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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"It's nicer to look up to people than to look down on them," he said. "Our respective eye levels are as important in a painting as they are in life. It has a lot to do with how the artist thinks about his clients; when we look at a great painting by Rubens or Van Dyck, they place themselves lower than their subject. Sargent looked down on his children, but that was a charming reality—these are children. But when Velázquez painted the infanta he placed her at eye level, respecting her royalty."

The studio was lined with bookshelves full of art reference books and monographs, and occasionally Tom took one out to show me a painting that illustrated a point he was making. "Continuously studying other painters—Rembrandt, Titian, Sargent, Lucian Freud—reminds me about the power of simplicity," he said. "That has helped me to focus on the person rather than on the moment."

As the person being focused on, I realized that I really didn't know much about my face. The man who looked back at me from the mirror was just an unremarkable assortment of eyes, ears, nose and mouth—an amiable-looking chap, eager to please. What else was there to know?

"Your head is like a slightly tapered box," Tom said. "There are several characteristic head shapes—oval and teardrop and inverted teardrop, which is especially common: all those double chins and wattles. The pull of gravity is always working; when people gain weight it's not around the forehead. Your forehead is a topographer's dream. Ordinarily the skin just lies on the bone, nice and tight. But when you start to talk—to express yourself—your forehead comes alive. It makes all those wrinkles come into play. Old faces are very nice—there's so much going on. Look at what Rembrandt did in those last self-portraits."

Several hours had slipped by. I had been working so hard at my own craft—asking questions—that Tom hadn't asked many questions of his own. Perhaps I was afraid of being left alone with my thoughts. But then he said, "Have you considered who gets this painting when you're dead?" POW! I wasn't going to be let off easy after all. I had a brief vision of my grown children, Amy and John, fighting over my portrait—or, worse, not fighting over my portrait—and then I tried to push the subject out of my mind. But it kept sneaking back: the whole point of having a portrait painted is to leave a record behind. I felt both good and bad—good because I wanted to be remembered, bad because I didn't want to be dead.

Stage two ended, and I went over to see how my face had metamorphosed. It was still the same neutral color, but it was far more alive. Light, the painter's miracle tool, had come to the rescue, illuminating the right side of the forehead in a high shine. But the left side of the face was dark. Those were the contrasts Tom had mentioned, which I had never noticed in a lifetime of looking at portraits. I thought my face was light. I thought everybody's face was light. Now I saw that the interplay of shadow and light is what gives faces much of their interest.

The portrait now lacked only its third and last element: color.

The next morning, when I settled into my sitter's chair, I said, "So this morning is all about color?"

"This morning is all about paint," Tom said. "It's where the brushstrokes really show. I've got the ‘where' figured out—what the forms are like. I know the structure of the head. I know where I'm going. Now the important thing for me is the paint itself. I have to put this paint on, brushstroke by brushstroke. Nobody knows, looking at the finished picture, how much time I've taken between brushstrokes. When you look at a Sargent it just knocks you over with its spontaneity—the bravura brushstrokes. So you assume it was painted quickly—a la prima, as artists say. What you don't realize is that there may have been a lot of time between brushstrokes, in which he was just thinking about paint. He wanted the paint to be beautiful, just as a cabinetmaker wants the texture of his wood to be beautiful. Spontaneity itself has no value. Sargent wanted many sittings because he used them to practice—he wanted every stroke to appear right on.

"I try to apply the paint in such a way that I'm making an interesting physical object. The thing you fight against all the time is to not have the painting die on you—not to make the paint dull, or to lose the transparency or the vitality. What no painter ever wants to hear is: ‘I like it very much, but it really doesn't have Jean's sparkle.' Remember Sargent's famous definition: A portrait is a painting with something a little wrong with the mouth."


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