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.