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.







The Black Oil Medium

My father Bernard Safran grew tired of working as an illustrator in the 1950s – he gave the business ten years of his life after graduating from art school, but ultimately found the work unsatisfying and unprofitable.

Pulp covers by Bernard Safran

Two pulp fiction covers by my father Bernard Safran. Its likely he hired a model for the cover on the left. For the cover on the right – King of the Range – he posed for both men.

He had grown up on the great illustrators and thought that the business would be noble, but by the time he was in the business – it quickly lost its magic for him.

He cranked out work as fast as he had to to pay the bills, but it wasn’t work that he necessarily felt good about. He did it all including illustrations for an entire children’s bible, pictures for magazines like Outdoor Life and Boy’s Life, a billboard for beer (and I’d like to point out Jackson Pollock painted billboards), and many pulp fiction covers and books. Though he didn’t like the work – he said that at least it had made him disciplined.

Harry Safran by Bernard Safran, 1956 oil on illustration board

To practice capturing the character of a sitter quickly he let it be known in Brooklyn that he’d do a 15 minute oil sketch portrait from life for $25. This one is of my Grandfather.
Harry Safran by Bernard Safran, 1956 oil on illustration board

In 1956 he had enough savings to take 6 months off to rethink what he wanted to do as an artist. He felt he needed to refine his skills and refine “his eye” so he went to study the works of the Old Masters in the museums of New York City.  In addition to his studies he did a lot of plein air painting of landscapes and quick portraits to free up his brush stroke and learn to understand and capture the essence of his subject quickly.

He read everything he could find about the Old Masters and their lives and techniques including Vasari and other historical writers, and discovered a book by Jacques Maroger the former head of restoration at the Louvre in Paris who had written a book on just that subject. Maroger claimed that he had rediscovered the materials and methods of the Old Masters from years of working with their paintings in the labs of the Louvre. His book outlines his specific recipes for the oil mediums that he believed painters used to mix with color pigments to create paints. There are also recipes for the varnishes used to seal the paintings (and to provide shiny surfaces) and instructions for preparing boards and canvases with gesso.

Copy by Bernard Safran,1960, oil on illustration board 20" x 20.5 "Atalanta and Meleager by Rubens

Copy by Bernard Safran,1960, oil on illustration board 20″ x 20.5 “
Atalanta and Meleager by Rubens

My father cooked up all the recipes in the book and experimented with them to find which he liked best. He learned to use the preparations step by step and found that the black oil medium provided him with a versatile and satisfying product with which he could reproduce the brilliant color and sheer glazes of the Old Masters. This was a revelation to him. The medium gave him the freedom to build layers of pure pigment through which the light danced – creating paintings with clear color and depth.

He took this new method and began copying the Old Masters at the Metropolitan Museum of Art. It felt like he was seeing the masterpieces anew – he was not trying to make exact copies, but trying to deconstruct the methodology and character of the work so he could learn from the greatest painters.

Betty age 2.75 by Bernard Safran, 1962 oil on masonite

If you look closely at this painting you can see how my father worked the paint: using opaque whites and sheer darks to create the illusion of form in 2D. You can also see how the gessoed board was streaked in grey – techniques my father learned from Rubens.
Betty age 2.75 by Bernard Safran, 1962, oil on masonite, 18″ x 24″

He copied Rembrandt, Rubens, Velasquez, Titian and many others. Rubens’ paintings were the most magnificent to him – not so much the over the top subject matter with masses of pink flesh (though Rubens’ use of composition with these voluptuous figures was brilliant) but because of the way Rubens laid in the paint, and the lasting brilliant freshness of his works even after hundreds of years.

My father continued studying the art of the great painters for the rest of his life, especially when he felt he needed to refresh himself or to expand his knowledge.

Seated Nude (rear view) By Bernard Safran, 1983 revised 1994 oil on masonite

This detail shows how my father continued to apply the fundamentals he’d learned from the Old Masters throughout his career. With this example you can see similarities with the above portrait of Betty Age 2.75 pertaining to the use of opaque whites and sheer darks to create form.
This painting, however, shows his more mature style; you can feel the mass and warmth of the figure through the more densely and confidently applied paint.
Seated Nude (rear view), detail, by Bernard Safran, 1983 revised 1994 oil on masonite
(click on image to see 1 x1 view)

Like any great master – whether their profession is figure skating or piano or painting or martial arts – to make something appear effortless is the work of someone who knows intuitively, after years of studying the grounding principles of their chosen field, how to express themselves with confidence and ease of execution.

You can see development and changes in my father’s work through his lifetime, but the basic fundamentals of his approach with paint stayed much the same.

A note of caution – the Paintings Conservator I work with has told me that the Maroger method is not fool proof and many in the conservation field do not believe it is an authentic or successful process – within my father’s collection the paintings that were painted with very sheer glazes are stable; whereas the paintings that are very thick are very unstable.

For those of you interested in more detailed information about my father’s methods and his personal philosophy towards art, I will be writing more in upcoming posts.