one figure model's experience
Class will begin as soon as I get naked. Twenty students look at me with anticipation, their pens and paper ready on their easels. I look at the instructor with my eyebrows raised. “Whenever you’re ready, Kimberly,” he says. I let my kimono drop to the floor.
Students’ eyes flick back and forth between their sketch pads and my body. The sound of scratching pencils fills the room. A dynamic exchange between the artists and myself permeates the physical space as well as my emotional space giving me a head rush for a brief moment. This unique exchange takes all the vulnerability and trust I can muster, and I find the delicate partnership thrilling and rewarding. I like to be the catalyst that allows an artist to take their technique from smoldering to bursting into flames.
I put my ballet training to use for my first pose: croisé devant. The instructor put a space heater on the stage. I appreciate the gesture since figure modeling is physically demanding, and it is nearly impossible to keep muscles from cramping in some of the sustained poses without an external heat source. I put a lot of thought into my poses to keep the students happy. I’ve been told that the model is seen as light and shadow and angles and negative space, so I want to give the students interesting shapes to draw. Switching positions every minute for the next twenty minutes is like choreographing a dance. I hit a pose and immediately start considering the next two or three.
These segments of poses are standardized: twenty one-minute poses, four poses of five minutes each, two poses of ten minutes each, and two twenty-minute poses. My mind wanders when the poses get longer. Sometimes, I think about how awkward it would be if someone from my day job walked in. What would I do in that situation? Pose with my back to them? I’d definitely wait to greet them until there was a break and I could put my kimono back on. Although anyone taking a figure-drawing class would probably be comfortable with a naked body, even a colleague’s. I imagine that I’d greet them with a casual “what’s up?!” as if they had not just seen me naked, to set a tone of normalcy. I’d act confident and impassive, like walking into a room and seeing your colleague naked happens all the time.
Most people I’ve talked to have no desire to be a figure model, but being naked in front of strangers doesn’t intimidate me. Maybe the best way to relate is to think of the feeling of walking around your own home naked, if you’re the type that enjoys that feeling. I take that behavior to an extreme. I walk around my house naked but don’t bother to shut the curtains.
“You misjudged the proportions here,” I hear the instructor say, his voice just above a whisper. Everybody speaks in hushed tones out of respect for others trying to concentrate. Then I hear, “These curves should be bigger.”
The instructor is directly behind me, so I know to which curves he is referring. These artists draw honestly, so I’m interested to see how my proportions will be interpreted by an artist who has no reason to lie.
The alarm pings for a pose change, so I perch on the edge of the stool while keeping my girl parts as tucked away as possible. The surface of the stool reflects the fluorescent lighting of the drawing studio.
My mind wanders again as I hum an Interpol song to myself. Someone should make a playlist for the class. Maybe I’ll offer. Some ambient music would make the class more interesting while maintaining the tranquil vibe. Should I groom my girl parts? When I started this a few weeks ago, showing the most intimate parts of my body felt too graphic. I wanted the biggest bush possible to cover myself. But now I’m feeling more comfortable, and it’s getting itchy.
Behind me, the studio door opens and shuts with a soft click. Someone has come in late. A man sits at an easel at the edge of my peripheral vision. He has brought a younger version of himself, who I assume is his son. He can’t be more than sixteen. The kid opens his notebook and gets right to work like a real professional. I wonder what this hobby is going to do for this sixteen-year-old’s sex life. Maybe he is mature for his age and doesn’t oversexualize the female body.
Artists in life drawing classes must detach their own sexuality from a naked body, much like a doctor sees only science when studying the human form. The balance of power is so imbalanced with the model being naked and the artist being clothed, that to sexualize a model in this space would violate that delicate relationship built on vulnerability, trust, and dynamic exchanges of energy.
The alarm pings politely, and I change poses again. I stand and quarter-turn to face a different set of students with my arms at my sides. I almost never put my arms up, since they fall asleep after about forty-five seconds. After this, I’ll do a pose to stretch out my hamstrings.
I’m no Greek goddess, but I’m fit. I’m a regular in ballet class and hike on the weekends. I eat cleanish. But a student once told me that my body type is the least interesting to draw. All the models are fit. He wished someone “fat or pregnant or old with saggy skin” would model, so he could get some experience drawing other body types. I didn’t take it personally.
And then there’s a break. I put on my kimono and grab some water to sip as I walk barefoot around the room, peaking at the art the students are creating.
The dad and his teenager share a variety of pencils. Their sketches are simple and organic and focus more on lines than details. I might not recognize myself in a lineup of their sketches.
I find the artist who had underestimated the proportions of my curves. I’m surprised to see that I like my body as she’s captured it.
Another artist has layered black paint on black Sharpie, and the paper has torn in some places from rough handling. They have stuck a few loose strands of hair in the paint. I wonder if it’s my hair.
The woman who reminds me of my favorite aunty is using gouache paints today. Her compositions are my favorite. She seems to come with a different medium every week, and I love that she can create with anything. Like all of the other artists here, she is practicing capturing the technicalities of the physical form, yet none of her pieces look stagnant like some of the others. They feel the most intimate, like she sees more of me than anybody else. She’s captured the nonchalance of my posture, and the teeny beauty mark on my foot that even I sometimes forget about. I would love to see how she would add a layer of sensuality or soul to her paintings if she had more time.
I quickly use the bathroom, making sure to check in the mirror for any toilet paper. I feel recharged and ready to sit for the last twenty-minute poses. I sit on the floor with one leg stretched in front of me and the other bent at the knee. I turn to look over my right shoulder. The instructor says something about muscle and bones. I get bored during these last poses. Maybe I’ll learn to meditate.
I accidentally make eye contact with the teenager when he looks up at my face. He looks back down at his sketchpad, shakes his head in displeasure at his work, and blends something with his finger.
After the class, the instructor thanks me for my professionalism and pays me in cash, plus tips. The tips are enough to cover coffee and gas for the next seven days.
A student who I’ve not noticed before thanks me as I walk out the door and lets me keep one of his drawings of my head and shoulders in Sharpie and watercolors. I don’t want to judge whether it is beautiful or not because it’s a work in progress, but I do find the gesture special.
24 March, 2021