The curious art of sitting: Part II


Emma Bovill

March 16, 2023

If my first experience as an artist’s model was a pure distillation of joy, the subsequent two sessions sitting for Lindy Allfrey’s weekly portrait workshop were of a deeper hue. Fitting really, when that’s exactly what the artists were doing, adding complexity and depth to pieces they had already started, developing their vision and committed to their craft.

As someone who naturally gesticulates (I’ve been known to knock over many a wine glass when enthusiastically emphasising a point) and expresses through body language as much as the spoken word, to sit still and in silence is the very antithesis of my being. For me a relaxed attitude involves a focus or activity – reading, writing, watching a film, people watching or preferably talking.

Following the welcome calm and opportunity for much needed mental decluttering I’d experienced when first sitting for the portrait class, it took noticeably more effort to relax at the next two sessions. It’s not that the novelty had worn off, more that I felt I’d formed a bond with the artists and wanted to be near them and see what they were doing on the other side of the canvas.

So thank goodness for the delight of gentle conversation. At the beginning of the second session, one of the artists bewailed “oh dear”, to which the response from another immediately came “don’t say oh dear, say oh joy” prompting a discussion on the difference between inner joy, an inherent state of openness, and happiness, a transitory emotion reliant on circumstances and events.

Well if that isn’t something to occupy the mind for two and a half hours I’m not sure what is. As I settled into my pose, taking care to arrange myself as I’d been the previous week, I funnelled my thoughts down a path on this subject, having an internal dialogue in the absence of being able to engage in a live one. All the while contemplating levels of consciousness thanks to staring at a tree root in the shape of the number five directly in my line of sight out of the window.

For the next two sessions it was less a case of letting go than of focusing the mind. But even the most professional artist’s model is not a robot and that surely is the point. The artists are painting and drawing from life, using the observing brain as well as the conceptual one, to create a likeness, not a photographic snapshot or an AI generated image served up without feeling. Emotion is surely part of the deal.

Lindy Allfrey’s portrait classes feature a backing track of carefully curated classical music designed to create a soothing atmosphere, but I defy anyone to listen to Adagio for Strings and not be visibly moved by it. At one point while listening to it, and ironically prompted by a humorous comment from Lindy, I found myself perilously close to tears. I would have to wait and see if my face had betrayed me or not.

After three half-day workshops the artists’ pieces were beginning to move towards conclusion. When my time in the model’s chair was up, I found myself eager to see their personal interpretations, not out of an excessive form of egotism but to try to understand the process of interpretation, how the artists capture their take on a subject just as the sitter is navigating a unique internal world while posing.

One painting I felt had captured a form of anguish, almost a sneer, which was as hard to face into as easy to accept as being a single impression and a work of art rather than fact. The artist’s different positions in the room also made a huge difference, dictating to what extent, for example, my eyes (those great windows to the soul) could be seen or how the light might accentuate certain features.

There would be one session left in the studio. How three had been and gone already was something of a miracle after the event, as if time had expanded in the act of sitting and then cruelly contracted at its close. I wondered how I would feel at the conclusion of the final workshop. I suspected I would be a little bereft, but sensed the emotion was best parked in order to approach the session channelling inner joy.


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