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The stillness was impeccable. Only the faint movement coming from her shoulders as she inhaled and exhaled existed. It seems she entered a trancelike state.
The model, Sally,* assumed her pose, sitting horizontal in the chair with her legs crossed and bent at the knee, feet gently planted on an adjacent seat. She folded her hands across her shins and tilted her head forward, her short black hair hanging down to cover her face.
“When I start posing, I create a kind of backstory to get into it, but after that moment I let it go,” Sally explains, “It’s like a meditation in a weird way. At first, I might be thinking about what I should get for dinner even what will happen in my future, but I always try to let go of my thoughts.”
This scenario may seem laughably inconceivable—our naked bodies are private; visible only to us and a select few. For art models, however, nudity is a landscape of bare skin to be rendered into new forms. They allow for alternative translations of what the nude form can have and bend into a mental reflection from the physical labor of serene stillness.
“I’ve done it so many times, it’s not really a big deal,” art model Andrew Cahner tells BTRtoday. “And I try not to make it a big deal.”
Cahner is also the author of “The Art Model’s Handbook: The Naked Truth about Posing for Fine Arts Classes and Fine Artists.” He explains that even when in a room of students or artists, his focus is on his craft.
“Sometimes I’ve been told by instructors that this is the first time these people have drawn a nude model, but it doesn’t really matter. ” Cahner says, “They’re more concerned about how difficult the task of drawing is than any kind of awkwardness anyway. If you don’t make it an issue, it isn’t an issue.”
This sort of professionalism about nakedness took me by surprise, and it was something I wanted to see firsthand. I reached out to Jeff Sauber who has been organizing sketch events in New York City for more than 20 years. Starting in a friend’s apartment with a small group, now Sauber’s online meet up group has more that 2,400 members.
Sauber acknowledges that a person entering a figure sketching environment for the first time might be taken aback, but maintains that preconceived notions dissipate in the face of the aesthetic beauty of the anatomy.
“At some point when everybody starts, it’s a little awkward as far as coming out of your everyday sensibilities,” he tells BTRtoday. “It’s a naked person, and that’s got baggage to it, but you get used to it pretty fast. Once you start trying to draw, the human figure is a very interesting object of focus, because there’s so much going on. You get past the socially programmed discomfort pretty fast.”
The class Sauber invited me to attend was a long pose—the model would assume the same pose in 20-minute intervals for the entire two hour session. At first, I got to wondering how I would take to the surroundings, but everyone in the room was as welcoming and eager as I could have hoped. Sally entered a few minutes before class time with a gracious and open demeanor.
The energy of the entire room shifts into reverie. A rhythm of pencil scratching rattle over a soft bed of air condition hums and the occasional siren eleven floors below.
“As far as the activity of drawing itself, it’s a very kind of meditative thing,” Sauber says. “The better you focus, the more it takes you out of your own head and your emotional state, whatever it was when you came in.”
Some exercises, like gesture poses—a number of consecutive one minute poses—simply don’t allow that much time for mental rumination. There’s a large learning curve when it comes to art modeling, from artistic terminology to understanding your body and what kinds of positions you’re able to hold.
“You’re always learning, just like anything else,” Cahner says. “As long as you’re creative and try to do new things, the thing that always comes up is length of time. When you first start getting into long poses, you can end up regretting what you choose, because it’s really painful.”
Figure sketching has a sweeping variance, not only in class and pose types, but in models as well. Unlike most commercial modeling, there are art models of every gender, age, and body type. Even those with ailments such as scoliosis and other odd anatomical features.
“The beauty of this job is it’s so open to different types of people, and each individual has their own style,” Sally says.
To get hired consistently as a model the key is to remain dependable and professional—to become a part of creative environment with the understanding that even though it appears centered around you, it isn’t.
Photo courtesy of Jeff Sauber.
“It’s ironic because everyone’s staring at you or studying you, but it’s really not about you,” Cahner says. “You’re there to serve a client, and they’re there for a purpose.”
Neither Cahner nor Sally described any anxiety related to being naked in front of other people, even when first starting out. The only nervousness that arises comes from whether or not they’re doing a good job—an anxiety that arises in any other job, clothed or not.
Perhaps the difference is not only that the models are part of a creative process, but that they genuinely love being embedded in the artistic practice.
“I totally understand as an artist how hard it can be to find an object sometimes, whether you’re a writer or painter or anything,” Sally says. “I’m always happy to be an object for the artists, and I’m able to see people’s interpretations of my body, which is exciting for me.”
Whether working on the side of pristine rigidness or fervently replicating the body on paper, there’s unspoken agreement, sometimes meditative or more physically exhaustive, to strip away social constructions to attempt to see the purity of the human form.
*Name has been changed for the sake of this article.