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The Perils Of Socialising Life Drawing

The model stood completely still, shifting poses only at the instructor's request every forty minutes. My father drew fluidly, focusing first on the torso, then the shoulders, followed by the legs, feet, and head. He manoeuvred from graphite to charcoal and completed his last sketch in watercolour. I followed the same sequence, although I never drew the face. 

Though I anticipated discomfort painting a naked woman alongside my father, we left having felt none. Later I wondered why that was. How is it that life-drawing asexualises nudity?

In his 1435 treatise On Painting, Renaissance artist and architect Leon Battista Alberti wrote that the painter “must know all about the movements of the body… in painting a nude, the bones and muscles must be arranged first, and then covered with the appropriate flesh.” Life drawing is about craft — learning to draw anatomy. In sessions, the artist does not replicate a person as much as she does individual shapes, which become a body. The clinical nature negates an awareness of personhood. That sounds cold, but the distance affords the model privacy. 

Alberti was not denying models their personhood writ large. He understood it well, which is why he also praised “decency and modesty.” Life-drawing, though, is an impersonal exchange. Broadly, a social angle disrupts Alberti’s emphasised detachment. Efforts to make life-drawing a social event could damage its longevity as a tool for the seasoned and amateur draughtsman.

St Andrews and other UK universities have a different take. Varsity reported on the popular student life-drawing at Cambridge. In St Andrews, the Art Society offers weekly life-drawing sessions. Presidents of ArtSoc, Beth and Isabel, advocate “de-mystifying” life-drawing by folding in social opportunity. The event, they explained, “has to be competitive… if that’s by being as exciting as possible then it’s worthwhile.” The society pays to add social elements, inviting Szentek and local band Brine! to play for sessions. Here, musical entertainment and quiet time with a friend are layered delicately atop personal interest in artistic betterment.

I agree that art should be fun and accessible. However, the trend towards socialising life-drawing could be detrimental to the exercise. I spoke with two models, both of whom highlighted the society’s success in creating a formal and safe setting. Yet one remarked that the revved-up branding of society-life-drawing collaborations raises the questions: at what point does it stop, and why focus on social popularity? 

The multi-media social dimension of life-drawing forces a spotlight on the audience, not the artist as an individual. Inviting participants for purposes other than artistic improvement increases the likelihood of undermining Alberti’s clinical environment. So too the possibility of a model’s sexualization. One model reported that after being asked out on a date following posing she cautions the increasing social motivation to attend sessions.

In life-drawing, anonymity goes both ways. Life-drawing centres Helen as an artist, not as an individual with an interest in art. I shed the social awareness that inhibits my free-flowing practice. The pencil becomes my lead. When someone seeks a social event in conjunction with fervid artistry, that individual risks missing the point of the exercise. 

Transforming a life-drawing session into a social event chances to indulge students’ curiosity about the models beyond mere learning aides, even if their intent is not sexual. However, the essence of life-drawing lies in nurturing the artist’s skill, not the model or audience intrigue. The only relevant variable model-side is the model’s comfort and privacy. 

Moreover, prioritising a model’s personhood risks neglecting beauty in pure anatomy. Poet May Swenson encapsulates this sentiment in ‘Question’, where she addresses her body: “Body my house / my horse my hound / what will I do when you are fallen.” The body, Swenson reminds us, is the permanent individual dwelling; life-drawing lauds this functionality. People are stronger agents of their figures when encouraged to marvel most at their innate purpose. Cognisance of function and form, the norm in centuries of life-drawing, remains essential. 

For years, ArtSoc has done the town a favour. With life-drawing, they fill the opportunity gap to practise fine art. I caution only against increasing the social dimension of the exercise. Alberti’s utilitarian approach to life-drawing underpins the practice’s centuries-long efficacy. Its impersonal nature, it seems, is worthy of protection.

Illustration by: Helen Lipsky

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