The nude is ubiquitous in Western Art. Frequently a ‘she’, she is found in paintings, sketches, sculptures, photography and mixed media work from the Renaissance to present day. The Artist has tended to be a man – and the main focus – but I think it’s always interesting to ask the question, ‘who was that sitter? Why were they chosen? And how did they feel?’ You might be surprised how it makes you think about and engage with the artwork.
I first encountered life-drawing at college in the 90’s. It remains one of the classes that sticks in my mind for being interesting and special but most of all for making me feel like a ‘proper art student’! I’ve never lost that feeling. Life drawing is an amazing opportunity to observe form, anatomy, tone, perspective, light and structure and it is granted to you by someone who is allowing that to happen. I feel that it’s a privilege to be able to draw and paint the human form and I was interested to know what it felt like from the other side.
Sallie Kneebone has been life modelling for just over 30 years. She modelled as a teenager, at college, at the Slade School of Art, when she was pregnant, when she was breast-feeding and now for art groups, tutors and professionals on the Isle Of Wight. Her body has inspired 100’s of original artworks. But what’s in it for her?
“I enjoy it” she says, “I enjoy the head-space (during the peace of the pose) and meeting interesting people. I love learning and seeing people’s interpretations of you and their artistic approaches”. She also concedes that she gets a kick out of it being non-conventional. “There is a historical perception of art and art history and a ‘perceived salaciousness’ from people who don’t have anything to do with it or don’t understand it”. But as she deftly puts it “there’s a difference between being nude and naked. If you feel naked, that’s not OK”.
She’s made great use of her theatre school dance background to hone her technique of what she calls ‘Finding Stillness’. She uses conscious breathing and directs which muscles to relax as she mentally shifts weight around her body to ease tensions and maintain focus. She orientates herself in space by fixing her eye-line and she senses where her muscles and bones are in relation to objects or props. She thinks about ‘where is the chair on the back of my thighs’ or ‘where am I standing on the pattern of the floor’ so she can move in and out of pose easily. The longest she’s been in a standing pose was around 50 minutes. ‘It was very uncomfortable’ but she could ‘feel the concentration in the room’ and was too polite to ask for a break!
- Create the right atmosphere. Heaters will nearly always be required. The room should not be overlooked by others. Draw curtains or blinds if needed.
- Create an asexual environment. Remember ‘Nude not Naked’. Provide an area for the model to change into a robe. Don’t make them undress in front of the class.
- Be professional. Don’t accept any inappropriate comments from students or tutors.
- It’s nice to introduce and personalise the model. Depending on the context it may not be essential but it’s a respectful thing to do for someone who is bringing so much to your drawing experience.
- The model should never feel vulnerable or self-conscious wherever they are. Sallie has modelled in Art colleges, village halls, stately homes, artist’s studios/sheds/houses and a church (due to a double booking, and a last minute move)
- Always ask the models permission to take a photograph. You may want to continue working on your drawing/painting at home and many models will understand that but it is their body – They are granting you permission in that time-frame and in that location to view it. Photographs are out of their control and they have the right to refuse your request.
Lady Blackwood once said of her ex-husband, Lucien Freud’s painting of her that “The results were only half me, I think – after all, it was Lucian’s vision. The model does not make a very big contribution”.
After hearing about Sallie’s contribution as model, muse and inspiration for artists over the years I think I would have to disagree. Life models are an essential and integral part of figurative art. Next time you’re admiring work in a gallery give a thought to them, their pose and their process and maybe see if it changes the way you think about the work.