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.