My experience as a Life Model
I started Life Modelling in June 2018. As I was switching from a Full-Time student to Part-Time, I wanted to find a job that would bring me joy and be meaningful, while offering me the flexibility to keep my studies a priority. I had already done some Portrait modelling and knew that keeping still was (unexpectedly) something great for me.
A year later it’s a decision I’ll never regret, I’ve learned so much through it. About myself, about painting, about things I wasn’t expecting. Recently I’ve been invited by the wonderful human and life model Dominic Blake to reflect on the role we can play within an artist’s practice. Here’s my personal thoughts on what modelling is for me, and if you’d like to read more about Dominic’s point of view and the discussions he raised, have a look here.
But thinking I would have to confidently expose my difference to people felt like a real challenge. (more that I -stupidly- thought it’d be unfair on the people attending). Fortunately, in my head if something feels challenging that means it is important and that I have to do it.
As a kind of warm-up, I started painting and drawing my little fingers myself, through self-portraits, and realised how cool they were to depict (like anything, they’re a funny assemblage of shape and colours). In April I was really lucky and moved when my friend James Bland painted them, another hint that it’d be important for me to have them painted by others (until I become used to it and bored, simply~).
So far it’s been almost fully a positive experience, most of the time it doesn’t matter, or sometimes it generates warm conversations. It definitely helped me on many levels, to chill out; to love them even more; and also to allow myself days where if I’m not feeling it, I can just have poses where they’re less to the view of others. Don’t need to be a superhero either :)
As mentioned above, this wasn’t my main concerned at all. Not that I used to feel confident naked, but it was a smaller thing to overcome (when one needs money, one can drop a few unreasonable blocks). Now I’ve got to see so many drawing/paintings of myself, full body, any angles. I’ve not come to love everything I see, but simply to relax about it. It is just a body really! And I love it so much now because it’s allowing me to live this life, period. I’m really glad I realised this at 25, after enough years worrying about this ‘body image’ thing. Also great perks from modelling: you get to see your profile, back of head (convenient after a haircut) ~ I mean, I’d encourage anyone to do it, it’s a joy to relax about your body and feel it doesn’t have to be a bigger deal than that.
The first reason why I considered modelling was the idea of getting to listen to tutors and ideas while working. As I model in various groups and schools, I get to see so many approaches to painting and drawing. It’s also a privilege to witness how a class works, and it makes me reflect on my own practice: how little do people sometimes look, how tensed can someone get over feedback, how often it is more about self-confidence than technical abilities, how -unsurprisingly- works are very much self-portraits, even literally. Beyond the tuition, it’s also wonderful to meet other artists and students, you learn so much from you peers (and this social aspect counterbalances nicely the isolation of days alone in the studio). Finally, the life modelling community is quite fantastic, and I’ve found beautiful friendships there.
I would never have expected the luxury of having some time for your mind. In the stillness, I have days and evenings without nothing to do but to be there. I’m usually pretty active, with a tendency to want to be (over)productive. Here I’m given the time to be in myself, and most of the time it’s a happy place.
Modelling offers me an opportunity to stop and rest, to sort out my thoughts, to catch up with myself. (on a bad day it can be difficult though, but bad days are bad days anyway).
All this mind space invited me to revisit my memories more than I never took the time to. I also experience once what felt like a lucid dream, and that was wonderful. I used to think my memory was quite poor, but it seems to be a muscle that becomes more efficient as it’s being used. Those remembrances aren’t purely visual, unexpectedly a lot of olfactory perceptions seems to come back to me.
As a painter, a lot of free time is always great for thinking about what I’d like to paint next. Most of the time, it’s me getting overenthusiastic over crap ideas, but at least I have enough time to realise this and discard them. If an idea stick to my mind for long enough, it’s probably worth trying.
I had not realising one of the things I like the most about keeping still: I get to stare at one point for hours. There’s something soothing in reducing the quantity visual inputs. And it gives me an opportunity to look, more, intensely, or loosely.
A beautiful chance to work on naming colours. Most of the time I’m staring at a white wall. But you know what I was saying, I’m avoiding calling it white. It’s often full of subtle colours and nuances. I’m also enjoying trying to ‘push my views’, and play a game that goes: can I force myself to believe this colours is another one? If so how do all the other ones shift, by comparison?
I’m trying other experimentation and discoveries on my sight: how much wider my field of view gets when I relax, but how it changes my perception tonally and suppresses most of the colours; how immobile objects faint and my vision only refreshes upon moving things (instinct filtering potential threats?); how these phenomena can be similar to video codecs, with a buffer effect on movement, some delay and separation of plans... Well, if you’d like me to talk more about it, just get me started haha! Nothing scientifically rigorous in what I’m thinking, but playful experiences!
And more childish but at the top of my preoccupation: I love spotting faces! In a stained wall, a switch, bits of tape on the floor… they become little friends that make me laugh inside, as we compete on who is going to win at keeping still.
Going on the other side of the easel also made me think about what I like when I work with a model.
Needless to say, stillness plays a role, but personally not so much for what I thought. I don’t mind movement in what I paint, slight changes are the whole reason why I like painting from life. As the light changes, the model can as well, and that’s why looking throughout a whole session keeps being such a joy: there’s always something new to spot.
I also love models being themselves, which enhances why I don’t mind movement. If as the day go they relax and settle into the poses, I feel it’s an opportunity to get closer an individuality.
In the same thread of thoughts, I’m not so much after intense poses. I love the fact you can recognise someone by their silhouette and gesture. So in a way I like poses that are natural to the model. And anyway, even the simplest pose can be infinitely beautiful and difficult to draw for its subtleties.
I realised how much empathy get triggered when I paint another being. Which is why the thing that matters the most to me, is actually the model’s engagement. It is emotionally difficult to paint someone who looks as if they don’t want to be there, whereas some models can really participates to uplift the atmosphere.
Unfortunately, I also learned about the difficulties surrounding this job. It is difficult. Physically difficult, obviously: the body gets hurt, numbness and soreness are constant. Yet it is in many places underpaid, not taking into account the increasing cost of living in London, commuting for hours, unpaid breaks that organisers forget to mention so they can advertise a higher hourly rate. And the guarantee of work from one term to another is nonexistent, hard to find gigs during holidays, you feel so easily replaceable, no matter how great and professional you are.
Thanks to other models, some wonderful artists, teachers and organisations, and more conversations happening, we’re hopefully heading in the right direction. If anything, transparency is key, as so often students no very little about this person they’re working with/from.
Discussions as the one Dominic Blake initiated are what we need, and I have to thank him dearly for that (and for having been so encouraging when I first started).