How to Work as a Life Model

Every once in a while, I get naked for money in the name of art.

Life modelling is the craft of maintaining a pose, or several poses, over a specific period of time while people draw you. This can mean keeping one pose for several hours, or working through numerous short poses. It’s often a mixture of the two; for example, a few ten minute standing poses, followed by a half hour sitting pose, then an hour long lying pose. It’s also relatively unsexy, despite what The Titanic would have you believe; you’re too focused on staying still, and the artists are too focused on lines and structure, for anything too embarrassing to kick off.

I’ve been working on and off as a life model since my undergrad days, when I worked with my university’s art society for about £20 an hour because I needed extra money for trips home and vegan junk food. When I graduated I kept up the side hustle, partly for the money and partly because I liked the way life modelling made me feel. There’s something about being a fat, disabled, visibly queer person and being paid for others to look at me and recognise me as art. The process makes me feel anxious, exhilarated, powerful, calm, and still, all at different moments over the course of a few hours. What’s more, artists are always complimentary – I’m interesting to draw, apparently, and particularly good at keeping still – and it’s always nice to be part of something creative, and to do it well.

If you’ve ever considered becoming a life model, I have a few tips and tricks that may help you get started.

I’ve also included some pictures of me created during life sessions (and one clothed session) over the last few years. All of the images here were created at Hull Art Circle or PAD Studios and I’ve tried to give credit where I can. I’ve also tried to go as SFW as possible. The cover image is by Mike Emberton, based on a sketch of me that he started at PAD Studios, and I wish I actually had that awesome butt tattoo.

A clothed portrait, top centre, at Hull Art Circle’s Winter 2018 exhibition.

Finding a Studio

I’ve worked with university art societies, private art studios, and community centres that run art classes. If you google something like ‘life art class’ and your location, something’s sure to pop up. If you get your foot in the door somewhere, the organisers and artists will be able to tell you other good places to look.

You’re looking for kind, informative organisers who don’t mind answering any questions you have and are upfront about how much they’re willing to pay you.

Painted by Shawnee at Hull Art Circle.

Practice Poses Ahead of Time

It’s always a good idea to have a think about what poses might be interesting to draw and easy to hold. This can get you started when you’re feeling nervous at the beginning of a session, and has the added benefit of testing if you can really hold that pose – trust me, some poses are a lot more difficult to hold than they appear, especially if they involve unevenly distributed weight (e.g. standing with most of your weight on one foot), putting a lot of weight on one limb (e.g. sitting with a foot under a leg), or keeping a limb in the air. Practice what you can do and be honest with yourself.

My simple rule is to keep uncomfortable but dynamic poses for short times, and comfortable and calm poses for long ones.

There are a number of fantastic resources online with pose ideas if you need any help – this is a good place to start.

Another clothed portrait at Hull Art Circle.

Don’t Over-Practice

Practice is going to be very useful. Even so, it pays to be flexible (both literally and figuratively). You might turn up to a session that you thought was going to be all long sitting poses, but the artists are specially requesting that you do shorter poses that day. If you’re beholden to all the long poses you’ve practiced, it just won’t work, and it’s a recipe for panic.

Keep your ideas loose and flowing. If there’s music or chat in the room, you can try to follow the ambience. If your short, standing poses are tiring you out or hurting you, it’s ok to break the mould and ask to do a few sitting before you stand again. Just go with it!

If you run out of ideas, start somewhere simple – put one arm somewhere slightly interesting, put the opposite leg somewhere slightly interesting, and turn your head anywhere but the centre of the room.

Artists will help you out, too – if you begin a pose and ask “Is this interesting?” they’ll almost definitely offer advice, slight changes, and encouragement.

A surprisingly comfortable unplanned pose, captured by Paul Dennis at PAD Studios.

Physically Prepare

Sometimes art modelling is lying in perfect comfort on a bed of soft pillows. Sometimes it’s standing on one leg on a bench while holding on to a ceiling beam. Needless to say, things can get uncomfortable.

Try to get your poses as comfortable as possible before you’re tied into it. Try to keep your weight balanced and some part of you grounded comfortably to the surface you’re on. Make sure you can breathe easily. Stretch before and after each pose, because I guarantee some part of you will fall asleep and it won’t be the part you were expecting.

If you’re too uncomfortable or you’re in pain, it’s always ok to ask to stop. The artists would rather take a five minute break or have you adjust your pose slightly than have to deal with you passing out.

A surprisingly uncomfortable pose (my left hand fell asleep) sketched by Paul Dennis at PAD Studios.

Consider Your Emotional Comfort

I’ve been a life model for 8-ish years, and I still get anxious before every session. I worry that my poses won’t be good enough, or I’ll have to tap out of one that’s unexpectedly too hard, or someone new in the room will be cruel to me.

I don’t think any of these things have ever happened to me, but anxiety is a normal part of life for so many of us. Remember to breathe. Remember that the artists will help you, chat with you, and support you. Remember that the artists are happy to have a body to draw, whatever it looks like – they’re just excited to have you there. Remember that if you’re too uncomfortable, you can stop, and this applies for both physical and emotional discomfort.

For your psychological well-being during the session, it’s also worth bringing slip-on shoes and a dressing gown or a long dress for your break, to ensure you’re not naked or fumbling with clothes while everyone else is drinking coffee. Bringing a scarf or blanket to lie and sit on while you’re nude can be comforting and is sometimes requested by the organisers, and a bottle of water is always a good idea – you’ll be working hard.

A pastel sketch, about half-way finished, at Hull Art Circle.

Learn to be Still

Life modelling is an excellent exercise in stillness and, in some ways, mindfulness. Some classes have music and talking, while others work in complete silence. Be with whatever the atmosphere is. Breathe into your control of your posture and chosen pose. You are in command of your body, your stance, this version of yourself that you currently present to the world. Breathe into boredom, too, and wondering what time it is, and how much longer you have to lie there with your arm asleep – because those thoughts happen sometimes. Just keep breathing. Just stay as still as you can.

Apparently I was so still and mindful that I was falling asleep? Sketched by Paul Dennis at PAD Studios.

Artists are Awesome

The artists who will draw you are amazing, talented people. At some point you may get an opportunity to see the art they have made of you, and you absolutely should – what you see and share with them will be exciting and fresh. You’ll get to see yourself presented in ways you’ve never thought of yourself before, while the artist gets to experience your delight at having being part of the process. It’s a wonderful thing to have a room full of people so glad that you have whatever kind of body you have.

I seem happy with a pose well-posed! By Paul Dennis at PAD Studios.

Please tip me if you can!
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