Artists and their models…
Models and their artists

by Marlene Steele

In a recently released pop film on the much touted French painter, a gnarly Renoir, grappling with the problems of posing the girl before him, recalls being queried by another artist of his time: “why can’t one just paint apples?” His hissed reply reflects the fascination felt by artists in every epoch: “It is living, breathing skin…” Depiction of the human figure has been the benchmark of artistic achievement through the ages. Technical skill and media craft combined with tangential associations of anatomy, perspective, color and the big tool of nature, light, account for this status.  It is the reflection of our own being, used to tell our own tale that makes our fascination with the nude figure pervasive through time. These remarks are organized to shed light and justify my own personal pursuit of the nude figure.

I looked forward with great anticipation to a recent visit with a fellow artist as an opportunity to catch up on an old friend and to view his newest figure drawings.  Several sheets displayed around the studio featured models we both had known and some I had not. While our conversation touched on various new directions in the work and technique, my mind played back to me my own drawing experiences associated with certain same individuals and the confrontation of problems considered or solved in these compositions. Each model can be said to present in their physical presence or roster of poses unique challenges: a sinuous limb highlighted in gesture, the shape of the breast laying on the cavity of the gently breathing reclined figure, the particular problems of portraying the awkward angularity of the forwardly extended foot.  Regardless of the type of ‘ism” artists are creating in their line of work, realism, expressionism, impressionism, etc., honest artists realize that their sensitivities and concepts are grounded in the world around them. Even principles and relationships abstracted to the canvas or encapsulated in a sculptural enigma are first perceived and predicated upon real world experiences.

The model assists the artist as a veracity test and is the very presence of nature in the studio. Every drawing, regardless of the modality of style or medium of choice, betrays the limits of its originator’s knowledge and experience. In working with the model, the artist can test dearly held theories, detect their faulty underpinnings, or expand their validities. This artist believes that this investment in oneself builds a solid foundation to my chosen path of expression extending throughout my productive creative life.  The artist comes to rely on her model as a tool, valuing their sense of responsibility and their empathy with the artist’s purpose in the creative act.  To have a good model in the studio is a beautiful gift in an artist’s life. Examples of longstanding relationships between models and artists spring to mind: Picasso, Matisse and Renoir, all had their favorites. Andrew Wyeth and Helga, Paul Camus and Jon Anderson also come to mind. From a position of mutual empathy arising from the rhythm of many sessions, some fruitful, some not, patience in the process develops for both artist and model as new ideas germinate new works.  For the artist, drawing the model is an accumulative experience. One does not lose time or effort in addressing repetitive poses even with the same model. The multiple gesture croqui routinely serves as the preliminary warmup in all of my drawing practice sessions. This focusing exercise places an emphasis on timed intensity and spontaneous translation of visual fact. In another sense, it can also be compared to the recitation of an artistic ‘credo’. Form, surface, texture and light, elements brought to life by the artist’s model, are each touched on in the opening poses and elaborated upon in the longer timeframes.

Artists also draw the model in developing a concept for a larger work, asking nature the questions and grappling with the answers that the model provides. It is in this aspect of the exchange that I find that a sense of physical empathy is exceedingly valuable. Our skeleton being the common blueprint for our unity, a brotherhood based on bone, binds us in our humanity and we ultimately seek to understand ourselves in this process. The posed model affords this opportunity to study the articulated interplay of bones, muscle, sinew and skin in tension or repose, with grace or distress. As a tool for empathic projection, drawing the human figure in its natural state, devoid of trappings and symbols of culture, is the ultimate exercise. The artist can extend and understand his own bodily experience by contemplating and translating into coherent visual language the presence of another being and their corporeal existence in light and space. Working with the model also embellishes the artist’s perceptions with an insightful ability to identify and orchestrate the elements commonly assembled to communicate intellectual and emotional states. Our collective brain is scientifically proven to be primordially wired to detect and interpret movement and intention. The artistic work which trades on this built-in cognative function adds a poignant and engaging appeal in the portrayal of the human image, a salient underlying factor in the new portraiture and figurative trends.

A fluid naturalness of gesture and a grasp of compositional principals are accomplished with practice and lend every effort a superior platform. To site one example in a lighter freelance field, consider the challenge of drawing in the courtroom venue, where the unfolding drama of a proceeding prosecution is the narrative to be captured for a media client. Spontaneous compositions must feature figures facilitated by speed and brevity of execution to inform a credible concept. The courtroom drawing, however caricatural, or any drawing for that matter, should manage to organize the captured subject or event in an envelope of truth. I find that the effort of seeing and reporting is rewarding in its own right, documenting our being, reflecting our society, recording our social venues. All the work functions on a higher level when it captures that breath of life.

That life drawing continues to be a vital part of the art making process is evidenced by the proliferation of sessions for such practice throughout artistic communities. Artists have historically bonded over the common purpose of honing their skills of observation and technical craft, learning from each other and abrading each other, while defraying the expense of the work with each others’ resources. Typical of any artist group, there is a range of skill and diversification of materials. Multiple generations of artists are represented, the young relishing the learning opportunity gleaned in the company of the experienced. Some draw to investigate or extrapolate abstract properties, some draw to develop a larger concept, some draw for the pure explorative pleasure of drawing.  All are thirsty for the truth of reality. Drawing the model continues to serve the multiple purposes of the contemporary artist.

“I hold that the perfection of form and beauty is contained in the sum of all men.”
Albrecht Durer (1471-1528)

Marlene Steele paints and teaches in Cincinnati, Ohio

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