Baring it all for art’s sake: inside the world of life drawing

Image: Nicole Slyusareva
Image: Nicole Slyusareva
Image: Nicole Slyusareva

The Collins English Dictionary defines life drawing as “drawing objects or people from life,” while a quick search on brings up the definition “the act of drawing the human figure from a living model.” St Andrews’ Art Society engages in the latter practice. The society has a long-standing tradition of organising weekly life drawing sessions that transform Tuesday evenings into a safe haven for those looking to escape the weekday blues. At the Barron Theatre, a new model every week provides inspiration for artists, locals and students alike. The event is inclusive, with individuals of all drawing abilities welcome.

Upon entering the Barron, one will mostly likely be taken aback by its messy state. In the middle of the floor stands a red leather chaise lounge, often used as a prop in stage productions; here, it is draped in a massive white sheet. The eclectic music playing in the background is from a playlist specially compiled by past and existing ArtSoc committee members. Every coordinator adds his or her own touch (my first life drawing session introduced me to Glass Animals, for which I am eternally grateful). People shuffle around looking for a spot to sit, whilst others rummage through the materials box in search of drawing tools. The session doesn’t begin until the life drawing coordinator announces the time. A hush falls over the audience, and the air is still as the artists examine the model, taking in everything from the nape of her neck to the gentle curve of her back. All at once, they begin to furiously sketch away. The first few warm-up poses are dynamic, meaning that the model is not able to hold them for longer than about a minute. These poses are usually more interesting than the ensuing ones, as the model is able to position herself in uncomfortable, twisted positions that are, ironically, a pleasure to draw. Asymmetrical poses make for great studies of human anatomy, and in one minute artists manage to capture the essence of the pose through dynamic bold strokes of the pen rather than detailed renderings. Next, the group moves on to five, 10 and 15 minute poses.

Afterwards, there is a brief break for everyone to stretch their muscles. During this time, attendees are free to walk around and examine each other’s work, as well as engage in conversation with friends, artists whose work has caught their eye, or even members of the ArtSoc committee, who attend the sessions religiously. One regular attendee is Ruth Choi, this year’s material over-lord. She is in charge of all the supplies ArtSoc may ever need. Ms Choi said: “What attracts me about life drawing isn’t just creating ‘art,’ but also being with like-minded artsy people and meeting new friends.” This seems to be the case with most new attendees, who come to life drawing sessions in search of other artists like themselves. “Most importantly, life-drawing is, for me, a cathartic activity in the middle of a stressful and busy week,” Ms Choi added. “[It’s] where I can clear my head and forget absolutely everything else for a couple of hours.”

Indeed, the mid-week life drawing session offers a two-hour alternative social scene, as everyone’s weekends are usually packed with social activities of a different nature. It seems as though the majority of the ArtSoc committee was recruited at life drawing sessions. Mary McClure, former life drawing coordinator and current president of ArtSoc, said: “As a first year, I had gone to absolutely every single one, and [becoming life drawing coordinator] was great way to be a part of continuing that tradition.” People get hooked on the sessions, which attract the same crowd over and over again. Ms McClure believes that “nowhere else has the same sort of vibe. It all feels professional and respectful, but not [like] the silent, clinical sort of professional classes I found over the summer.   Something about the music, the student models and materials available make it feel much more like a community. Everyone’s in their own little world, just them and their art, but you’re really aware of everyone around you all sharing that same space. As soon as you walk through the door, there’s this unspoken agreement of complete trust in each other, and all of society’s rules and judgements are put aside as we celebrate how beautiful and unique each and every one of us [is].”

Image: Izzy Hoskins
Image: Izzy Hoskins

The majority of models are students as well. Viktória Szántó, a third year, described her experiences life modelling. She said: “The first time was mainly because I’ve always been quite self-conscious about my body, and I wanted to break that wall. I took drawing classes from a very young age and now study art history, so I was curious to see what it would feel like to be ‘on the other side.’ The first five minutes were probably the weirdest and most embarrassing moments of my life, but after a while – and this is one of the reasons I keep coming back to it again and again – I slipped into this meditative state, almost like an out-of-body experience. My brain just went perfectly still. It was amazing and trippy.” Many of the students who express an interest in life modelling hope to overcome feelings of self-consciousness or cross the practice off of their university bucket list. Ms Szántó added: “Another reason [I model] is seeing all these talented people draw me. There’s never two drawings that look the same. It’s like seeing how different people see me, [and] it tells a lot about the person and about myself.”

Melissa Leigh Church, another student model, said: “I had been thinking about signing up to be a model for a while, but I didn’t actually commit until this semester. Meeting more people who attend the drawing sessions and hearing how casual they made it seem made me feel more comfortable about the situation. I think I might feel a little exposed to start with, but I’m basically a nudist, so hopefully I’ll get over it quickly.”

After the brief break, the session begins with one-minute warm-up poses but dives almost immediately into 20-minute poses, which are the longest of the session. The model takes up a comfortable position, usually reclining, and artists are free to draw at their leisure. Some use this time to draw the pose with meticulous precision, while others choose to add colour or pay more attention to textures and shading. Others still draw the model several different times in different styles until they find something they are comfortable pursuing. These poses are usually more quiet and relaxed than the previous rushed ones. They act as the calm after a storm of artistic creation.

Life drawing sessions provide the perfect opportunity for creative people to meet each other throughout the year. They are also a gateway to other events hosted by the Art Society, including biannual creative lock-ins and smaller scale salons every Thursday.


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