photograph essential.

Outdoor Life cover by Bernard Safran 1951

Outdoor Life cover by Bernard Safran 1951 (my uncle posed for the reference photo)

Here I’d like to touch on something else that is of primary importance to the illustrator. It is called scrap in the trade. Scrap means reference material. It is something the illustrator uses continually. Whatever you illustrate must be accurate, or as accurate as you can get it. So that if you paint 19th century France, the clothes and objects must be right. In an illustration of the US Calvary during the Indian Wars, the uniforms and equipment, and the Indians must be correct. There is an immense clipping collection in the New York Public Library on 42nd Street devoted to this*, and most illustrators are continually adding to their own files too.

Only rarely do illustrators hire the actual costumes or objects. Mostly they are improvised from clippings. Sometimes, quite often in fact, they will simply use the clippings as they are, perhaps reversing them. This frequently happens with backgrounds. The illustrator photographs his models in approximate dress, and used this or that from wherever he can find it, for his setting. The dominant factor is expediency, and the saving of time. The one saving grace of this practice is that it develops in the illustrator a great facility in pictorial composition. He frequently finds that he is dealing with many diverse situations, and with large differences of time and mood at once. Bad as this practice may sound, its practical result is a lot of flexibility and mental agility.

Houdon's l'Ecorché

My father believed a firm foundation in anatomy was vital. He owned a copy of Houdon’s flayed man, l’Ecorché, and kept it in his studio for reference. (image from

Now that I’ve told you why and how photographs are used by illustrators, I’d like to add some words of caution. Anyone can take a photograph, and copy it, but it doesn’t make him an artist. For the illustrator it is a tool and he uses it as such.

To use it properly, he must know how to draw, and understand form. This means that the artist has to be able to see in the photograph what he would see in the model.

Without going into a discussion on how to draw the figure, it simply is the realization of how the edges turn, where the planes are, and how the figure articulates. The artist must know what to emphasize and what to diminish. The photograph cannot be used as it is, or the result will be lifeless, and dull. The best photograph from the point of view of the illustrator is the sharpest and most detailed. The maximum information is the aim.

B Safran drawing of Michaelangelo anatomy smaller file

My father worked continually on sharpening his eye and hand with drawing the human form. In this study of Michaelangelo sculpture you can see how he is simplifying the planes of the figure, and emphasizing the form  by using line across the form to develop the light and dark values. When he was teaching me to draw, I drew from life, from l’Ecorché, and from photographs of Michaelangelo sculptures because Michaelangelo had already simplified the form of the body and it was easier to see the planes. Page from one of Bernard Safran’s sketchbooks.


The process of selection is the artist’s job. The photograph does not have a living presence as a model does, and the effect of life is something the illustrator must add to it from his knowledge.

To use a photograph properly is something that must be learned after the artist has learned his business, and not before. If a person becomes dependent on the use of photographs before he understands how to be an artist, the result will never be better than poor. So in my opinion it’s best to keep away from the photograph until you have learned as much as you can.


* The New York Public Library’s Picture Collection is now located at The Stephen A. Schwarzman Building, Mid-Manhattan Library, and Science, Industry and Business Library: 455 Fifth Avenue New York, NY, 10016 (212) 340-0863


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.