Body and soul: An introduction to life modelling


Emma Bovill

May 6, 2023

As I sat on the leather stool, I became acutely aware of my body. The papery folds across my stomach created by the downward force of my ribcage as I slouched forwards. Dull pressure where my lower left arm rested diagonally on my left thigh. The accentuated angularity of my tibia with my left leg raised on a dark blue velvet cubic footstool. One drooping hand, fingers hanging redundantly like a fleshy waterfall, one tensed in the attitude of a claw. The cool air of the room making the hairs on my arms stand on end, my feet welcoming the warming currents of the electric heaters.

Artwork by Andy

If sitting for Lindy Allfrey’s portrait painting workshops in Stow-on-the-Wold was an intimate experience, modelling for a life drawing class with Discovery Art Class in Cheltenham proved to be an intense one, not due to the reality of bearing all but for the unforeseen physicality of it. “It’s like yoga,” explained practised life model Jane alongside whom I was posing. “You soon find out where your tension points are.” Jane has been working with art tutor Jessie Carr, who runs courses from deepspaceworks, a community art centre in Charlton Kings, and across the Cotswolds, for nearly a decade. She knows her craft.

I had adopted my seated position in a relaxed manner, but soon noticed an ache in my lower back. It was less a pain than an awareness that steadily gained volume, adding to an encounter that was quickly proving to be more a lesson in anatomy than I had anticipated. Of course, for the artists this is the very essence of the class, an opportunity to consider the human body in its purest form without the embellishments and distractions of clothing or jewellery. The only adornments besides your natural features are the marks – a bruise, graze, scar or tattoo – that portray the rigours and rhythms of life.

Artwork by Jessie

When discussing my plan to understand first-hand what is to be the subject of a nude, the adjective most often reached for was “brave”, a response from others echoed by my co-model Jane. The truth is that courage has very little to do with it. In the context of a supportive environment of artists looking to extend their practice, hone their powers of observation and (consciously or not) invest in mindfulness and self-care through creativity, all it takes is a spirit of openness and enquiry. The mental leap happens long before the dressing gown is removed in the studio.

I believe I have Jane and Jessie to thank for making the transition to my naked state feel so seamless. As the artists, an unimposing group of six, assembled at their desks and easels, we discussed the initial pose in much the same way as a choreographer or director would approach a performance on the stage. “We’ll start with the sticks,” explained Jessie. Jane immediately offered helpful visual and verbal instructions as to how the wooden poles – not unlike traditional walking sticks – would allow for dynamic movements by offering balance and support to maintain the stance.

Artwork by Dawn, dynamic poses adopted with the use of supportive sticks

The artists, too, served to set me at ease. After three quick-fire five-minute poses, Jessie intuitively introducing furniture and props as needed, Jane and I adopted our positions for the first longer session, working collaboratively to create an informal but interesting tableau. Left foot on the tactile footstool, enshrined in my mind’s eye as midnight blue, the artist opposite me asked about my intention to write about the class and my work at ArtÓ, showing genuine interest in our ethos. Holding a friendly and sincere conversation face on while naked felt, oddly, completely normal.

We took a brief break after 20 minutes before reconstructing the scene. A redness on my leg confirmed where my arm had been placed. My gently hunched back no longer spoke loudly to me, reminding me of the process of releasing and deepening a hold in yoga. Jane had been quite right. Conscious I might again develop some twinges I entered a semi-meditative zone, counting in my head and contemplating the copper pipes in my line of sight. Jane put paid to any need for synthetic mental diversion by revealing a love of writing, a delightful and unexpected synergy between us, and how poetry would often come to her, initially as colours she would later expand into words, as she was sitting listening to the scratch of pencil on paper.

Artwork by Mark, life models seated in conversation

For our final pose Jane and I sat next to each other on chairs, bodies turned inwards in the act of talking. Which is exactly what we did. Humans are not predisposed to ignore each other when in close proximity, but to engage. She discussed her ambitions to write a play and we weighed up the merits of starting a longer work – whether a script or a novel – from a midpoint, topping and tailing a scene or chapter until the piece was completed. Jessie would later share how much the class had enjoyed our dialogue, how it had added a lightness and authenticity to the composition, even prompting one artist to think it would make an interesting podcast.

Perhaps in exposing the body as a life model you unintentionally uncover more about your inner world – not only to those drawing you but to yourself if you’re receptive to developing self-knowledge. Our ability to cope with discomfort. Our attitude to strangers. Our behaviour within a group. As I discovered as a portrait model, it’s also not really about the subject at all. You have a greater connection with your personal experience undeniably, but if you’re tuned in, you also pick up currents from the tutor, the students, even the setting – and can choose whether to explore these further.

Poem by life model Jane


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