Two Men and a Portrait

One wondered how an artist brings paint to life. The other showed him

Thomas Buechner's portrait of Bill Zinsser. (Thomas Buechner)
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"The other kind of portrait is about a person alone—a person for whom time has been stilled. It's epitomized by Rembrandt, or Velázquez, or Ingres. I prefer that approach, partly because it enables me to focus on one thing at a time, separating design and form and color into three successive stages. But mainly I use it because when I'm painting someone, I don't want anything to distract me from that person. I put the sitter alone in dark, empty space. The stark background both startles and focuses attention: you see only the person. That creates a unique situation because in our daily lives we never see anybody out of context, including ourselves. Have you ever hung a piece of black velvet behind you and looked at yourself in the mirror? We are each of us quite alone, and that's what I try to paint."

That was a sufficiently terrifying thought to take into my first posing session; there would be no escaping aloneness. I tried to compose my features into the expression we had caught in the photograph and awaited my fate. Tom lit a cigar, chomped on it purposefully, selected a brush and went to work. Now he really looked like an old German professor.

"I know in advance," he said, "that you have to look wise, kind, experienced and humorous. You have to look like a guy who's been around—a guy who knows his way. I'll think of other ways you have to look as I go along."

I tried to look wise, kind, experienced and humorous, my mouth in a slight smile to lighten the gravity of the occasion. Humor is the lubricant of my life, and I wanted that in the picture. But I also wanted its opposite: authority and accomplishment. Above all, I wanted independence: the suggestion of a life lived with originality and risk.

I was born into the Northeastern establishment and have never quite stopped trying to pretend that I was not. During World War II, I left the cocoon of Princeton to enlist in the Army and learn about the wider world—which, as a G.I. in North Africa and Italy, I did. Home from the war, I didn't go into the 100-year-old family shellac business, William Zinsser & Co., as I was expected to do, being the only son, but skated out on the uncertain ice of journalism, uprooting my life four or five times to try a new direction when the work ceased to be satisfying. I've taken pleasure in being a lone cowboy, making my own luck. Could Tom also put that in his picture?

He was off to a fast start, putting paint on the canvas with strokes that were swift and sure. He was totally at home in what he was doing, like any artist or artisan—jazz musician or auto mechanic or cook—who has been there a thousand times before. He worked partly from the photograph and partly from my head, only occasionally asking me to sit still. Otherwise I was free to ask him questions, which he answered while continuing to paint.

"The hardest thing for a painter," he told me, "is to create what he wants, not what he sees. He can build what he wants out of what he sees. That's when a painter starts to become an artist—when he starts to deal with what's in his mind, not just with what he sees. You have to bring something to the party. Students are so eager to record what they see that they don't think about what they want. Do they want to just copy a photograph? Why would they want to do that? They've got the photograph."

Our first session, Tom explained, was about design. "I try to decide what's going to be dark and what's going to be light. What are the major contrasts? That's what's going to make the painting—that's the essential composition."

After several hours Tom declared the morning session over, and I took a look at the portrait. A design had been established. The left side of the face was somewhat dark, and some hills and valleys had begun to appear on the cartoon-strip countenance. The skeleton on the canvas had come partly to life. The colors were muted—umber and gray-green—but at least there was blood in his system. Definite progress.

We broke for lunch and a siesta, and at 2 o'clock Tom was back at his easel, a new cigar lit. "This second session is about form," he said, "I want to make the portrait start to look three-dimensional by adding strong lights and darks." I had noticed that Tom was a little lower than I was, and I wondered how he had arrived at that angle of vision.


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