There is a lot of cultural baggage surrounding the human body, and working with nude models can elicit suspicion or concern from those who don’t have much experience with the arts. But in spite of that, my own experience of working from models has been incredibly creative and life-giving — a source of artistic inspiration and profound empathy, and also a place of genuine healing from a lot of cultural baggage that surrounds the human body.
For a couple of years in graduate school, I hosted a low-key open drawing session with a rotating schedule of nude models. Students and community members brought their own art materials, and tossed a few dollars in the pot to pay the model. There were always a handful of drop-ins, but for the most part it was the same dozen or so regulars who came to draw week after week.
All the regulars had preferences about what they wanted to draw. Some loved quick, energetic poses; others required an hour or more just to finish a drawing. The traditionalists loved classical drapery and props; the comic artists craved the outrageous, the whimsical, or the absurd. The line folks preferred strong ambient light; the value folks were looking for rich, dramatic shadows. Occasionally someone who was working on a special project would request a particular prop or pose. I tried to keep a good balance of set-ups so that everyone would get a little bit of what they wanted, and for the most part we all got along just fine.
I also worked very hard to schedule a diverse group of models, representing a wide array of ages, races, and body types. We drew body-builders and pregnant women, grandparents and 18-year-olds, PhD candidates and former strippers. We drew bodies indelibly marked by exposure to the elements, by the passage of time, by the tattoo needle, by a history of abuse, and by the scars of self-injury. We drew powerful, muscular, athletic bodies; and delicate, bird-like, emaciated bodies; and rich, abundant, corpulent bodies.
We drew many different bodies, in a variety of settings — but always, always, always we drew people.
That’s the most important thing I learned from life drawing, and it’s what I try to impart to my own students when they first begin working with models. It’s never enough to merely portray the appearance and proportions of the model’s physical body.
Life drawing — like all art — must capture and express the truth about humanity.
Even as the figure has slowly disappeared from my artwork, that idea has become more and more central. I want every work of art I make to be life-giving and deeply human, capable of feeding the viewer as well as myself. I am grateful to those countless models and countless hours in the studio for teaching me just how essential that is.