By Anna Thomas
Life drawing has been a central element of traditional art courses for centuries, originally as a male-only feature of illustrious art institutions. Whilst the concept of drawing a human figure from life has remained largely the same in England since the eighteenth century, modern technology is making it more accessible. The Royal Academy of Art even delivers #LifeDrawingLive, a tutored life drawing class that users can stream to their laptops. In Durham, Art Society organise sessions every Tuesday evening, run by co-ordinators Melissa Frateantonio and Connie Gillespie.
We talked about expanding the limited art platforms in Durham. Melissa was concerned that the student-art side of Durham can often feel “underground”, exclusive or simply absent. By contrast, life drawing is literally naked art. It is emphatically a learning exercise and so the improvements and experimentation in the drawings from session to session are striking. The atmosphere is focused and fun, and whether people are drawing stick men, scribbles or stuff I’d quite like to take home and stick on my wall, the class is unquestionably accessible.
I also spoke to Steve Porter, who has been on the life drawing scene for eight years. Whilst Melissa celebrated the artistic liberation that she felt the imperfect and quick sketches bring to the artist, Steve was an advocate for the physical liberation that he feels whilst modelling. He entered the profession after a friend suggested that he tackled his physical insecurities head on. However, for an activity that is completely body-centric, his emphasis on mindset was surprising.
He was interested in how life drawing “reprograms” the minds of both the model and the artists. Noting that it is the “mental professionality” of the model that determines the atmosphere in the room, Steve rebutted my asking whether he ever felt objectified or vulnerable. As the model, he said, he is “the most powerful person in the room”. Although sketching is the primary point of life drawing, it is difficult to avoid a comparison between Steve’s empowerment and the presentation of bodies that populate social media.
Objectification has come to mean bodies as commodities, but within the classes, the model’s body is desexualised and decontextualized. Melissa repeated “cut the body into shapes” throughout the most recent session. A body becomes several circles, some lines, and bits of light and dark. Further to this, a huge variety of models work for Art Soc. Without preaching body positivity, it is refreshing to realise that a life model is uncurated when naked. The fluorescent overhead lighting in Elvet Riverside does away with the trickery of good lighting.
It is not likely that every life drawing model is as comfortable and confident as Steve, but he represents a freedom from which we can take lessons. In his words: “sometimes I forget I’m even naked”. I concluded from this that body confidence does not necessarily mean a labour of enforced positivity and acceptance, but instead, a healthy dose of not caring.
Far from the mark schemes of GCSE and A Level taught art, the life drawing sessions are oriented away from perfectionism. As they lead the sessions, Connie and Melissa offer guidance, not instruction. It is perhaps for this sense of freedom that more students are getting involved with modelling for Art Soc: the sessions are packed.
Illustrations: Anna Thomas