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Painted Treasures

Investing in Oils Portrait paintings capture more than simple images, becoming family treasures and paying dividends as status symbols
Warren Kalbacker
From the Print Edition:
Kevin Bacon, May/Jun 00

Morning light streams into William Draper's studio, a quiet refuge high above the traffic and noise of midtown Manhattan. The artist prepares his palette with primary colors. I wonder how the red, yellow and blue hues will meld into the image of my face. And that squiggle of bright green squeezing out of the tube? I don't dare ask for an explanation of technique. Draper is a master.  

Images of John F. Kennedy and the young Leonard Bernstein peer down from a wall. Kennedy is managing a smile, but just barely. I note the date: 1962. Maybe he's just learned that the Soviets have landed missiles in Cuba.  

"That's a replica I painted of my own Kennedy portrait," Draper points out. "The original now hangs in the White House." I arrived quite a while ago, but Draper's been in no hurry. He's shown me brightly colored landscapes painted during visits to Bermuda, Spain and elsewhere in Europe. Those scenes contrast with the muted tones of a Manhattan view, painted from a high midtown vantage point. Battle scenes from the Second World War hang about the studio. From the frigid Aleutians to the fiercely contested islands of Tinian and Guam, Navy combat artist Draper painted the war as he saw it. He depicted beaches strewn with dead Marines and Japanese corpses. But Navy censors drew the line at the sight of a sailor taking a leak outside his tent. "They took out the golden stream," Draper tells me.  

Finally he's doffed his sport jacket and donned a paint-stained smock. He asks my opinion of the fishing hat he'll put on before setting his hand to my portrait.   I realize that Draper's been sizing me up the whole time.

He beckons me to the heavy club chair that is mounted on a platform. Draper suggests several positions for my left arm and shoulder. I manage a few.  

"Can you hold that?" he asks.   I tell him it'll be OK for a little while.  

"You'll have to hold it for a lot longer than that.  

"Your neck!" he commands. "Show plenty of it! Lean forward!"  

It's a strain. But I'm being seduced. After all, I've never seen an image of myself except in a mirror or a photo. A mirror behind Draper allows me to watch him work. He's assured and casual, almost cavalier about the process. He dips his brush into one color, then another.  

Draper's strokes are quick and broad. Before long I recognize the outline of the top of my head.  

"I start out with the dark of your hair and the values--the darks and lights--of your face," he says. "In the old days a lot of painters mixed up light, dark and medium flesh color and their pictures would come out looking like clay models. But I think that to get life in a portrait, you have to see all varieties of color in a face. I see a nice pink on your nose."  

I see a splotch of bright red where I suspect my nose may appear. Draper brushes more and more paint onto the canvas. Skin tones appear. Am I really so tanned?   He steps back to consider the work in progress. He asks me to shift back and forth and from side to side.   "I move you around until I feel inspired.  

"There once was a girl from Madras..."  

I've been warned about Draper's limericks, and I know what part of the anatomy rhymes with Madras. I ask if he learned them in the Navy. No, he answers, he picked them up at Harvard.  

After a couple of hours, the image on the canvas looks like a TV news tape that's been digitally altered to disguise a source's identity: a mass of flesh tone.  

"I've suddenly decided I'll do you more full face. I have to blur it out and move the nose over."   Finally Draper streaks a bold white line across the featureless face.  

"The teeth and smile are hard to paint, but they can make a work," he says.  

I hear chirping. No bird has alighted on the windowsill. It's Draper. He's pointing his brush. He wants me to turn left. A moment later he emits the high-pitched shriek of a wild animal. That cry, he tells me, cracked up a stone-faced CIA director who'd posted two security men at the studio door while he sat for his portrait.  

"I've painted several CIA chiefs." Draper allows how proud he is of his oils of the nation's top spooks. The catch: not many people see them at the agency's Virginia headquarters. The ticket to the CIA portrait gallery is a security clearance. 

"A lot of artists make subjects stay still," Draper says. "I think you've got to make them react. It shows in the face. You're reacting to something."  

No kidding. I'm reacting to Draper.  

He and I have been at it for the entire morning. He steps back again to take stock of the canvas. "I think this is coming along very well! I love this! I really do!"  

When we return from lunch, I remark on the scent of turpentine in the studio.  

"I think it's good for me," Draper replies.  

His brush strokes continue through the afternoon. A likeness of me is growing on what was a pure white canvas just hours ago.  

"That was a nice stroke when I put on the white for the teeth," says Draper. "That helped me suddenly see you. Then I modified it. The pictures grow. I start with masses of colors, then I get an eye in there, and then the structure of what's around the eye."   Whenever I hear a chirp, I reflexively shift to the left.  

"I've got you trained," Draper announces.  

More than trained. He's pierced my famous reserve. We break into a duet from Guys and Dolls: "What's in the Daily News?" I sound terrible, as usual. I don't care. I sing at the top of my lungs. Then I actually hear myself confiding in Draper about an old girlfriend.  

Just how late is it when that stroke of blue hits the canvas?  

"You have quite a nice blue five o'clock shadow," he says. "It's fun to paint. Can't do it on a girl!"   Is this the right time to inquire about Draper's Richard Nixon portrait?  

"Your neck is yellower. I'll add burnt sienna and maybe a little red. Green might be in the reflection in your hair."   So there's the green!  

"I'm going to move one of your eyes. Can you tell which one?"  

I guess it's going to be the left one. I'm correct.  

He steps back. "It's brilliant! I love this!"  

The guy over there on the canvas looks rather distinguished, if I may say so. Perhaps just a bit younger than Draper's model? And quite affable.  


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