Some distracted thoughts while drawing live models

(by Cu)

(Consideration: some drawings of nude models are present in this post)

Remembering the teacher’s advice, I came to the class early in order to prepare the needed materials before the model came. We were about to have our first live drawing session of this academic year, and it was to be my first live drawing session ever. Just the thought of having this model posing nude for us and letting us observe his/ her every curve and line gave me palpitations. How would I be able to lay down on paper the model’s muscles or fat, or their limbs in their correct position and angles, without thinking of him/ her as a naked person? Or should I consider him/ her a person? Suddenly it seemed to me that anyone who was to walk on to the platform would be materialized. Instead of having thoughts and the ability to express oneself, like these living forms we saw the most often around us, they would be viewed as purely made of skeleton and of flesh, of muscles and having weight, being cast by shadow and illuminated by artificial indoor lights.

Having cut the big sketch papers available in the class into smaller pieces, which were still four times as big as my casual sketchbook, I picked a few sticks of vine charcoal of different sizes from the cabinet and waited. The other students were also as curious. Most of them had been in an art school before and were therefore sharing their experience with live models to the others with great excitement. The atmosphere became more electric with each “Really?”, “You must be joking!” or “I hope it will turn out OK.” of the newbies. “The model will be a woman”, answered the teacher to some inquisitive students, “She is already quite experienced, so we don’t have to worry.”

The kneaded eraser rolled in my palm as I thought about the previous lesson, when each student had to pose for the others for about 15 minutes (while still having clothes on). I could recall that I had then felt as if I’d been a pervert, who had examined every line on my friends’ faces, followed the curves of their waists and tried to capture their gesture. My eyes had been following the contour line of one friend’s arm as his muscles had shone beautifully under the artificial lights, while a piece of charcoal in my right hand had been mimicking on paper the movements of my eyeballs. Then it had been the breast of one girl friend or the hip of another when they’d lied down on the platform. I shuddered. They had been so human and personal at the time. Maybe I had known them too well to be able to materialize these people and to describe them with just a few lines and shades of shadow. A person was more than just lines, forms and colors; yet it had been my task to follow the old masters, to materialize what was real and made real what was materialized.

One of my classmates

Then I thought of a theoretical lesson we’ve had not long before about the nude and the naked: “A nude is a painting or a sculpture of a man or a woman who looks at ease and confident…” according to the critiques of the early eighteenth century (quoted by “The naked truth about the nude in art” by The Guardian), “If they look vulnerable or embarrassed then they’re naked, not nude anymore.” Would my drawings be nude, or would they be naked? Would the subject in my drawings be confident, or would they be vulnerable?

My minds were still full of questions when a young girl of small stature entered and came exchanging some words with the teacher. “Probably a student from another class”, I thought, then found myself being in amazement as she reappeared a few minutes later, undressed, and was stepping on to the platform at one side of the room. The girl was undoubtedly only a few years older than me. I doubted if she had even completed her studies. She had tangled short brown hair and wore colorful armbands collected from the popular music festivals from one summer to another. She could have been anyone among my friends, or any young person I’d meet each morning in the commuting train, but she was there, on the platform, waiting for the lighting to be adapted and for the two small radiators to be installed correctly by her sides. The girl apparently didn’t have what most people would expect from a live model: her sagging breasts and pot belly weren’t really ideal for those who wanted to have a good look at the contracting muscles at each movement. Yet anatomical study wasn’t all about muscles, though they might prove to be more difficult to depict than fat. The sagging breasts and the pot belly held themselves a fascination. They possessed the perfect curved lines of nature and described in the most fantastic way how the force of gravity worked. The female model was quiet and would only address herself to our teacher. She looked vaguely into the distance or at some undefined spot between two random easels. Once again, my hand followed my two eyes and made a conscious attempt to translate the visible living form standing before the class into a language of lines and shadows. I was for certain not a very good translator, and my mind was still full of questions:

The teacher had just mentioned that she was experienced. From which aspect had he spoken? Was she an expert because she wouldn’t look into our eyes so that we wouldn’t think of her as a person? Or just simply because she knew which posture to take so that we’d learn as much as we could about the human body?

What might she be thinking while posing? Didn’t it resemble a sort of meditation where she’d sit still with a lot of patience and have lots of time to think about herself, about the world in which she’d been living, or about the art students sitting in front of her with inquisitive eyes and in a fidgety position? What would she think about the fact that every single person in the room, for the next three hours, will be considering her as a composition of head, torso and limbs instead of thoughts and personality?

One of my first drawings with live model

If one doesn’t say much, one can be viewed as shy, introvert, or unsociable; but a live model is different. It was the responsibility of our live model to sit still. She was deprived of all characteristics that could help describing a living human being: sound, personality, movements. Around her time was frozen, space was defined by the distance between her platform and the easels. The universe doesn’t know an end, the world is big, and the number of species on Earth never ceases to surprise. However, on that particular day, our life and activities were limited to within this small rectangular classroom while our attention was drawn entirely to this young girl who was physically naked but whose all other aspects were but a mystery.

Male model: The young guy came in with red hair and a large tattoo on his chest. It is strange how all these attempts to be unique in the society didn’t work anymore when he posed nude, as he appeared surprisingly feminine and childlike on the platform.

In the following weeks we received three more models. All of them were much more sociable than the first one. They giggled at our jokes, looked us in the eyes, complained immediately when they got a cramp, and even came looking at our drawings at the end. All the four models seemed to have a hidden beauty that would only be noticed if they sat still and dropped their gaze abstractedly. Looking at that beauty, in such a circumstance of deformed time and space, somehow always reminded me of Manet’s “A bar at the Folie-Bergères”, of Botticelli’s “Birth of Venus, or of such beauty belonging to old Greek gods and heroes that had become legends. Those questions from the first day ceased turning around in my head as I got more used to working with live models, yet until now they haven’t found the answers. And though the three last models always appeared sociable, it was as if in order to hide a certain perplexity. Maybe it was the way they’d chosen to react to our gaze, because, after all,

they are human.


3 thoughts on “Some distracted thoughts while drawing live models

  1. Really great read. I experience similar emotions when I’m photographing models (i.e. turning them from people into shapes, lines curves and shadows) so its cool to know other forms of art do the same thing. Also, I loved the comparison of Nude vs Naked.


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