For the last six weeks I’ve been going to life drawing classes at a local college. Just as you see in films or on TV, the disrobed figure sits in the centre of a room with a circle of easels surrounding them. Behind the easels, artists drag charcoal blocks or dab Indian ink or smudge oil pastels across the paper, and try as best they can to render a decent likeness of the posed model in front of them.
People I tell are intrigued by this strange arrangement. They wonder about the model, how young or old they are, about the nudity, and the potential for allure or disgust, or even arousal. The drawings I bring home are invariably endowed with some swell of nakedness, and when I present them to my girlfriend I see her perplexed by the thought of my eye lingering over these details.
The very first week was the worst. I arrived a few minutes late and, feeling a little tickled by first-week nerves, I came rushing into the art room to find the (male) model already undressed and reclined in breezy ruin on a mattress in the middle of the floor. All the other students had chosen their easels and had taken up their places; the only spot left was at the delta of the man’s open legs. I set up my paper and glanced around the edge of the easel. I found myself staring directly into the very crux of his exotic parts. There was nothing else for it but to peer and squint, and draw whatever I saw.
This is not the first time I’ve been to life drawing classes. At art college many years ago we had a full semester of classes, which not only helped our drawing skills but was also an initiation into the centuries-old tradition of drawing from real life. Dating back to Greek models of human perfection, the idea of drawing from nude figures has been a staple for artists’ tuition through the ages, although notably for women, access to life models is only a modern invention.
But there was something different this time, perhaps because we had all volunteered (and paid) to turn up to this drafty art studio rather than be obliged through our education. The room was trembling with earnest-looking sketchers, no hint of embarrassment on their faces, as if this was the most natural thing in the world.
Moreover, the model lying on the floor in front of me looked so restful, so slack in all his limbs, that he seemed to have forgotten he was in front of twenty pairs of scrutinising eyes. Half way through the evening, he fell asleep (I knew because I could hear him snoring). A requirement for all life models, I suppose, is a healthy immodesty, but even so this level of boldness – legs splayed like open scissors – took me by surprise. Still, the point is to get on with it, and sooner or later you forget you are looking at unclothed human, with all the connotations our modern world is so obsessed by, and simply start drawing.
As the have weeks progressed, we’ve drawn male and females in equal number. The noteworthy part is this: how quickly the nakedness has become the norm. There was no tittering, not even from the start, but now there is not even the possibility of it, nor any hint of a repressed awkwardness. Everyone simply gets on with their drawing – fretful about the quality of their work for certain, but never concerned with the curious situation of all these pairs of eyes encircling an a unclothed model. It is, like all nakedness, or nudity if you want to put it that way, the imagined scenario that is always more exciting than the real.