Anyone who has spent 10 hours as the subject of a study will have a reaction when the experience is over. Being an artist’s model isn’t a casual encounter, it’s deeply personal for all involved. If it wasn’t it wouldn’t be possible for the sitter to feel sufficiently at ease to reveal an essence of themselves nor for the artist to capture it in a true likeness.
While all portrait classes must surely lean towards that mutual pursuit of authenticity, there is undeniably a special energy within the studio of award-winning painter Lindy Allfrey. Newcomers are wholeheartedly welcomed, nervous students are warmly encouraged, developing artists are gently guided and proficient painters are politely stretched.
I knew my fourth and last session sitting for Lindy’s weekly half-day portrait workshop was going to be laced with emotion and that it would be my job to try and contain it, at least while I was in the act of posing. But the peculiar thing about being still, especially while others move purposefully around you, is that the mind becomes acutely alert and inquisitive.
I found myself, as I had done before, mulling over tasks to be done, plans to make or develop, and then I had an epiphany, a moment of great clarity and self awareness, which with great gratitude I was able to roll around my brain uninterrupted for several minutes. It solidified naturally into a mental attitude with the potential to be applied to great effect in the long term.
Delightfully this was but one part of the dynamic. As the artists were settling at their canvases, during the short breaks between periods of sitting and over a coffee midway through the session, the group explored subjects including the compulsion to paint (the absence of doing so ‘leaving a hole’) and the impact of using the left or right hand on neural pathways and creativity.
We discussed stages of life, the intensity of the family and mortgage years (I voiced my opinion that there’s beauty in the struggle) compared to the relative freedom of retirement. How some arrive at this long-anticipated milestone and find themselves bored and devoid of occupation whereas for others there simply aren’t enough hours in the day for all their desired pursuits.
The phrase carpe diem was considered with great sincerity in the context of life-changing events and bereavement and the awakening to a greater awareness moments of pain can bring. The difference between examining life as a philosophical exercise and actually engaging with it actively also prompted conversations that threatened at times, and for all the right reasons, to derail the session.
It’s no wonder then that being a part of such an enriching environment, with such stimulating and open people, would carry with it a tinge of sadness at the close. But being sad, or fear of this basic emotion, was never a good reason not to do something. Feeling deeply, especially in the context of a workshop exploring the human form and condition, if anything is a great gift.
And then, of course, there were the portraits. During the workshop the artists would often flick their gaze from canvas to subject in unison, but the results were diverse by virtue of the angle and position of the easel to the model, the light, and the style and interpretation chosen. I found myself oddly touched that one artist had chosen to highlight a gold Kirby grip in my hair.
What would happen to these canvases I wondered. There was every possibility they could be discarded, or one day painted over, with no disrespect intended. As an artist’s model you have to accept that the image captured of you belongs to someone else. To be offered then in the final moments one of the paintings to keep was an unexpected privilege, a lasting memento of my time in the studio.