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Etching by A. Ballin, 1875.

When I first considered modelling for a life-drawing class, I was pretty gung-ho about it all, and emailed into the University’s Art Society to get a slot. Some of my friends had done it, I pride myself on being body-positive, and who am I really, if I can’t practice what I preach? I got an email asking me to come in that week, so naturally I… chickened out. Yep. I emailed in saying I didn’t have enough time. Lies. My neighbour at the time was the coordinator for Life Drawing at the Art Society, so I felt pretty bad for bailing, but then again, I felt kind of awkward about running into people on campus who would have seen the parts of me I’d usually rather keep covered.

The next time I heard about it, a friend had modelled for a life-drawing group in Alphington, and I decided to give it a whirl. Getting in touch with the group was fairly simple, and before long I’d arranged to go for my first session a couple of weeks later. I banished it from my mind with little more than a cursory mental assertion that I’d need to make sure I went to the gym a fair amount before then.

We can credit ancient Greek civilisation with much of the early development of life drawing. With a religious tradition based on the human body and humanistic principles, artists were required to study the naked human form and underlying anatomy.

typical of…sexual hypocrisy and misogyny

The image of nude bodies almost completely disappeared from western art for the whole of the Dark Ages, other than when required by the demands of Christian iconography. The Church and artists only depicted nudity if presented as shamed or damaged, as with Adam and Eve being driven from Paradise. More positive representations of the human form returned with the Renaissance masters such as Masaccio, Da Vinci, Michaelangelo and Raphael. The rest, as they say, is history! Throughout the nineteenth century, study of the female nude was not encouraged due to a number or reasons; perhaps most significantly the Victorian view of it being “un-Christian” for a woman to expose her nakedness before unmarried male students. That the female nude was so revered in association with beauty and divinity, but the model posing for these paintings became shunned by Christian society, is typical of the sexual hypocrisy and misogyny of the times.

Back to my experience. The day came. I had not been to the gym. I was, putting it mildly, shit scared. I met the coordinator of the group who gave me a lift to Alphington, and after a bit of awkward chat, I went to change into my robe in a room off to the side of the studio at the community centre. My heart was in my mouth when I came out to face the circle of artists, and lovely though they all were, the novelty and strangeness of the situation was making me nervous. I bit the bullet and shrugged off  the robe after testing a couple of sat positions for the session. The Alphintgton class runs their sessions for two hours with short breaks in-between (much needed, as I’ve found that some positions are particularly cramp-inducing!)

Painting by Andy Morley

The first twenty minutes or so were… challenging. I’d been warned by a friend about this, but for some reason I started shaking uncontrollably (weird) and sweating (ew) only a couple of minutes into the sitting. I imagine it was nervousness and the unfamiliar exertion of staying absolutely still for longer periods of time. It’s also fairly… How do I put this? Well, boring. You’re sat for two hours, essentially doing nothing. But you soon get used to letting your thought process run away with you and so the time doesn’t drag quite as much. Also, word to the wise for anyone considering it, try not to make eye contact with the artists; rather fix your eyes on a spot on the wall above their heads. If you lock eyes with someone who is scrutinizing your unclothed form, it’s just a bit awkward for everyone involved.

there’s a certain beauty in looking at the output afterwards

That said, part of the odd nature of the experience of life-modelling for the first time is that to the artists, you might as well be a plant or a piece of fruit. We associate nudity with sexuality, but that honestly couldn’t be further from the case with life-drawing. I’m shaking, my left foot is in agony, the guy to my right has been trying to draw my profile for the last twenty minutes, broken his charcoal and looks like he might cry. It’s not as elegant and romantic as you may think, folks. But there’s a certain beauty in looking at the output afterwards; that a group of strangers could create such amazing and creative pieces based on my body, which I’ve often been at war with, something I’m sure a lot of people would empathise with. And some of those paintings and drawings really managed to capture me.

I’d really recommend the Alphington Sunday Art Class to anyone considering giving life modelling a go. It’s not the easiest thing, but I’ve modelled a couple of times since, and intend to continue! It’s a new experience, and one which will make you more aware of yourself and accepting of your body and it’s potential! And after all, being paid £30 for a couple of hours of sitting still isn’t all bad.

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