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, students drag charcoal blocks or dab Indian ink or smudge oil pastels across the paper, and try their best 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, if they’re male or female, about the nudity and the potential for arousal or allure or disgust. They wonder if the model is attractive. They wonder if my experience involves pleasure of some sort.
The drawings I bring home are invariably endowed with some swell of nakedness, and when I present them to my partner, I see her perplexed by the thought of my eye lingering over these intimate details.
The very first week gave me pause for thought. I arrived a few minutes late to the session. Feeling a little tickled by first-time nerves, I came rushing in only to find the model — a male model this time, with a fair-sized belly and good, jowly face — already undressed and reclined in a state of confident ruin on a mattress in the middle of the floor.
I’m not one to be flustered by nakedness. Still, in such a situation, one’s eye take a moment to adjust. You have to consider if you have entered the correct room, and if you have, whether there is a certain decorum you must adopt. A naked body sprawled on the floor will always make you doubt yourself.
I looked around and took my lead from the other students, who had all chosen their easels and had taken up their places behind them already. The only spot left was at the delta of the man’s open legs. He had one leg stretched out, and the other crooked beneath his thigh. I set up my paper and glanced around the edge of my easel to find myself staring directly into the very crux of his exotica. A requirement for all life models, I suppose, is a healthy immodesty, but even so, this level of boldness — legs splayed as wide as a pair of scissors — took me by surprise.
I took my charcoal stick in hand and began to draw. I calmed myself with the thought that I was taking part in a tradition that has a long history in art.
From antiquity, artists have prized the value of drawing the human figure from real life. Humans have always found something perfect, or sacred, in the body they’re endowed with. The practice goes as far back as Greek antiquity. Later, as the discipline of art became more codified and European artists began to form artistic academies, the study of the figure became more customary. This era set the pattern for later art schools by making life drawing the central discipline of art tuition.
Thoughts of this heritage seemed to take away all my the nerves. In fact, as soon as I had begun drawing, my hesitations passed on very quickly. The need for concentration assuaged any doubts, and all that mattered was the quality of the drawing I was making.
(There was one more moment of strangeness: Midway through the evening we took a ten minute break, for the model to stretch his limbs and for the artists to rest their arms. The model took his chance to see what everyone had made of him. Without putting his robe back on, he toured the easels and peered mindfully at the drawings, apparently very happy with what he saw. Perhaps he was comparing what other’s made of his physique to the mental image he had of himself.)
The question I get asked repeatedly about these drawing classes is: aren’t you embarrassed? Apparently, the thought of staring at another person’s naked body — and having permission to do so — is fraught with all sorts of underlying tensions.
My reply is always the same: that in the classes the nakedness is of little consequence. There is no tittering, not even a 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 a dozen pair of eyes encircling an a unclothed model. It is, like most forms of nakedness, or nudity, the imagined scenario that is always more exciting than the real.