My naked truth

Jess Brown contemplates the merits and shortcomings of life drawing

Who tells everyone she meets that she wants to life model in a desperate bid to sex up her meagre summer job prospects? Who clicks ‘interested’ on about seven life drawing classes a term and attends about one? Who sticks up their own shoddy life drawings on their wall?

Reader, it has been I. And probably will continue to be. The world and his wife seems to agree that life drawing is timelessly cool, and I intend to capitalise on this easy kudos until I am physically forced out of the studio for lack of talent.

Life drawing is one of those activities which has been appropriated by the smart set, from the art set, via, one assumes, shameless posers like myself. Yet in recent years, and this summer especially, the dignified purpose of life modelling has, it seems, been somewhat besmirched by such gimmicks as Bristol’s “absinthe-fuelled life drawing” and “mermaid life drawing” in Chelsea (Fishmonger’s offcuts? Cunning drapery? All suggestions welcome).

Ever since the heady car crashes of GCSE art (my final piece was a silhouette fashioned out of chopped up celery…) I’ve loved life drawing: the contained concentration on the model, the explosion of marks and shading on the paper, the still body, and the racing hands. Sure, I was no Da Vinci, indeed most of my drawings have been interpreted as the incorrect sex by encouraging observers, but gender norms are nothing these days, and I still drag myself to life drawing at Oxford more regularly than I do to my compulsory lectures. I’ve seen intricate sketches discarded as soon as the session ends. I’ve sat so close to the model I can practically smell them for want of room in the studio. I’ve battled a noteworthy lack of talent on my part to sporadically keep up this hobby while ballet, Brownies and piano lessons fell to the winds.

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The next step, thought I, was to try modelling out for myself. Partly, I felt like I ought to give back what I was getting. Partly, I needed a zero hours job and naively assumed that life modelling more or less amounted to getting paid to be motionless (a specialty of mine) on my own terms, which was an attractive prospect. Beneath it all was my burning curiosity – what would it be like being looked at, but not really seen, by all those people? I’ve written before about how comfortable I feel being naked in front of friends – but the discerning eyes of amateur artists? I felt like I should test my limits.

Sadly, this is not an exposé on my experience of life modelling, because I never went through with it. The lightest spattering of research revealed to me that life models are in fact woefully undervalued, underpaid, and underrepresented in their profession. The Guardian categorised the profession under “wage slaves” in 2002, with Vic Stevens of the Register of Art Models confirming that “You’re not going to be asked to just lie on a mattress and fall asleep”. Woe is me: beyond this my skill set extends no further. Tales of health and safety nightmares, and lack of contracts, sick pay, and rules on touching models show a grim underbelly to what seems like a glamorous bohemia.

A further perusal of the ‘Register of Art Models’ quickly exposes dubious ads for models such as “looking for woman (aged 30+) for whom life modelling is an escape, a hobby and secret (or not so secret) pleasure that is separate from their daily responsibilities/job/life. This will initially be an interview which we will use to pitch for an advertising campaign documentary style short film for a chocolate brand.”

In many of the job proposals there was a demand for more than just the exposed body, but for an exposure of how the model felt about their body – even for a project as trivial as a chocolate advert. Unlike an actor, an athlete, a sex worker, or any other profession that requires the body to be shown in conjunction with character, art modelling is vague, as lacking in guidelines, and definitions as art itself. And while I do, of course, recognise the necessity for such ambiguities (though not the deficient legal, financial and health-related protection) I found myself unable to surrender myself to art: it might not require just my body, it seemed, but also my brain. I’d wanted life modelling to be, as that weird ad put it “a secret… separate from daily life”. And it clearly wouldn’t be.

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This, and the gross yuppie art trends emerging left right and centre, dimmed the pre-Raphaelite glow of life drawing for me. I’ll continue my pursuit of poorly charcoal-ed sketches, but I’m yet to conquer my qualms of modelling. I’ll no doubt shout about it if I do, but I think it takes more than a few exhibitionist pretensions.