Working With Life Models


An artist shares advice for finding models and establishing a working relationship that’s mutually rewarding.

Whether you work in the realist tradition or not, drawing from life is the best way to learn the elements of style and representation. Nothing beats drawing or painting from a model.

Some artists use models only when they’re teaching a class; some concentrate exclusively on the figure in their own work, and some produce primarily abstract art but sketch figures regularly as a way to keep their skills sharp. You may be thinking about working from life but don’t know how to go about it. Where do you find models? What qualities should you look for when hiring a model? What things does the artist need to provide? What can the artist do to get the best work from the model?

Finding models
Locate a figure drawing group in your area through a local college or university, art school or arts organization. Drawing as part of a group is a less expensive way to work with models. Usually artists split the model fee for the session—generally from $5 to $10 per person (models’ hourly fees range from $10 to $30). For example, a three-hour session attended by 10 artists using a $20/hour model will cost each artist only $6. And a group session is one of the best places to find models to hire since you’ll see them at work. When you find someone you’d like to hire directly, speak with her or him, get contact information and note his or her availability.

Some art programs may keep lists of their preferred models and are willing to share them; call and inquire. You can also attend auditions to find dancers and actors who may be interested. Performing artists tend to be expressive, physically confident—and often eager to earn extra income.

Model qualities
Look for reliability, punctuality, enthusiasm, creativity, physical control and emotional stability in a model. Drawing instructor Chuck Davis uses models often. “The teacher’s worst nightmare is to stand before a group of eager students and wonder whether the model, already late, will arrive at all,” he explains. “As a result, I’ve come to treasure a core group of models who understand the importance of their role in the partnership.”

Models with experience in the arts will better understand what you’re looking for. If they themselves have drawn from life, they will know to use more dynamic poses and to rotate their stance. They’ll also realize the importance of holding perfectly still.

Preparing your space
Once you find a model and set up an appointment for working together, get your space ready. Keep in mind your models are living, breathing—and very often naked—human bodies. Temperature and the nature of surfaces (hard or soft) have a big impact on their comfort and happiness. Here’s a checklist of items for your studio setup:

  • platform or model’s stand
  • lights—overhead or spot
  • timer to mark pose length
  • temperature control (heater, air conditioning)—crucial for nude models
  • chair, stool, cube/box, cushions, selection of drapery to add variety to poses
  • background music (optional)

Establishing guidelines
Plan how to use your time. In a class situation, the instructor usually dictates the length of the pose—one, two, five, 10 or 20 minutes—allowing the model herself to create the pose. Give the model a break every 20 minutes or so. Holding a single position can mean cramped muscles or circulation loss, even in “easy” poses.

If you want the model in a specific position, illustrate it with your own body or describe it verbally. In general, touching the model at any time is against the rules. If the model is repeating a pose, mark the position of feet, hands and so forth with masking tape so he or she can take the correct position again. In general, keep conversation with the model to a minimum during the pose; reserve talking for breaks.

Pay your models promptly—usually at the end of the session. Current hourly rates range from $10 to $30. Hiring a model, as opposed to using volunteers, helps keep the artist and model relationship professional and clearly defined.

Collaboration
Many artists love to work with the figure because it can involve not only the artist’s ideas and materials, but also contributions from the model. Artist George Woollard says, “I appreciate being able to communicate directly with the model and to include her thinking in the process of creating interesting art. After all, a model is not the same thing as a bowl of fruit.”

Working with a model can add immediacy and freshness to your artwork. “The really wonderful thing that’s different about working from life,” says Woollard, “is the openness that the model brings to the process. The figure has so many levels of appeal: emotional, intellectual and spiritual. Have fun and take advantage of the changing nature of time and circumstance.”


Tamara Moan is an artist and freelance writer living in Kailua, Hawaii.

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