23 July 2015

The "Naked" Situation: Demystifying the Nude Model

{A blog post specifically written for non-artists, or those of you without experience working with a nude model, who are interested in what it's really like to draw from the nude model, and what it's really like to model nude for artists

Many people are vaguely aware that art students, and art professionals, often work with unclothed models for producing art that is related to the human figure.

And without fail, whether these people are family, friends, art-enthusiasts, or critics, the question for them dwells on how artists are able to focus on work instead of the nakedness of another person. What is it like, to have a naked person in a room with you without explicit, pornographic intent? How can you keep from being aroused or else-wise distracted?

20 minute pose, model Tina, graphite, 2014.

As an artist, a life model, and an alumna of an art college, I have been asked that multifaceted question, often phrased something to the affect of, "How do you focus with a naked person in the room?"

I’m going to dedicate this post to demystifying the experience - the specific practice - of working with a nude model, and I’m going to do this by conveying to you an in depth breakdown of a typical session between artists and model in a curricular setting. ‘A day in the life of’, if you will.

I'm going to cover the order of events, what an artist is actually paying attention to, what the model is actually paying attention to, why the nudity is such an easily dismissed thing in the situation, and how this aspect of artists' discipline is so important.

There are a few things I want to get absolutely clear, before I tell all:

      1. I have been an art student, and I am currently both a life model for artists as well as a practicing artist myself, with a BFA in Illustration and five years of art modeling experience with both academics and professionals, so I am able to shed light on the situation from both perspectives – the drawer and the drawee, if you will.

     2. In the art world, for business or for study, we refer to the model’s de-clothed state as “nude”, not “naked”, and generally, because words have impacting power, the difference is intentional. ‘Naked’ often holds a subjective or sexual connotation. ‘Nude’ is appropriately dispassionate.

     3. If, at any point from here on out I say ‘session’, I am referring to the class or block of time during which a model is posing nude for the artist(s) present. It’s a common term for life drawing study.

     4. And when I say ‘life’ drawing, or ‘life’ model, I am referring to the practice of working from life, that is, from real world, real time representation of a thing, in this case, the human figure. It can also refer to still life subject matter, such as food or inanimate objects, or from nature.

I’m going to attempt to clearly paint the picture, so to speak, of a session, from start to finish, of working artists and model. 
As I’ve been on both sides of the drawing easel many times, I’m going to universally describe the scene of the day, between what the instructor is doing, to what the students are doing, and what the model is doing, all in tandem, to accomplish field specific learning. 

Imagine an industrial-style studio classroom equipped with lights, large scale windows and blinds, copious heavy duty metal easels, art horses, a few carts on wheels, and a wooden model stand. However that visualizes in your head will be sufficient.


Let’s begin:

     A little before 9am, when some of the students have already arrived and selected an easel for the day, the model walks in to the room, carrying a bag of basic provisions and a bottle of water.
Exchanging a casual ‘hello’ or ‘good morning’ to the early students, she assesses the space of the classroom and locates an out-of-the-way spot to keep her belongings for the duration of the session.
If the instructor is already present, a brief discussion is exchanged about the plan for the day, the size of the class or the level of skill, or the instructor and model’s different experience and expectations, depending on whether or not the instructor and model have worked together before.

     Much like the easy dialogue between employer and employee in a small business, or the relaxed banter of colleagues with similar, running business associate history, the instructor and the model are on the same page about what the goals for what the session entails, and how to plot out the time for the session accordingly.

     At this time the instructor usually addresses the class, often about a dozen to two dozen students, and sets them to arranging their workspaces for the day.

     Now ‘work space’. For any artist in a life drawing session, we require some kind of seated or standing easel to prop our drawing boards, sketch pads, or sketchbooks upright on, the better to maintain perspective as we look from the model to our paper and back again, always making informed marks. Some close-by space to place our pencils, charcoal, watercolor brushes and paints, markers, conté crayons, pastels, or other medium of choice for taking down what we see, should be arranged as well.
     Each student sets up these required components of their workspace within about a few foot sphere, one next to another, generally forming a crescent or half circle roughly a good few paces distance from the model’s stand. Sometimes the model is placed at the center of a circle of students, but this simply varies on the instructor’s preference and the dimensions of the room. The instructor will be pacing the room, monitoring the student’s progress, stepping in here or there to lend his advice, disclosing for the student what he can see going on in their process that they might be unaware of and need to consciously improve.

     But as soon as the instructor cues the artists to collect their workspaces and set up the room, everyone is of an attitude of presence. Presence on the little personal ways in which they know how to organize their materials, presence on coordinating the easels into a cooperative position which will not block the view of either fellow to the right or left or slightly behind, presence on the instructors tid-bits of advice as they find the right set up, presence on what the session’s goals are asking of them to study and learn, and absolutely presence on their own mindsets, adjusting psychologically to ‘ok, work mode, I’ve got to practice my art discipline if I am going to get better today’ kind of personal pep-talk.

     Sometimes, you just aren’t in the mood to draw from life. Sometimes, you’re not in the right headspace to do the best job, to focus on all the elements of composition, anatomy, and medium to pull together a good use of the opportunity of working from the model for that day. Life can just be off that day.
     Going into the office in the morning isn’t always what you’re in the mood to do at that time, but you go into the office so you can take care of the million and one things that get you one day closer to mastering your job, your skills, your career, your money. When these daily disciplines need attending to, your mindset, your energy, your reality, must reflect the attention to them, and only them.

     So the students are sorted and ready, the instructor is finished answering any questions or helping set up, and has his timer, and the model has since gone to the restroom to change from normal clothes to a robe of some sort from their bag, and is now standing near by, stretching, watching, having a sip of water or adjusting the temperature on a little space heater, if the room is cold.

     It is time to warm up.

     Usually all artists need to warm up their practice for the day with quick, loose, gesture drawing. This is quite aptly the fast-paced capturing of a figure, posed expressively, dynamically, designed to both physically loosen up the artist’s arm, wrist, hand-eye coordination, as well as analytical observation, compositional organization, and focus. It helps the model to warm up their posing, as well; a model doesn’t start straight into a half hour long standing pose without warm up any more than a ballet dancer heads bluntly into a string of grand jetés.

     The instructor sets the timer for the first one minute gesture pose, nods to the model, who strikes a pose on the stand under the studio lights, and academic quiet centers the room.
     The familiar susurrus of a couple dozen swift graphite sticks marking paper simultaneously fills the silent atmosphere.

     The model is poised, nude, in a contra postal with hands up, head turned, watching her own thoughts quietly, statuesque, removed, objectively observed by artists with a scrutiny on skeletal alignment, center of balance, fleshy landmarks, perspective reference points, imaginary proportional guides, mass indicators, structure breakdown, line weight, line continuity, description, precision, speed, efficient mark use, and four, three, two, one… “Next pose”.

     A flurry of pages tucking hastily behind drawing boards or over easels in unison, the model comes to life again, slowly, stretches a wrist or a leg gently, attention inwards, then strikes a new pose that will both balance comfortably and be expressive for the artists, and once more, statuesque, with whispering pencil strokes documenting the physics of what is seen.

     Next pose. And another. Several minute long gesture poses are followed by the instructor announcing a short break for the model, she nods her appreciative acknowledgment and gets down from the stand, donning her robe again, and the students relax from their easels, temporarily setting aside their self-analysis for a few minutes of chatter. How did you do? Where’s your sketchbook? Can I borrow your kneaded eraser? I need an extra blade for my knife to sharpen this pencil. So what were you saying about the new Jurassic movie? I had absolutely no sleep last night, getting that painting done… 
     The model has meanwhile found her robe, stretched a bit, found her water bottle, and gone for a short stroll around the hallway. No one is bothered. It’s routine.

Five 1 minute and the first of five 2 minute gestures.
Female model, graphite

     A few minutes later, once a brief shake out has been accomplished, the model returns and moves to get ready, thinking through what the time will be like and therefore what best suits for new poses. The instructor notifies everyone they’re going to progress to longer gesture studies, about five minutes each this time.

     Timer on, model holds a new pose, and the eyes of the students are reading structure, balance, line, form, and proportion through the air again, laying down as much information as possible in as few marks as manageable, before five minutes is up.
As soon as the model got back up on the stand and the instructor picked up his timer, they paused their banter and shrugged on that ethereal weight of expectation, commitment, analysis, and self-judgment.

     Always, as an artist, student or otherwise, there is this cerebral dance of confidence and degradation corresponding meticulously with each moment mapping marks on the page. It’s about objectively understanding what one’s looking at, and how to capture it correctly. This dedicated foundation of learning is what provides the dexterity, the clarity, and the creative vision to elevate skill into the truly inventive and dynamic realms of art-making. This is why it is so important, and why indulgent sexuality is not present in the situation. There is no functional, practical, or relevant place for it here.

Two 10-20 minute poses, female model, graphite, 2015.

     Often, after various segments of gesture sketches, or the warm up, poses for the model progress to ten, fifteen, or twenty-minutes long, spaced between short breaks that may be longer if the pose is longer.
     Twenty minutes of posing, of whatever combination, followed by five minutes of break to stretch or what have you, rinse and repeat, is a common breakdown for a model.
     For artists to render more detailed, completed life drawings, poses have to be longer of course, but accommodating the model is accomplished by interjecting stretch breaks into one pose; for example, if the model is holding a specific, seated long pose for an hour, she is given one or two brief breaks within that hour pose, as needed. It is ideal if the model is good at her job and able to recreate the pose as soon as sitting down again, but tape markers usually help the pose be recreated accurately. Artists are also ideally able to instruct the model on how to adjust to be posed exactly as they were before their break, as the artists have an excellent perspective on what is right and what is wrong in reference to the last segment.

     I have had six hour-long studio sessions where, for the later half of the day – for three hours – I am to maintain one pose. It gives the artists three hours, baring break times, to capture the same pose, the same portrait, the same figure alignment, values, etc. Before the use of the camera, in reference photography for artists, long poses like this were how traditional, representational artists composed and painted works with the human figure.

     For the model, it can be tiring, taxing, and straining, because we humans are not designed to hold perfectly still. We have not evolved to be motionless; our lifestyles and our very genetic makeup revolve around movement.
     Of course we need to sit down and have a rest every once and a while, and naturally we need to sleep, but we are not built to hold still, as if statues, contorted and tensed throughout our complex musculature, motionless.
     Even when you think you are just standing there, you’re typically moving in some way. You could be standing still on both feet, but you’re moving your head to look about you, to notice life moving around you, to move your eyes in their sockets and change the angle of your neck ever so slightly, this way to that, and back.
     You may be seated at your desk all day, but you are tapping your feet, shaking your leg, flexing your ankles, changing your feet from flat on the floor to alternating the weight between them, to lounging back in your seat with your legs out so that your lumbar and buttocks can have a break for a bit. You move your torso from slightly hunched to more upright, from leaning on the left elbow to leaning on the right, and back, and any number of combinations. You stand up and stretch, over and over, or take a walk to the coffee room, in your own time. Moving our bodies, in little, seemingly insignificant ways, or in more obvious and active ways, are all important forms of motion that help our systems stay fluent, strong, and vital.

     When you model for artists who are actively observing the physics of you in space, while capturing it on paper, you cannot move your weight from one leg to the other and back again. You cannot tap one foot to keep yourself feeling fresh, or turn your neck to loosen up the slow creeping rigidity of the spinal vertebrae. You cannot drop your arm poised in the air after a few minutes, when it grows heavier, and you cannot lounge on a couch for half an hour, as you please, when your pelvis is feeling tense from holding the weight of a torso twisted in the opposite direction of your lower half, while you’ve been rooted in only one leg.
     Breathing, careful use of your poses, stretching, shaking out, even closing your eyes for a bit on a break, are all important methods of not getting so tired of something so unnatural and demanding on the body. A considerate instructor, patient, understanding artists, the option of a space heater or a fan, depending on the temperature, are all helpful aids.

     So as a model, you’re not thinking about your lack of clothes. Clothes become irrelevant almost immediately. You take off your robe, there may be a moment or two of  ‘this is different, I’m naked and around other people’, and then your reality lets go of this minor difference between you and the others, and the task at hand becomes all you address. Your job, as in any other job, needs doing. Get it done, do it well, pack up, and go home to make dinner.
     In fact, I’ve often let my time while modeling be put to thinking about grocery lists, meal ideas, the next stages of work I need to get done on my own painting in the studio at home, or, all my experiences in the academic art world and how I could organize a demystification of what it’s really like drawing from the nude for a new blog post on the Art Dispatch…

     Over the course of the day, throughout different length poses demonstrating different alignments of the human anatomy and it’s dynamic relationship to space, light, perspective, the instructor has been moving attentively from one student to the next, checking in on their practicing skills, noting silently of progress and intention, commenting where it will be constructive, boosting morale if necessary, pointing out unique or key facets of a pose that should be seen for what they are, clearly, wisely, for the aid of producing better renderings on the page. 
     The instructor may at some point also provide lectures during the model’s breaks, to use other artist’s drawings and paintings as reference to certain lessons that are the focus of the session. Or he may perform a demonstration, taking some time during a pose to explain the process of his own drawing from the model, as the students watch, gathered round.

20 minute pose, model Steve, portrait study, graphite, 2014.

     But finally, after the last pose, when the model and the students have spent their session on drawing the human figure as well as they could have, the timer will go off, the instructor looks to the model, thanks them for their services, and lets the students know it’s time to wrap up. They may select their best work from the day to be submitted to the instructor for grading, or to contribute their favorite page to the wall for a group critique, or simply to collect their work, their tools, and dissolve into casual banter once more, often being appreciative and respectful enough to personally thank the model on their way out.
     As if packing up a briefcase from the office, or collecting the lunch box remains from the business fridge at the end of the day, the model changes from her robe back into her normal clothes in the rest room, returns to collect her bag and water bottle, may address the instructor, clear up any payment form information that might need sorting out, depending on the administration of the school involved, exchange a coworker conversation, and then head out.

     Back home to make that dinner.

     So, as so many people manage to exclaim on the subject, ‘they’re just naked in front of you?!’… Yes, technically, they are naked, as in, without clothing of any kind. And that’s really as far as that observation goes, for the student, the artist, or the model. Granted, a model in this situation should be fairly comfortable with themselves, enough to get past it, and yes, there are precise rules of conduct and professionalism to always be maintained when in these situations, for everyone’s benefit.

     Nevertheless, the studious discipline of learning from life, and from the living human figure, has been in effect in society as far back as the ancient Egyptians and the Grecians.  The great Renaissance sculptors and painters were prolific in their practice, and the golden age of illustration was rich with combining the traditional study from life with the reference of photography for producing representationally compelling art.
     It is the epic, effective lineage of learning that artists today still utilize in their own education. The human figure is irreplaceable in its dominance of art and science, in it’s use in creativity, and in it’s relatable, conceptual application throughout the world.

     As an artist, once in work mode, there is no time for being sexually attracted to the naked person in the room, no space for thinking of it, or for doing anything about it, and no compulsion to, in the experience I’ve described. You remain a sexual being, as they all do, but the fact is suspended, removed from the table, temporarily forgotten, almost, in service to the discipline at hand, which is learning from the nude life model.

Further questions, comments, or related thoughts on the topic in this post are welcome! Please comment below.
And as always, if you wish to contact me directly, contact me HERE.


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