Thoughts on Life Drawing

The human form is one of the hardest things for an artist to master. It is incredibly complex—the hundreds of bones and muscles in the body can twist and pull into an infinite combination of expressive poses. In addition, people come in all sorts of shapes and sizes. It’s important for an artist to study different body types so he can convincingly illustrate characters with variety and personality

The best way to master the human form is simply to draw it…again and again and again. To keep my skills from getting dull I regularly attend drawing co-ops in my city (a co-op is simply a group of artists getting together to draw real live models). Although I’m a cartoonist, I consider life drawing to be one of the most important and helpful exercises I can do. The more I understand the human form, the easier it is for me to simplify and exaggerate it with cartooning.

It’s hard to understate the value of drawing from life. Photographs can be helpful, and there are some good reference books out there for artists. But because photos are 2D they tend to flatten the form. Also, because a photograph is permanently frozen it can suck some of the life out of a pose. For the serious artist, nothing beats the freshness and energy of drawing from a live model. Drawing from a photo is like eating reheated leftovers rather than fresh food hot off the stove.

However, as much as I believe in it there’s one part of the life drawing tradition I’ve never understood. Why must the model be nude? Couldn’t he/she at least wear a swimsuit? I’ve been doing life drawings for over ten years now, and though I consider myself a complete professional it still makes me a little uncomfortable whenever the model first disrobes. Once I start drawing my brain shifts into an analytical mode and I get over it rather quickly. I become preoccupied with studying shapes and contours, muscles and forms, and the whole thing quickly becomes a purely academic exercise for me, I suppose not unlike a physician studying anatomy in medical school. Soon I almost forget that I’m drawing a real person.

Still, there’s a part of me that always feels a little guilty being part of a group that asks strangers to disrobe. I understand the importance of stripping down to the bare anatomy so that artists can study the various muscles and understructure of the human body. If you don’t understand the human body without clothes, it will be harder to draw it convincingly with clothes. Still, do we need to see everything? Couldn’t the model at least wear a small swimsuit or jock strap? I’ve done literally hundreds and maybe even thousands of life drawings over the years, and I don’t understand why complete nudity is essential to the process.

I know nude life drawing is a tradition that goes back at least to the Renaissance, and we have nude sculptures dating back to the ancient Greeks and Romans. Still, I don’t get it. I realize the human body can be a beautiful thing, but shouldn’t certain parts of it also be a private thing? Does it become less beautiful if certain areas are covered?

Besides, if it’s wrong to show nudity in public why is it ok if it’s art? Most serious life drawings/sculptures represent a real live person who actually stripped naked. The only reasons I can think of why someone would want to disrobe in front of a stranger (or in the case of a co-op, a room full of strangers) is (a) the model is extremely hard up for cash, or (b) the model has some form of exhibitionist tendencies. Frankly neither one seems good or healthy to me. (EDIT: I guess that’s a little harsh. I’ve never actually asked a model why they pose, so there may be valid reasons I’m not aware of. If you can explain it to me, please leave a comment below.)

I’m also aware that many life drawing co-ops have difficulty finding and keeping models. My guess is that if they didn’t have to go totally nude, we’d find a few more people willing to take part. Life drawing might become more popular and accessible, maybe even thrive. More artists would attend (including talented young teens) and it would be much easier to find models.

Of course, I tend to be rather conservative and a bit of a fuddy duddy. So maybe I’m just crazy. I certainly don’t want to sound like I’m on a high horse or “holier than thou”. Is there something I’m missing, or an angle I haven’t considered? If you’ve ever done any life drawing, feel free to post your thoughts. Especially if you disagree with me. I’d love to hear other views.

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17 thoughts on “Thoughts on Life Drawing

  1. I’m in total agreement with you here Cedric. I really do not need total nudity to draw the figure.

    My drawing class in college was two guys (myself one of them) and 8 ladies. We had a nude lady for a model and it was very uncomfortable.

  2. I agree that models do not need to be totally naked. As for your statement that “If you don’t understand the human body without clothes, it will be hard to draw it convincingly with clothes” there is some truth in this but it has been overplayed – and I sometimes wonder about the motives of those who try so hard to justify the need for nude models almost, if not entirely, to the exclusion of the clothed variety. Besides, it contradicts good advice to painters which is often heard in different forms, ie. paint what you see. Surely there is, if asnything, a more pressing need to learn to paint everyday, fully clothed people – where the characteristics of the clothing superimpose themselves on whatever lies beneath, and what lies beneath cannot be seen or, therefore, painted.

  3. Good comment, justwilliams. It is just as important to study fabric and clothing as it is to study the human form underneath. Also, I reworded the statement to say “If you don’t understand the human body without clothes, it will be hardER to draw it convincingly with clothes.” Many artists paint wonderful clothing very convincingly without doing any life drawing at all. But I do think that life drawing helps understand why the clothing does what it does in reaction to the anatomy underneath, and in that sense makes the whole process easier.

  4. My life drawing sessions recently had a cabaret model – clothed if minimally and it was actually incredibly *fun* drawing the figure (partially) clothed, using the lines of clothing and feathers to show the shape of the body and understand it. Also, I like drawing top hats and they only seem to work when drawn from life.

  5. Yeah, at the studio where I work we have “swimwear-clad” models for our drawing classes, and it works just fine.

    I don’t really see anything inherently wrong with nude figure drawing, though. But I can understand the discomfort. I’m pretty much like you, Cedric, once I start drawing it’s all academic.

    One thing I suggest is that the artist should get to know the person you’re drawing, so they aren’t simply an object or a stranger. It won’t take away the discomfort, really, but it does take the tawdry edge off the exercise.

    ~R

  6. I’m too young to be considered an old fuddy duddy prude, but I guess many people would still apply the terms to me! I have yet to attend a life model class, for the reasons you mentioned. And it’s nice to see a professional illustrator present the fuddy duddy side. I have heard the defense of this practice more times than I wanted to. Of course, my artwork might show my lack of anatomical understanding, but I think it’s due more to lack of practice than lack of life-model drawing 🙂 I agree completely that class attendance would increase with the simple addition of a bathing suit or other minimal clothing. There’s a very funny episode of the Cosby Show that deals with this topic!!

  7. While I don’t see any reason that a life drawing session must be held in the nude, (after all, there are no laws saying one must be nude, and if one wanted to start a fully-clothed or partially-draped life-drawing cooperative, I’m sure it would do well) I don’t share the discomfort of the nudity. I think it’s all about context. I’m there to draw the human form – and as an animator, attempt to capture the attitude of the pose as well. I would rather NOT forget that I’m drawing an actual person. Why the need to dehumanize what you’re drawing? Nude? No problem. Clothed? Fine. I think the attitude on nudity is more a symptom of the problem that American culture at large has with nudity and how it must always equate to sex. Also, I’d argue that your question of “Besides, if it’s wrong to show nudity in public why is it ok if it’s art?” is a false argument. There are hundreds of reasons and rationales why public nudity is against the law ranging from sanitary (the world can be a dirty place, and clothes help keep out the dirt) to the safety (clothes also help to protect those more vulnerable bits from the environment and its constructs), where the publicly displayed artistic nude sculpture or painting represents more of what we all share in common: being human. And it tells a basic truth, that despite everything we arm ourselves with, be it race, religion, social status, political whim, when you strip it all away, we are all merely naked, vulnerable humans. One more thing, regarding your comment “The only reasons I can think of why someone would want to disrobe in front of a stranger (or in the case of a co-op, a room full of strangers) is (a) the model is extremely hard up for cash, or (b) the model has some form of exhibitionist tendencies.” I can’t even describe how offensive that remark is, as I have friends who have posed nude for artists’ groups or co-ops who did it for free, as they are neither hard up for cash (extremely or otherwise) and do not exhibit tendencies towards exhibitionism, unless you would consider outgoing, extroverted and loving personalities exhibitionist in nature. I’m willing to concede that in your ten years of life drawing you’ve probably encountered models that fit this description, as they statistically would have to show up after a while. But how fair is it to assume that of the model? Where you see a model that is either hard up for cash or an exhibitionist, I see someone who is brave enough and comfortable enough with themselves to be a nude model for furthering the artistic endeavor of others.

    Then again, that’s just my opinion.

  8. Kelly, thanks very much for your comments. I really respect you and your work and appreciate hearing your point of view. I’ll definitely give that some thought.

    Also, I guess my comment about models being either hard up for cash or exhibitionists was a little harsh (I’ve added an “edit” to the post). I wasn’t trying to be snarky or insulting. If that’s how I came across, I apologize. I just don’t understand why someone would willingly disrobe in front of a room full of strangers. There may be very valid reasons, I just don’t understand it. But I’d be happy to have someone explain it to me.

  9. As you stated Cedric, the human body is incredibly hard to draw. I, for one, have no problem attending a nude class. I admit my first couple of classes made me a bit nervous at first. But as you mentioned, it quickly gets academic.
    I also think you should draw fully clothed models. Not only is drapery a difficult task as well, but you can create more attitude, personality and story with a model dressed as a carpenter, or cop, or gypsy or nurse, or business man.

    As to drawing a partially draped model, I think that draws too much attention to the fact that they are mostly nekkid. I have been in classes where the models wore swimsuits. It’s distracting.
    Nude is academic. A bikini is sexy.
    During the breaks, when the model would wear a robe, I found it much more distracting to look at her.

    Then one day someone asked me how I would feel if it were my daughter posing for a class. Now that one gave me pause.
    Hmmmm………

  10. I’m a little late posting here, but I stumbled upon this website doing a google search. You have stated exactly how I feel. It is uncomfortable drawing the nude figure, something about it just doesn’t feel completely right. I understand how important anatomy is, but why do most if not all life drawing classes focus on the model being nude? Personally, I think I would feel more free having the model somewhat clothed. I think I would let go and create better work. I completely agree and understand what you are saying.

  11. I am a life drawing model and I do have an exhibitionistic streak. Why is that wrong? I do not assault people by flashing; I work as a model and I behave professionally.

    People process embarrassment differently. Some find it the worst thing in the world (worse than physical torture). Others find it exhilarating.

    I am different from you. Do you believe that means that there is something wrong with me?

    When I am posing, I am acutely aware and alive in the moment. Humans are actually looking at another human without costumes in the way. Humans are studying the physical appearance of another human. Why is this wrong?

    I understand that people are different and that they have different feelings about things. I try not to jump to the conclusion that people who feel differently from me are wrong.

  12. My perspective regarding full frontal nudity of the male model in the classroom and open sessions is identical to your own. During the late 60s and early 70s, I had four years of college art classes, which frequently featured models, The females were usually nude; sometimes a two-piece bikini swim suit or just the bottom was worn by the women. The standard was negotiated between the model and the instructor. Males were required to don a strategic modesty covering, which was usually a jockstrap.
    With the increased sexualization of the culture, the unprecedented moral laxity, and the general desensitization of life, the athletic supporter was tossed aside in the mid and late 70s. Although, complete nudity for both genders is now commonplace, it is by no way universal.
    In recent years, I attended open sessions, where the male displayed rings and piercings on their privates, erotic tattoos found on their skin, and bizarre shaving patterns appeared in the groin, and no comment was raised by the coordinators as to the appropriateness of these manifestations!
    Today, hen parties and bachelorette pre-wedding get-togethers, feature a handsome hunk as a nude model, with a teacher to mentor a circle of young women on how to use a conte crayon or a charcoal pencil. The atmosphere is one of fun, frolic, food, and drink, as the gals release their talents, studying the face, flesh, and form of the male. A group photo with the chap is given to each of the ladiesk, as a keepsake of this artistic experience!
    A persistent theme on TV sit-coms is for one of the stars to be introduced to the world of the art studio,
    and falls in love with the model, or volunteers to become the model. The environment is usally depicted with antics, confrontations, and fiascoes, which would be difficult to imagine being tolerated by any instructor.
    These developments reenforce the widespread popular perception by the public, that off-the-wall behavior takes place in the name of art. The artistic study of the human body is a valid discipline; how can it best be done is the issue for discussion. The silence of many artists (and sometimes models) regarding this new climate of permissiveness is wrongly interpreted as agreement..I welcome a return to the fig-leaf. We are not alone in our viewpoint.
    After extensive reading and research on the male art model, I plan to do some writing on the subject in the future. If welcomed, I will return with some other
    reflections. I have only rudimentary computer skills; this is the second blog message that I have ever sent.
    Thanks for your time.

  13. I know this comment comes late but let me get in my 2 cents. I’m majoring video game animation going in my 4th year and been avidly drawing since grade school. And also wondered about why the models had to nude when clothing was fine.

    Well i had been drawing nude figures for over a year and was used to it. One summer i joined this art group which was only had clothed models pose for us the entire time. Both street clothes and some with swimsuits, but always clothed. I was on break staying with my grandparents. It was in Utah and the town was conservatively Mormon, so you can see why they didn’t allow nudes. And i didn’t mind at the time.

    As the summer went I kept on drawing in with the group. And in a month or two in i started noticing something was missing from my figure drawings. It was very subtle, but for me this subtlety meant a lot. I dont know but it seemed i was starting to lose those tiny nuances that gave my figures life. My drawings lost that tiny quality that can make the difference. I couldn’t tell why at first but i was aware of it and thought maybe i had lost my artistic touch. As you can understand i was a bit panicky at this. Eventually i figured it out. When i returned to drawing nudes in classes that fall everything went back to normal.

    This made me realize (for me at least) why we draw nude models. As a students it important to capture those very subtle effects that gives life to the figure. Some of that quality seems lost when the figure are clothed. When the figure is nude you start to see those tiny minute essenses that is form the true form when they go form pose to pose. I’m not sure if I can convey this in words accurately but i hope you get my meaning. As it is more or less something you become aware of that transfers to your drawings. As for the models at my college them seem mostly professionals for the most part. And not the type who seem desperate for money. That’s my take on this whole thing from my personal experience.

  14. I cannot imagine Michelangelo’s “David’ in a jock strap or without his genitals. To see them as something in someway “wrong” is, in my opinion, odd to say the least. I have worked as an art model, and I am always conscious of the fact that I am appearing fully naked in front of strangers, and I would never wish it to be taken for granted. (on occasion, I have found myself in a modeling situation where some one or more than one, who is not an artist or participant, casually just wandering in to take a peek -I guess, it always leaves me uncomfortable. On a separate issue as a European living in US, it’s remarkable, how many artists actually circumcise my uncircumcised penis in their work . I am never sure I it’s just because they are not really comfortable viewing it, ( the penis) or because they prefer the “look” of a circumcised penis and perform the operation out of preference.

  15. Why model nude? It’s a frightening thought, a mental challenge/ hurdle. But resulting art work is beautiful.
    Why go to a life drawing class if your unhappy? Turn off the tv, go out and sit in a park and draw clothed people, they are everywhere! The beach has lots of people wearing swimwear, ask someone if it would be ok to draw them. Yet you seek out the only place in the county that has nude models, and complain about it. What are your real intentions?

    • Quite right. There are many aspects to life drawing and also the nude in art, some purely anatomical, but also there is a place fro the erotic. The practice of using the fully nude model is now well established. And while there are still some more remote areas where both sexes are not fully nude, it would seem odd to have a legitimate artist not to want the model to be completely naked. I mean how can you draw a penis, if you never study it? It is still common place for artists to just generally indicate the genitals( Males seem to be particularly uncomfortable drawing other males genitals) and I think for the model this makes it seem even more uncomfortable- I mean your full exposed, and if they aren’t including that in their work, why are you nude?

  16. Hello,
    I just stumbled across this debate because of a writing project I am involved in. A few things struck me immediately.
    First of all I should say that I studied art at art school. I attended life drawing classes at school, art school and later at adult education classes. I am a working artist and I also posed for many years as a life model mainly for art classes but also privately for artists.
    It strikes me that there is not even a need for a debate.
    If you don’t like studying a fully nude figure, male or female then don’t do it, do something else. Life is full of choices.
    Everything everyone wishes for is readily available. There are fully nude life classes with male and female models. There are clothed figurative drawing classes out there. There are movement and static classes. I have posed nude, wearing a g-string and fully clothed.
    What is the problem, we all have our own needs, predilections and focus.
    As an model and artist my own preference is for nudity because of the deep primal connection that is possible. When that connection is there then “life drawing” is replaced by art.
    I hated anatomy at art college because I had to address my own inadequacy in that discipline. As a model when I posed for anatomy classes it was hard not to feel like an exhibit, but it is all personal perception.
    As an artist some models inspire me more than others. As a model some artists inspire me more than others. It very rarely has much to do with genitals, breasts or even kneecaps and nostrils.
    I would also like to add that traditional academic life drawing gives an artist the most complete technical tuition there is, but it involves a lot more than sitting in front of a model and drawing.
    Sorry for the overlong post, I find it hard to edit myself. This can be a problem for the artist and the model.

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