Life Drawing – Why do Artists paint Nudes?

I love going to drop in life drawing classes and have been posting some of my sketches on social media. I thought I would take some time to shed some light about the practice which can be a bit of a surprise to some people. Yes, artists do gather together to draw actual naked people – it’s kind of a thing.

What is Life Drawing?

Life drawing is a traditional practice in the art world where artists paint or draw a live (often nude) figure. The practice dates back to the 13th century and remains a central part of a a formal art education. It was a mandatory class at the University of Guelph where I studied art. Interestingly enough, in classical times, women were not permitted to draw from nude models because it was considered improper. This was a huge set back for women artists and it remains a large part of why there are so few women in classical art.

Why Naked People?

Why draw a naked figure? Why not draw a bowl of fruit? The human figure is complex and can be posed in infinite ways. It makes for a challenging, varied experience every single time. It is a great way to stretch your artistic muscles and train your eye. Furthermore, like many artists, I find the human form infinitely beautiful and fascinating to draw.

Figure drawing also appeals to artists working in different styles and media. Pencil, ink, pastels, oils acrylics and watercolour are all acceptable. The human figure lends itself well to everything from line drawings, semi-abstracts gestures and sketches to more complicated shaded or colour studies. No two life drawings are the same and this practice encourages artists’ varied creative interpretations of the subject.

What happens in a Life Drawing Class?

Students arrive early and set up their supplies around a central space. Sometimes there is a raised platform in the middle of the room with pillows and a few chairs. Quite often, there is some form of directional lighting set up. At many places, the easels are provided, but not always.

A facilitator is there to take payment and they often participate themselves. They are not there to give instruction or feed back, but aim to create a warm and positive environment for the artists and the model.

Tip: If you are watercolour artist, you may have to supply your own board to tape paper to, as most life drawing classes are designed for painters with their own supports/canvas. I tend to use large watercolour sketchbooks that I sit on my lap.

The model changes nearby and enters the room wearing a robe. When the artists are ready, the model disrobes and begins striking various poses. The poses are often very short to start with and move to longer more sustained poses. Commonly models do several one minute poses, then increase to 5, 10, 15 minute and longer poses. At the end, you usually have at least 30 minutes to an hour to complete a final painting of one pose. The longer poses often have the model in a seated or reclining position so that the model can hold it for a long time.

The Models

The models are complete professionals and come in all ages, shapes and sizes. It is hugely beneficial to artists to draw varied body types instead of “fashion model” figures that we are so used to seeing in the media. Modelling is challenging and holding a pose takes a significant amount of skill and strength. More experienced models know how to create a variety of interesting shapes and lines within their bodies. They do this with very little instruction from the facilitator.

What I’ve learned

As a young woman in art school, I remember my first life drawing classes well. I had never seen a naked body before and it was a big shock to small town me. I remember being so nervous.

Life drawing introduced me to what a variety of bodies looked like and it was such a positive experience. We are constantly bombarded with “perfect” bodies in the media and to become comfortable seeing mature men and women, confident with their unique bodies is enlightening and a very positive experience.

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