Body Image and Life Drawing

Recently I started to do some portrait modelling at an art school. I’ve been on the artist side of this equation many times, but this is my first time being the model. Remaining still, being stared at, and sitting and re-sitting in the exact. same. position. for extended periods of time is definitely harder than it looks. It’s also weird to walk around the room and see other people’s paintings of me, even though I paint myself all the time. And it’s just nice to be in the classroom environment again.

I didn’t opt to do nude modelling, since I was kinda unsure about doing it and that’s something you need to be REALLY sure you want to do (I had a few models in college that were clearly very nervous and uncomfortable which then creates an uncomfortable energy in the room.) But I did get to talking to a few of the more seasoned models at the school about their experiences. We talked about how life drawing/painting classes are a truly  unique context to see a naked body in, while also being probably the most positive and affirming. I honestly think everyone should take one of these classes if they can.

A life drawing class at Vassar, from the 1930′ s. Image via

So many people aren’t used to seeing the naked human form, especially the naked female form, in a non-sexualized context. So, when I took my first figure drawing class my sophomore year in college, I guess there was some initial awkwardness. Life drawing is a different kind of objectification- you’re seeing the body as it really is, as the point of the class is to replicate what is in front of you with observational accuracy. You break down the body into shapes, planes, values, etc. just as you would with any still life of actual objects. Simply as a fellow human being with a body of her own, observing a variety of body shapes like this honestly made me feel more comfortable in my own skin. Seeing that everyone has somewhat uneven skintone, birthmarks, scars, stretch marks, and other features that we all stress waaay too much over and will oftentimes illogically think that we’re the only ones with these flaws, feels almost therapeutic.

I’ll leave you with Stephen Colbert (as Chuck Noblet in the excellent Strangers with Candy) doing life drawing modelling because… reasons ( ͡° ͜ʖ ͡°)

gif via

My First Life Drawing Experience

Taking a life drawing class is kind of what I was most looking forward to in my first half of college. Sitting/standing there, drawing nude models in a studio just makes one feel so artsy and professional. There’s a certain romance to depicting the nude figure, thanks in part, I’m sure, to Titanic. But anyway, I had my first life drawing class last semester, and I really enjoyed it! I thought it was an invaluable experience- one that every aspiring artist needs to have.

I’d had very limited experience with seriously drawing the figure when I started the class- I’d only taken a portrait drawing class in high school. I was also prepared for some awkwardness with the whole nude model thing (I’d heard some horror stories from other students of models being unprofessional) but it really was no big deal. We would promptly start class with a series of at least 10 gesture drawings. Initially, I had the typical struggles with this- fitting/centering the figure on the page, accurately depicting all main body parts (I had a few footless or headless gestures…), and just moving my hand fast enough. Learning how to draw a great gesture (that is, quickly, well-centered, proportionally and accurately,) is such a unique challenge, as it’s something that students rarely have any experience doing themselves. However, it’s an invaluable skill, in that it forces you to take in a complex subject (the human body) and break it into it’s most important parts,- all in 1-2 minutes. Basically, that means you have to do all of that without thinking. As a result, you develop a more accurate, quick, and skilled eye (and hand.) This makes your drawings of more extended poses more accurate. Good drawings almost always start with a good gesture.  In just one semester, I really saw an improvement in the quality of my gestures!

Gesture- Megan Koth

Most life drawing classes also include some sort of lesson on anatomy. In my case, this was a really involved part of the class. It was important that we learn and be able to identify the most important (i.e visible under the skin) muscles and bones. This was something I definitely had no experience with. I don’t even really remember studying much anatomy in high school. However, I recognized its importance (even though I loathe just looking at diagrams and memorizing). As a drawer/painter, you have to have as good of an understanding as possible of your subject. The human body is so complex that understanding how those complexities work makes an accurate depiction a lot easier. Why does that wrist look strange? Oh, it’s because I forgot the distal head of the ulna! Bam.

We also learned portrait drawing, which was more of a review for me, as I’d already taken a very involved portrait drawing class in high school. We also went over the typical fare- learning different ways to depict value (crosshatching, chalk, charcoal, planar analysis etc.) Of course, being a painter, I most enjoyed using the india ink washes on the last few days of class!

Ink Wash- Megan Koth

So, if you ever have the chance to take a life drawing class (with nude models!), take it! It’s such a valuable experience. Being able to tackle the complex subject of the human figure is a great skill to add to your artistic tool belt. Who knows, you might fall in love with it and figure painting/drawing may become a major part of your own work!