Two Men and a Portrait- page 6 | Arts & Culture | Smithsonian
Thomas Buechner's portrait of Bill Zinsser. (Thomas Buechner)

Two Men and a Portrait

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

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(Continued from page 5)

The morning ambled along, Tom applying brushstrokes with Sargent-like confidence. At one point he asked me to take a look at the color he had added. To my dismay, the face was quite pink, more Hallmark than Buechner, and the strength had leaked out of it. I told Tom I didn't like it. It was the only criticism I made of the portrait-in-progress.

"I thought you looked pale," he said. Whether this was an artistic or a medical opinion I didn't ask. Tom assured me he could correct it; it was just a glaze. "When my sitters make a complaint I always tell them, ‘Don't worry, it's only paint.'"

When I next saw the painting, at the end of the morning, the colors were true.

The portrait was now 95 percent done; Tom would do some final tinkering after I left, mostly on the clothes. "Painters leave out a lot of stuff," he said. "I could put the herringbone in your jacket and people would say, ‘You can see the herringbone.' But that's not what I'm about and it's not what you're about."

We had arrived at the dreaded moment when the sitter is asked to look at the portrait and the painter says, "What do you think?" Tom had put ten hours of his life into trying to sum up my life as he saw it summed up in my face. What if I had to tell him he had botched the job? ("I can't quite put my finger on it; there's something about the eyes.") I went over and looked at the man looking out at me from the easel. He was just what I thought and hoped I looked like. The brushstrokes of heavy paint had brought animation to the eyes and humor to the mouth. But it was only a suggestion of humor; the person in the portrait was ultimately a serious person. He looked more imposing than I felt.

Because it wasn't a full-length portrait, Tom hadn't been able to paint my signature sneakers. But he did have the next-best thing: my white button-down Oxford shirt and collar. That collar is one of the quirky affectations of the WASP oligarchy. It's not designed to lie flat and to look starched, but, instead, to have a bulge and to look unstarched. By buying that shirt the wearer also declares himself to be unstarched. The shirt in Tom's portrait is a perfect replication of the Brooks Brothers bulge and is the strongest identifying mark in his composition, along with the tie, which, I saw, was very slightly askew. Those two objects of clothing—shirt and tie—say as much about me as my sneakers.

"That tie is like an arrow," Tom said. "It's like a spear. A spear points. What does it point to? It points to the most important thing in the picture: you. There's a toughness and strength in you. But there's also a softness—a sensitivity to things; it's not all black and white. So I wanted to emphasize the curve in the lapel. A straight line is masculine, a curve is feminine; it's deeply psychological. Your head is tilted slightly, so it doesn't have that in-your-face abruptness. It acknowledges that you're human."

That afternoon I caught the bus back to New York, riding past fields and farms that I felt I knew from Tom's many arresting landscapes. I was contented; if painting a portrait is a two-person transaction, Tom and I had spent the two days well. He had given me a gift of myself, one that would outlive me. That made me feel a little less bad about being dead.

A few weeks later the finished portrait was shipped to our apartment in New York. Everyone who saw it—wife, children, family, friends—agreed that Tom had really "gotten" me, and I called to tell him how good they all thought it was.

"Well, if you ever want anything changed," he said, "just let me know and I'll come and fix it. It's only paint."

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