Confessions of a nude model

By Emily Thiersch

As Holly Hanson was working on a gesture drawing of a nude model for her life drawing class, the model, who was standing on his tip-toes, started to shake violently.

“We all wondered why he had chosen a pose that we knew he wouldn’t be able to hold for two minutes,” said Hanson, junior in FAA.

For all the art majors on campus who need to practice drawing the human figure, there is a demand for people willing to pose and be drawn – naked. Along with the dining hall and library staff, the University has on its payroll several students, and a few non-students, who pose naked for art classes. At $12 an hour, this is one of the highest paid, and least talked-about, campus jobs.

Liam Reed, a junior in LAS, signed on to pose for life drawing for fun – and to prove to himself that he could – when he lived in Allen Hall and heard about the class from friends in the art department.

“I wanted to try something new,” said Reed, who posed a few hours a week for the class last year. “I wanted to make sure I could do it and to push myself to do it.”

Models pose for one-and-a-half- to three-hour classes, usually logging just one or two classes a week, though their work schedule varies from semester to semester, depending on how many drawing classes are held that need models. Models are hired on a week-to-week basis.

While the art department hires a number of students looking for novelty or pocket money, it also hires non-student models, some of whom have years of experience.

Pat, A 55-year-old non-student model who requested her last name not be printed, is known among drawing students to be one of the more experienced regulars in the department. She began posing for classes at the University in 1986.

Pat said there were many more models on staff in the 1980s when there were more drawing and painting class sections.

Generally, students sit or stand in a circle at their easels, and the model poses on a platform in the center of the room. There are often a chair and a bed available for the longer poses.

Models begin by posing for several two-minute gesture drawings, then hold the same position for stretches of about 30 to 45 minutes. Models can take breaks, and the instructor tapes markers to help them get back into position when they retake the stand.

Students try to imagine the muscles under the skin and how the body moves when they draw. Their gesture drawings, because they are done quickly, are particularly stylized.

“I thought it was really interesting to look at all the drawings when the class finished and see how people are interpreting my body,” Reed said.

The most uncomfortable part for some students is when the model undresses. Although some rooms have a screen behind which models can undress, most models don’t use it.

Hanson said it can be hard for students to forget their cultural training of there being something inappropriate and intrusive about seeing a person undress.

Many models do have robes to cover themselves during their breaks and to transition from the clothed to nude state, Hanson said.

“I didn’t have a robe, so I had to undress one article of clothing at a time,” Reed said.

But once the clothes are off and the pencils are out, the person is just a subject, and it becomes art – a study of a figure, shapes and shadows, Hanson said.

She added that some of her best drawings came from her figure drawing class.

“I love drawing the human body because of the interesting organic forms, and you have the freedom to emphasize some parts, to make the women a little bit curvier,” Hanson said.

There are moments when the spell is broken and people remember the strange social setting they are in – collectively staring at an unclothed peer. Hanson said when a model once asked the class to crack open a window, the sudden return to awareness of the humanness of their subject made many of the students uncomfortable.

Models, especially less experienced ones, sometimes have trouble holding poses.

“Cramping was definitely an issue,” Reed said. “You start to shake a little bit.”

It is important for students that models stay as still as possible. Sometimes they are given props, like a broom, to help them keep steady.

“If you just move your hand a little bit, it changes the whole picture,” Hanson said.

Reed said posing could also be stressful, especially in the beginning, because he felt pressured to come up with creative poses that would make his body interesting to draw from all angles.

“I wasn’t thinking, ‘Oh, my gosh, I’m naked,'” Reed said. “I was thinking, ‘How am I going to bend next?'”

Hanson said models do strange, unnatural poses now and then. For example, one male model did an upside-down bicycle move with his legs in the air. Another did karate moves throughout the session.

“Everyone was a little shocked,” Hanson said.

Instructors give models advice on how to pose as needed. Models receive more guidance for the longer poses, which are often reclining or seated poses.

“I try to do poses that will shed interesting light on skin folds, etc.,” Reed said.

Most artists prefer to draw women because their curves and softer stomachs create naturally interesting shadows, Hanson said.

The main criterion for applicants to pose is confidence, not the model’s body.

“A figure drawing is usually not of some ideal version of a human body but of a regular person with imperfections,” Pat said. “I know from being on the other side of the easel that I was sweating getting proportions too much to have time to leer at any models.”

Pat said posing has informed her drawing and painting work by giving her a sensibility of how body positions feel.

“I found that I picked up a lot of ideas and information about how to draw, and my own figure drawing improved greatly because when I look at a pose, I know how it feels,” Pat said.

Pat said modeling has a calming, meditative effect for her.

“In a way, (posing for classes) is like acting,” Pat said. “I assume a pose and I assume a role, and whatever mood I happen to be in, I have to set it aside and focus on the role at hand.”