Can you see the difference? how my father’s work changed: illustration vs fine art

PART 1 – My Dad’s Illustrations from the 1950s

In this post I want to point out how my father’s illustrations are so different from his later works because sometimes I think people don’t recognize that he went from being a commercial illustrator to being a fine artist… both forms are representational you may say, so what’s the difference?  – well I’d like you to look more closely at the work and I’ll try to show you if I may…

In this post I’m going to concentrate on the commercial work that he did after graduating from Pratt Institute during the years 1947 to 1957. During this time he did a broad range of works from illustrating a children’s bible to making a giant billboard for beer.

Bernard Safran accounts ledger for illustration work

This shows some of the entries in my Dad’s accounts ledger for illustration work from 1953 – note how many jobs he had and how little he made for each (this just shows 2 publishing companies, there are many many more for the year).

I’ve already written about his disillusionment with the industry and his desire to do more fulfilling work – leading him to take 6 months off in 1956 to study the Old Masters and refine his eye and technique.

One of the things he found so difficult to accept was the fact that he had to work within a very limited range of artistic interpretation – meeting the publishers demands for content, colors and often the layouts. So the desired final work had to satisfy the publisher not the artist.

1950s bra ad borrowed from - http://www.vavoomvintageblog.com/2013/04/for-love-of-bullet-bras.html

Ah – the 1950s when men were men and women had really tiny waists and pointy boobs.
This is NOT by my Dad – I’ve included it because I want you to think about the 1950s and how there is a very definite look to the time period. And if you look at this art you’ll notice some very clear stylistic points (no pun intended) that resonate in my father’s work from the 1950s – have a look specifically at the sylization, the limited color palette, and the weirdly fake loving couple and notice its not at all “painterly“.
1950s bra ad

The illustrations had to be current and meet the style of the day – 1950s all the way. Even the brushstrokes had to fit into the current trends with a certain coarseness – the whole piece had to be marketable to the 1950s audience… representing a certain idealized plastic quality to life.

Further limitations were placed on him, especially when he was doing Pulp Fiction covers (see my earlier post) – he had to be careful of the moral codes restricting certain sexy depictions but at the same time make the paintings as trashy as possible – so tree branches had to be covering just the right areas of a naked woman; shirts could only be open on certain parts of the torso; no nipples could be showing, and so on. The Pulp publishers pushed him to work to the limit of the prohibitions and in many cases made him re do layouts and compositions repeatedly to meet their demands.

Far Flies the Eagle, detail of book jacket by Bernard Safran

Let’s be honest here: this is a pretty awful illustration. Because I’m familiar with my Dad’s work I can tell that he was working to somebody’s specifications here regarding the composition and the look of the two main figures. He obviously had to make the chick look like some sexy 1950s B actress (not at all like an historical representation of a real Russian countess), and the guy also looks like some 1950s ideal white guy (and a stuffed dummy too). Notice that even though she is pretty much showing off her goods full on, the guy is stoically looking into the distance – there is no eye contact – it wouldn’t do to make it too overtly sexy… The landscape in the back is very nice however, and he added what looks like Napoleon on his horse in the background (my Dad was fascinated by Napoleon and read all about him frequently). It also looks like he cut his losses and put a lot of effort into the crest – he had to have something in this that he could be proud of!
Far Flies the Eagle, detail of book jacket by Bernard Safran, Ben Feder Inc 1954 

With many of the publishing jobs, he was given limited color palettes with which to work – depending on the budget for printing – sometimes only using black and white, or a minimal three colors for example.

And there were obvious creative restrictions on layouts too – he had to work around the type, titles, and with novels – the spine of books when creating art for covers.

The business was all about the sale: illustrations  had to be compelling to the consumer so they’d buy the publication – he had to make it eye catching, and make it communicate the story or product in a quick glance.

There was little or no consideration of the artist’s vision or his personal point of view. With many jobs the artist was treated primarily as a technician who could create the publisher’s vision.

This isn’t the illustration of NC Wyeth or Arthur Rackham – this is the stuff that 1950s publishers were looking for and the only work my father could get during that time. Photography was already dominating and replacing the illustration business in most fields.

Its very difficult to make a living with art as your primary source of income – and my father was at least able to say that he did support his wife and his first child with that income solely. Each job was a little bit of money – he had to do multiple jobs at the same time, and quickly, in order to get enough to live on.

Sample illustration from portfolio by Bernard Safran, guache on illustration board, 1949

This is a sample my Dad made up to show to publishers. Its very skillfully done and meets all the same criteria as the illustrations above: limited color range (black and white is the cheapest to reproduce); models that look like 1950s starlets and stars; its simplified and stylized; and its easy to “read” from a distance – it broadcasts what the story is about – you see a guillotine; beautiful aristocrats in love; France in the 18th century – adventure, drama, intrigue, death, sex….
Sample illustration from portfolio by Bernard Safran, guache on illustration board, 1949

There are many other examples of artists who did commercial work before they went on in their careers to be recognized as fine artists – Winslow Homer is perhaps the most well known.

I’m not meaning to be apologetic about my Dad’s illustration work – I only want people to see how its different from his later work… which I’ll be writing about next for your comparison…

Time and the Wind, book jacket by Bernard Safran, Macmillan Publishing 1951

This is an example of my Dad’s illustration work from 1951: Please take note of how stylized it is, and note the limited palette (3 colors) that was used to reduce printing costs. In this case the editor probably insisted on what characters had to be shown and might have even demanded he adhere to the company’s layout suggestions. The woman has that definite 1950s style face and hair (Audrey Hepburn? Ava Gardner?).
You can see there is very little in the way of artistic interpretation happening here; my Dad is doing the minimum to please the publisher and still make it professional – the drive behind this is to sell the book. (and the monk is my Dad by the way)
Time and the Wind, book jacket by Bernard Safran, Macmillan Publishing 1951

Jeb Stuart the Last Cavalier, book jacket by Bernard Safran, Ben Feder Inc 1957

This is one of the few illustrations that my Dad did that he really liked. It was one of the last commercial jobs he took in 1957 just before he got work with Time Magazine. He was a huge reader of Civil War history and so this assignment was a special treat to him. He also enjoyed and excelled at painting horses – many people just don’t get the muscular anatomy right when doing horses – but he was great at it.
Jeb Stuart the Last Cavalier, book jacket by Bernard Safran, Ben Feder Inc 1957

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Adele makes a book: Part I

My mother Adele had a spirited and fearless appetite for learning. She approached everything in life with zest and when she set her mind to it she could do just about anything…she was an inspiration to me.

Adele Safran painting in the garden

Here’s my Mom painting in the garden at her small easel, wearing her big straw beach hat and standing in her flip flops. She was first and foremost a painter.

When I was little and she was busy rearing us kids, she pursued a variety of creative interests. It was during this time that she decided to learn calligraphy, print making (with linoleum cuts), and book binding.

She started by teaching herself all about calligraphy.

Adele Safran's books on Medieval manuscripts and calligraphy pen nibs

A couple of my mother’s books about Medieval manuscripts, and some of the pen nibs she used for making her own manuscripts.

She studied Medieval illuminated manuscripts, and different handwritten alphabets until she found a style that she could make her own.

In the beginning I remember she used feathers to make her pens – I think they must have been goose feathers – they were big and sturdy and white. She cut the tip of the feather at the exact angle for it to fill with ink and to make it form the right width of line as she wrote out text. Eventually she started using a pen that had interchangeable nibs. The pen was easier to use than feathers, but it was still a very difficult thing to do properly.

It took a lot of practicing to get the right style so that she could form the letters without thinking too much. The letters needed to look even and balanced and have a visual rhythm to them.

Some of Adele's books, materials and tools for bookbinding

Some of Adele’s books, materials and tools for bookbinding

It wasn’t enough for her to just learn calligraphy – she also learned how to bind the pages she made into books.

She decided to make a book of her favorite poems – and to make three copies of it by hand; one for my grandmother, one for my sister, and one for me (more on this book in an upcoming post).

To illustrate the book she made a different linoleum cut for each poem.

Linoleum mounted on a block of wood, two cutting tools, and a sharpening stone

Two of Adele’s linoleum cuts for her book of poetry and two cutting tools, one plain mounted piece of linoleum and a sharpening stone.
Like many print making processes – its the area that you don’t carve away that will pick up the ink and make the final design you see on paper. The prints will be the opposite of how they appear here (light will be dark; dark will be light).

She printed each picture by hand, using a large smooth spoon to rub the ink from the lino block onto paper. (She later bought an etchings press and a font of type to use for making other books).

One of our neighbors in Bronxville was Mr. Valenti Angelo. Mr. Angelo was a famous artist, book illustrator and author and he helped my mother learn how to make and bind books; it was very generous of him.

My mother took me to Mr. Angelo’s house on several occasions. Mrs. Angelo would make tea or lemonade and we’d sit and visit for a few minutes in the garden or the living room before going upstairs to his studio where he kept his printing presses and his beautiful paintings.

Valenti Angelo by Bernard Safran 1968

This is a portrait of Mr. Angelo that my father did in 1968. My parents used to say that Mr. Angelo had a fine head – meaning that he had great character and personality, and that he was a handsome man.

He would let me look at books that he’d written and illustrated while he talked to my mother. I remember liking his children’s book Nino so much that he gave me a copy.

Nino by Valenti Angelo