I’ve always been drawn to films depicting the relationship between an artist and their model – Girl with a Pearl Earring, The Danish Girl and Portrait of a Lady on Fire to name a few. It represents an effective (if arguably hackneyed) plot device to explore tension, usually resulting from latent desires or frustrated expression, constraining social hierarchies or stultifying conventions. The electricity between the painter and sitter is ripe fruit too alluring not to pick.
But such portrayals are often disappointingly two dimensional in their assumption that the role of the observer and observed are set, that the seat of control rests with the creator rather than the source of their inspiration and that such surges of raw emotional energy are unleashed only in circumstances involving two individuals. The only way to truly test the theory is to engage with the practice.
One of the many pleasures of working in an art gallery in a relatively small but creative community is the bonds you quickly form with like-minded people. Lindy Allfrey is an award-winning artist and champion of the arts in Stow-on-the-Wold with a studio incorporated into her beautiful home on historic Sheep Street. I felt no trepidation in approaching her as a potential subject for her portrait workshops and only huge privilege to be accepted.
I arrived with a spirit of openness for my first session ready to make the very most of the experience in the name of artistic research, relationship building and personal growth. But I immediately sensed my own take would be only a fraction of the dynamic. Lindy has a passion to share her skills and affirm and extend her practice in doing so. The students who attend her courses are following their own particular paths of creative outlet and self-expression. There may be one model, but the focus of the session is a continual reflection.
Acknowledging the democracy and fluidity of the situation, despite being perched on an upholstered chair atop a wooden platform, allowed my mind to relax into a playfully meditative state. While your responsibility as the sitter is of course to try to remain still and to settle your facial muscles (crucially without appearing impassive) and your pose will naturally incline your gaze in a certain direction, your eyes can flicker about and take in the full range of stimulus within your vision.
As I sat I noticed the angle of the easels, lined up like props on a stage, the size of the canvases and the height at which they had been set and globules of oil paint dotted on palettes like molten glass. I picked up the scraping sounds of pencils, brush strokes and wiping cloths and the gentle ticking of the wood burner. The group employed mirrors to check proportions and knitting needles to measure my features, moving both as free individuals and in instinctive synchrony (of which they seemed charmingly unaware) akin to an elaborate mime.
Aided by the studio’s soft north light and classical music in the background it was at this point I realised I was part of a collaborative group performance, one with neither director or conductor, lead actor, principal dancer or soloist. Lindy’s tuition is personalised to each participating artist, deeply involved but only to the degree that she allows the student to find the approach needed to capture their own vision on canvas or facilitate them in taking the next step to develop the picture.
It really is a joyful thing to be a part of. Once I got used to the rhythm of the half-day session – pose for 20 minutes, break for five – I found I could choose how to spend each stationary interval. While sitting I lost myself in ruminations of recent events, sifted through worries and planned ahead without daily life crowding in. The timed breaks allowed me to reset physically and mentally and although designed principally for the model’s comfort they appeared equally welcome for all but the most determined student.
For me the experience of posing as an artist’s model was becoming rapidly an exercise in self-care, an opportunity to stop and block out the noise both literally and figuratively. It prompted me to ask the class if they felt the same. The responses were varied with whole-hearted agreement nestling alongside a lament that in fact the creative process was challenging (to the point of being excruciating) and one notable (and respected) absence of reply.
The word studio has its roots in the Latin for zeal and it’s undeniable that Lindy’s artistic and teaching space and the atmosphere generated within it is one of energy. Modest, positive and palpable energy. As the sitter for a portrait workshop, you have a curious vantage point to witness it in the round, but only if you relinquish all vanity and see yourself as part of the interchange rather than its epicentre.
Just as with other forms of meditation, time seemed bent, almost irrelevant, and the session was over before I was ready to disengage with it and re-enter the real world. In a final act of uncontrived choreography, the artists respectfully packed away their materials and left quietly and thoughtfully. Lindy began to prepare for her afternoon still life class. I snuck a peak at the artists’ output so far, beguiled and surprised in equal measure and thankful on so many levels to be invited to return another day to continue.