The human body has been an artistic muse for centuries, and the life drawing – or ‘nude’ – remains a staple part of any Fine Art course. With countless scrutinising eyes looking towards the front, Nick Carson asks some life models what it’s like facing the other way.
Much like a trip to the doctor with an embarrassing illness, the philosophy behind showing your naked body to a roomful of Art students is simple: they’ve seen it all before. For experienced models, the process becomes routine: a way of life. So in a country famed for its prudish attitudes in so many walks of life, is there really anything to worry about?
In the name of art…
Diana Scott, now fifty-six, first started modelling three years ago in response to an advert. “I used to be a bodybuilder,” she reveals. “I sent a photo in, and got the job.” So it takes years of toning to qualify? Not at all, but there’s no place for paranoia: the common factor is confidence. “All models have to be fine about their bodies; you’re in control,” she continues. “You wouldn’t go into it otherwise.”
“Don’t be self-conscious: they’re not looking at you, but at your body for artistic purposes,” continues Claire Dean, a third-year student at the University of Birmingham. Having modelled at the Midlands Art Centre for over a year, she found that most preconceptions were unfounded: “People are respectful; they’re not leching over you,” she adds. “It might sound a bit pretentious, but I think of it as a performance. You may only be sitting still, but at the end of the day people are paying you for your services.”
…not for sexual kicks
Coupled with any insecurity about their bodies, for male models there is that added concern of becoming aroused in public. It’s important to detach the experience from anything sexual, argues one thirty-year-old male model, with six years experience. He offers the following straightforward advice: “If there’s an attractive girl there, just don’t look at her.”
While the vast majority of classes are understanding and co-operative, there are always exceptions to the rule. “It’s not always straightforward; girls have tried to wind me up before by catching my eye and winking, trying to get a rise out of me as it were,” he recalls. “But to be honest the sheer embarrassment factor of what it would be like works as an antidote. Some people think models do it for sexual kicks but it’s simply not true.” Accordingly, models need to speak up if they feel the chosen pose is inappropriate: “Personally I’m not prepared to have a student staring straight down my crotch,” Diana asserts. “Many tutors have been models themselves, so they should be quite understanding.”
The first time
Claire describes her first session, back in February 2003, which lasted three-and-a-half-hours. “It was in this vast studio space, which felt a bit daunting, but my friend had done it there before so it felt safer. It wasn’t like taking my clothes off in some random place,” she recalls. “I had an easy pose, laid across a mattress, but I did feel the need to eye up everyone sketching to make sure there wasn’t a pervert in there. It’s definitely a bit intimidating for a first timer,” she warns.
Another model began at home, posing for his Art-student girlfriend. After he agreed to hold a small sketching session for some of her course friends, it went from there: “There are some odd back doors into it,” he admits, “but having started off with my girlfriend, where nudity was second nature, there was nothing to worry about. They’re more used to it than you are: there’s no reason to be nervy about it.” Some tips are to get some experience of art classes first, get advice from existing models if possible, and practice holding certain poses at home.
Session lengths can vary from a couple of hours to an entire day, and once you’ve cleared the nudity barrier the next step is holding the pose, avoiding the bane of all life-models: cramp. “You can’t focus on anything else: it becomes the centre of the world, then your limbs start going dead,” warns Claire.
As a Fine Art graduate herself, with experience on both sides of the canvas, Diana emphasises the importance of regular breaks. She insists models are entitled to fifteen minutes every hour, but this is not always the case: “I once had a whole day with only two breaks, and ended up falling over. It was amazing how quickly people got out of the way,” she laughs. “When you’re nude, no-one wants to catch you.”
Mind over matter
Keeping mental concentration is another challenge, and it’s generally best to avoid eye contact with anyone in the room. “It helps to focus on a spot about mid-line, so you can return to it if you start to waver,” Diana advises. “Take yourself off to another place and not think about what you’re doing.”
It seems you don’t have to be a Buddhist to work here, but it helps. Twenty-eight-year-old Edward Whale has been modelling in various locations across South Birmingham for a year, and finds his religion can prove very useful. “I’m used to just thinking for long periods,” he explains. “Some postures can be uncomfortable, but I’d give anything a go: I like the challenge of stamina; mind over matter.”
With pay averaging at £6-8 per hour, it’s not the best-paid job in the world, and most choose it as sideline for some extra cash rather than a primary source of income. “There just aren’t enough hours to do it full-time,” Diana points out. But once you’re used to it, it’s relatively easy money; plus if the work is good, there is a sense of real satisfaction. As Claire puts it, “if they come up with something flattering, I always feel privileged to be part of it.”
© Nick Carson 2004. First published on Channel 4’s IDEASFACTORY West Midlands