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


Beauty 1958 – is this why they cast Christina Hendricks as Joanie??

Beauty by Bernard Safran 1958

Beauty by Bernard Safran, 1958, source Time Archives

My father was called in at the end of February 1958 to paint a cover for Time representing the financial success of the Beauty Industry.

Otto Fuerbringer the Managing Editor had seen a hair ad in the NY Times that featured a beautiful model. He had the research department find out who she was and insisted she be the face of Beauty for the cover.

Being the 1950’s they introduced the model on page 15 in A Letter from the Publisher as Mrs. Douglas Thom Jr.  Her given name was Jean and she worked in Manhattan as a model for major cosmetic houses.

Jean Thom publisher's letter 1958 small

Jean Thom

They managed to get glossy prints from that photo shoot for my father to work from. So he took the photos home and worked up several concept layouts as requested by senior brass.

I couldn’t find out online the true color of Jean’s hair or find the original ad (its somewhere in the New York Times in 1958). Obviously he made several subtle changes to the woman’s face and hair style –  he might also have changed the hair color too – its hard to know.

For the roses he and Nancy Faber of the Research Division at Time, went down to street level Manhattan and found the perfect blooms at a nearby florist. I’m guessing that my Dad used some of my mother’s personal cosmetics for the other items in the painting.

This beautiful woman became the 1958 iconic face of Beauty overnight.

The cover article, if you are interested, is a fun romp through the history of the beauty industry up to 1958. There are several interesting photos included in the article and a couple of them were too good to pass up…

Women's Gym 1910 source Brown Brothers

Beautiful damsels working out in a women’s only gym, c 1910. image source Brown Brothers


Getting A Permanent 1930s photo Brown Brothers

Did She or Didn’t She? Getting a Permanent in the 1930s

Anyway – the Beauty Industry aside… I wouldn’t be surprised if the Mad Men creators and casting agents researched the era and found the Time cover by my Dad. Compare Joanie of Mad men (Christina Hendricks) to Jean Thom on the Time cover  – the red hair, the classic features, the slender neck, the full red lips?

What do you think? Did they or didn’t they?

Christina Hendricks as Joan, photo the Guardian BBC/AMC/Lionsgate/Frank Ockenfels 3/AMC/Lionsgate

Christina Hendricks in Mad Men. photo from the Guardian credit: BBC/AMC/Lionsgate/Frank Ockenfels 3/AMC/Lionsgate

Christina Hendricks Man Men Photo: Lionsgate

The sexy beauty from Mad Men (and I’m not referring to John Hamm or Vincent Kartheiser), Christina Hendricks.  photo credit: Lionsgate

Painting the President, and geography blunders

There’s sometimes a delicate balancing act that an artist has to manage when working for a demanding client – to keep the client happy and also produce work that is artistically good. And it can be particularly delicate when working for a powerful art director or editor who might have a strong opinion about how the final work should look. The artist knows that he/she is on the payroll to do whatever the client wants, but sometimes its just too difficult – too stomach churning to do what the client demands because the idea is so artistically bad. Usually the artist can make diplomatic suggestions to improve the quality of the commissioned art. But in some cases the artist has to give in and just do the job…

The artist, in this case, was my father.  The assignment was a big one – Time’s Man of the Year for 1960. My Dad personally liked the Time executive who gave him the prestigious assignment and also presented the cover concept to him. But the concept was, in my father’s opinion, bad. My Dad, however, felt obliged to do what he was asked to do, and not interfere.

louis XIV cardIt was December 29, 1959 and Jim Keogh, Senior Editor of Time Magazine, took my Dad to lunch at Rockefeller Center to the Cafe Louis XIV. It was one of the restaurants that frequently catered dinners and luncheons to the Time offices when my father worked there.

Keogh was very excited to tell my father about an upcoming and important assignment and impressed upon my father that it was top secret. But once in the restaurant he spoke up and told my father that he’d be doing the 1960 Man of the Year cover of Dwight D Eisenhower, the 34th President of the United States of America.

Usually it was Otto Fuerbringer, the Managing Editor, who ultimately signed off on cover concepts with my father. But this time Jim Keogh was acting on his own while Fuerbringer was out of the country on business.

Time Inc and Kennedy

There don’t seem to be too many pictures around of the men my father worked with so I’m including this one taken at the Time Life Building. It includes from the left: John K Jessup (of Life Magazine), Henry Luce (owner of Time Magazine), Otto Fuerbringer the Managing Editor of Time (touching his chin), presidential candidate Senator John Kennedy (whom my father painted at least twice for Time). To the right behind Kennedy it looks like its  Jim Keogh the Senior Editor my father worked with on the Eisenhower cover. Photo by Margaret Norton, August 5, 1960

Normally my father suggested ideas for the background art and discussed it with senior editorial, and then when it was approved, the research department would prepare source information for him to work from. Keogh was relatively new to his job at this time and had been relying on my Dad to pull together cover concepts for him for a while (particularly the difficult ones). In doing so he had given my father a lot of creative freedom – even okaying covers without preliminary sketches, so my Dad felt obliged to go along with Keogh on this one – especially since Keogh was so proud of the idea.

Keogh insisted that the earth should be seen from space behind Eisenhower with Washington DC and Europe visible. So after lunch Keogh had the chief researcher Nancy Faber take my father down to the Rand McNally store to buy an expensive globe for him to work from.

betty and barby and globe

Me on the left and my big sister on the right. Is that the fancy Rand McNally globe from the story?? The Eisenhower earth? could be…

Keogh also insisted that a needle and thread be bound around a giant rock (over Washington, DC) and then strung across the Atlantic and pinned to Bonn, Paris and London… I guess it symbolized the stability the US government represented to Europe during the Cold War.

It was an important portrait so Time sent my Dad to Washington to an Eisenhower press conference at the White House so he could see the man in person and meet him – this was both to give my father the best reference material possible and to give him a perk for a job well done.

Eisenhower and Thomas Gates

Thomas Gates takes the oath of office as Secretary of Defense (2nd from the right) with President Eisenhower in the center.

While he was at the White House he also met Thomas Gates the Secretary of Defense, and according to his notes: “all the other military brass”.

The magazine put my father up in the Time suite at the Sheraton Hotel.

When my father delivered the finished painting all the editors thought it was great – even the Managing editor Ray Alexander came along and complimented him on the head.

Eisenhower cover by Bernard Safran

President Eisenhower by Bernard Safran for Time Magazine’s 1960 Man of the Year. image source Time Archives

When it was published my Dad went in for proofs of the painting for his files, and Nancy Faber told him that she’d nearly lost her job because he’d forgotten to put Austria on the map. While he was talking to Nancy, the Associate Editor, Champ Clark  stopped by to say how good the Man of the Year cover was and Nancy said “Some knucklehead left Austria out.”

Otto Fuerbringer was just back from a trip to China and asked my father into his office. He talked casually about how much he loved Chinese food and how much weight he’d put on on the trip.

My Dad wrote about this conversation in his journal: “Then he (Otto) said that his daughter had liked the cover but wanted to know why I had put a rock in it.” and My Dad answered,  “Ask Keogh, not me!”

My Dad was distressed by this fallout because he’d known the idea was bad from the beginning and that he hadn’t done his “part in opposing it”.  He also felt very bad about leaving out an entire country from the map.

Being not so great at geography and borders, I can easily understand the mistake myself…

The portrait of President Dwight D Eisenhower, 34th President of the United States of America by Bernard Safran is part of the Smithsonian Institution’s National Portrait Gallery collection in Washington, DC




Making Paint

Time article Safran Nov 17 1961

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

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

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

Raw materials from Bernard Safran's studio

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

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

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


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

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

A selection of pigments remaining from Safran's studio

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

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

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

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

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

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

Bernard Safran's palette

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

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

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

Bernard Safran's old swivel chair from his studio.

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

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

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


Bernie in studio blk and white

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






Jack Paar – Host of The Tonight Show

August 1958

Jack Paar

Jack Paar

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

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

Jack Paar and Judy Garland - The Tonight Show

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

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

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

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

My father managed to deliver the cover on schedule.

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

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

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

NBC Peacock logo designed by John J. Graham in 1956

NBC Peacock logo designed by John J. Graham in 1956

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Tennessee Williams

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

Night of the Iguana original playbill - opened Dec  28 1961

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

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

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

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

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

sketch of Tennessee Williams by Bernard Safran

Sketch of Williams by Bernard Safran

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The Power of a Face

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Sukarno by Bernard Safran, March 1958 - source Time Archives

Sukarno by Bernard Safran, March 1958 – source Time Archives

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

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

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

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