My experience as a Life Model
I started Life Modelling in June 2018. As I was switching my studies from Full-Time 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 have learned so much through it. About myself, about painting, about things I wasn’t expecting. I’ve recently shared my thoughts in an article from the Guardian, coinciding with a series of talk from the fantastic Dominic Blake, asking if 'Life models are artists'.
Here’s some thoughts on what modelling is for me :)
Modelling was in my mind for some months, but I was holding back because of fears around ABS. The Amniotic Band Syndrom is the condition I was born with, translating into my own kind of fingers and toes #suzonshand. With surgeries behind and with time, I came to love this particularity very much. However, thinking of confidently exposing my difference to others felt like a real challenge. I had in mind -stupidly- that weird fingers would be unfair on the people attending.
Fortunately (?), as a habit, if something feels challenging, I make a point to do it.
I started painting and drawing my little fingers myself, through self-portraits, and realised they were quite fun to depict (like anything, they’re just an assemblage of shapes and colours really). 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 listen to my guts more than to those unhelpful thoughts and I decided to give modelling a go.
So far it’s been almost always a positive experience. Most of the time my difference doesn’t matter, and sometimes it generates warm conversations. Modelling definitely helps to chill out; to love them even more; and also to learn to be fine with days where I'm not feeling it (don’t need to be a superhero either ~ )
As mentioned above, nudity wasn’t my main concern. Not that I was particularity confident naked (was not), but it was a smaller thing to overcome (when one needs money, one can drop a few unreasonable blocks).
Now I’m really glad I realised at 25yo, after enough years worrying about this ‘body image’ thing, that a body is a body.
I’d encourage anyone to do it, it’s a relief and a joy to relax about your body image 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 hear extra tuition and ideas while working. As I model in various groups and art schools, I get to see so many different approaches.
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.
Beyond the tuition, it is a wonderful opportunity to meet other artists and students (and this social aspect counterbalances nicely the slight isolation of days in the studio).
Finally, the life modelling community is quite fantastic, and I’ve found beautiful friendships there.
I would never have suspected how precious mind space is. 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 be driven by (over)productivity. Here I’m given the time to be in myself, an opportunity to stop and rest, to sort out my thoughts, to catch up with myself. (on a bad day it can be tough, but bad days are bad days anyway).
All this mind space invited me to revisit my memories more than I ever took the time to. I also experienced 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, a lot of olfactory perceptions seems to come back to me.
As a painter, set 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 that and discard them. If an idea stick to my mind for long enough, it’s probably worth trying.
My favourite part of keeping still, surprisingly, happens to be sight! ("I love staring at a spot for six hours!", enthusiastically quoted The Guardian ~ ). There’s something soothing in reducing the quantity of visual inputs. A chance to look, more, intensely, or loosely.
An opportunity to play with 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 on my sight: how my field of view widen when I relax yet perceptions become tonal and colours disappear; how immobile objects faint and my vision only refreshes upon moving things (instinct filtering potential threats?); how some 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 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.
Modelling also made me think about what I like when I’m on the other side of the easel and work with a model.
Needless to say, stillness plays a role, but personally not that much. 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: 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 goes by, they relax and settle into the poses, it feels like an opportunity to get closer to their true individuality.
In the same thread of thoughts, I’m not so much after over-worked 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 even the simplest pose can be infinitely beautiful and difficult to draw for its subtleties.
I also 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 model really participate in uplifting the atmosphere.
I also learned about the difficulties surrounding this job. Physically, well, it hurts. Obvious numbness and soreness during poses, and already after a year I can tell my joints have not appreciated everything. The pay is not following the increasing cost of living and commuting in London, too often keeping the rate under the £15/h recommended. And the guarantee of work from one term to another is nonexistent (without mentioning the dry season of holidays). Not that it is the only precarious job nor the worst, of course.
Thanks to some wonderful tutors, students, artists, models and organisations, most of the time it is a joy to do this job. If anything, I believe transparency is key, and I’m happy to see more conversations happening!
I do love this job ♥