The Art of Modeling

People who reflect on what makes a figure model excellent can easily see that the work has high requirements. Excellent modeling requires management, ethical sensitivity, human relations, self-appreciation, and performance skills. The performance skills include athletic abilities (along with recognition of personal limits within those abilities), powers of invention, and creativity. Required, too, are common sense, proper use of time and space limitations (what is the studio like in shape, size, and appearance: how much time have we used in this pose – or in the session – and how much time is left), spatial relations in three dimensions (how do I look from every direction at the distances from which I am being viewed), patience, creation and release of tension, mood modification, dancing skill, and – above all – the will and the ability to project self, in any variety of moods or approaches, using the whole self, without additions or subtractions, as the entire medium for that message.

Good artists, teachers, workshop moderators, or groups of workshop participants can be immensely helpful to models in developing and exercising the qualities listed above: but sooner or later, the buck stops with the model. “Artistic imagination” doesn’t work as a substitute for the real, full presence of a real, full person. Artists need people, not bodies, to work with.

Many artists, models, and people who work at moderating workshops or at booking models for artists, workshops, and schools feel that models are easily available and easily replaceable. There is also a feeling that modeling is a “natural talent” or that no talent at all is needed for modeling, that being a subject is passive, while being an artist is active. What this argument misses is precisely the difference between being “anything else” and being people. People, because our life and growth are both complicated and transformed by consciousness, need to put attention into anything we do, in order to make it fully human. The same goes for modeling. We don’t just “get drawn”, like a mountain or an apple or a horse; we pose. Posing is both active performance and positive communication. To some extent it can seem to occur without effort: that appearance is mistaken.

Portrait artists and portrait photographers spend a great deal of time “posing” their sitters. This work includes developing moods, work-resolution and attitudes far more than it involves disposition of body parts and placement of draperies. Like other performing arts, life modeling benefits from instruction, private work, group work (for variety, for comparison, for support), repetition, progression from simple to complex, exercise, and so forth. Where these are provided, models not only can improve, they also can be strengthened in their career as models, and integrate that career confidently with other aspects of their lives. They remain both more interested and more interesting; they become more reliable -because they insist on greater respect -and they are likely to stay in the modeling profession for a longer time.  Life modeling is a performing art which demands respect, adequate payment, and solid, continuous education in order to be at its best.


A Monumental Presence (perspectives in life-drawing)

In life-drawing workshops, we typically place models on a stand. The practice may be more fitting, and hold more meaning for us as artists, than we realize.  This essay is an attempt to show ways in which visual perspective affects perception; ways in which traditional approaches to visual perspective discriminate against women; and ways in which artists and models together can work to alter both perspective and perception.

At first thought, it seems surprising that a model usually poses on a place somewhat higher than the people drawing are placed. In studios and workshops where model stands are not available, artists often prefer to sit on the floor rather than to stand. The common explanation for this phenomenon is that artists like to have their eyes level with the midpoint of what they are depicting: in this situation, their eyes are as level as possible with the midpoint of the body of the standing model. The common explanation of this is probably true, as far as it goes: if the middle of what I am drawing belongs in the middle of what I am painting, I want it equidistant from the outside edges in my own perception, as well.  However, this explanation seems insufficient for three reasons.  1) the artist determines both midpoint and edges in the picture. 2) “midpoint” has much wider implications than the visual alone. 3) perception of people at midpoint is unlikely under circumstances of ordinary encounter, where heads come closer to head-level than to midpoint level.

Quite often, in a choice of midpoint and borders for a piece of art work, things really do seem to fall into place, and the artist lets that “falling into place” serve as the guideline for how the art work is to turn out. Where people are part of the picture, they may or may not take center stage: they may be shunted aside, so that their absence from primary consideration has grave importance, or they may be simply a part of a message which includes them, but which they do not dominate.

Changing Viewpoint
Historically, what is the midpoint of a person is an interesting matter. Late medieval and early renaissance western culture, took it for granted that the midpoint of the body is the navel. This understanding was countered by the Vitruvian man (best known to us as illustrated by Leonardo Da Vinci), showing that, in an adult, both the visual and the mechanical center of the body are normally located in the genital area.

Interestingly, Vitruvius and his followers still clung to the navel as somehow a center – showing that the navel is the center of a circle that can be described by the fingertips of uplifted and outstretched arms, and from the outstretched arms to the toes. For infants, the visual and mechanical center of the body is found at the navel; patterns of movement change as we grow older, and our center of gravity moves from our navel to an area just above the groin. The reason that toddlers and adults afflicted with dwarfism toddle is not because they do not know how to walk correctly. It is because they walk correctly for people whose center of gravity is at their waists.

Examination of medieval and early renaissance illustrations, particularly of the nude, show that the perspective of artists is from slightly above the person drawn, exaggerating the roundedness of shoulders, of upper breasts and of upper abdomen, showing plenty of hair, increasing the size of the head, decreasing the length and thickness of the legs, and offering the navel (correctly, from this perspective), as the visual midpoint of the body.

Artists since the time of Da Vinci, accepting his viewpoint (a viewpoint shared by scientists and by tape measures), that the genital region is central, have had to face the fact that, as people reach adulthood, sex becomes central. For much of art since that time, we have treated this fact almost as though it were the empty eye of a hurricane: the only part of the storm that can be treated quietly, or even ignored. Up until more recent art of the nude, artists often covered genitals, posed models and sitters so that genitals were concealed, skipped genitals and pubic hair, or exaggerated other aspects of the body so that the genital area is diminished to inconsequence: these practices allowed the midpoint its correct mechanical relevance, and silently declared that – for art – sexual relevance should be downplayed.

Perhaps the clearest example of deliberate change in viewpoint away from head-to-head to head-to-middle occurs in monumental art: sculptures (and, to a lesser extent, murals), designed for exhibition in public space. Here, art work is displayed well above eye level, and often is designed precisely to be seen from below. This is so true regarding men, clothed or unclothed, even to be deemed officious. Statues of women – especially of women without clothes – when they are depicted in public art, are most frequently found as adjuncts to statues of men, and are almost certain to be presented in a perspective wherein they look as though we were seeing them head to head, or from above, even if we are seeing them from below. Artemis and Aphrodite, with their Roman alter-egos, seem gentle, fragile, and protected. There are exceptions among statues of women: Pallas Athena and Hera (Juno) are women in command of things. A ‘Junoesque” woman is big in a very different sense from the way a “Rubenesque” woman is big. A Rubenesque woman has large breasts, thighs, and hips, ready for care and attention: a Junoesque woman is in charge. We see her from below, and recognize her power. The women drawn and sculpted by Henry Moore tend to be Junoesque. Perhaps the best-known Junoesque sculpture in the United States is the Statue of Liberty.
There is one woman who is almost always presented in Western art as someone to look up to, but almost never as Junoesque, except in art of the Byzantine era. That woman is the Virgin Mary. Her power is not that of a goddess, present in her of her own right: it is power given by God, fully present in her by that gift. She is a fragile creature whose soul magnifies the Lord.

A Child’s View
Perhaps the easiest way to understand “the monumental presence”, and through this to understand the favorite perspective of many artists towards models, is to compare the viewpoint of a standing adult toward a standing three-year-old child with the viewpoint of that child toward the adult. A parent looking down at a child sees much gentle protection: hair covering head, eyebrows over eyelids, eyelids over eyes, nose covering nostrils, upper lip over lower lip, chin and jaw shielding neck, belly over genitals: the tenderest parts are farthest away, and most protected. A child’s perspective toward a parent is just the opposite: genitals flowing from belly, nipples pointing from breasts, jaw growing away from neck, upper lip jutting over lower lip, nostrils opening into nose, eyes wide under eyelids, under brows. Armpits and groin are filled with hair, which is filled with scent: this hair – so thick when seen from above – almost disappears when seen from below, leaving genitals and armpits themselves quite clearly exposed. The tenderest adult parts are closest to the child: least protected, most open: most powerful, most vulnerable.

In ordinary life, the two perspectives described here serve to remind those of us who are adults that we have a responsibility to help and care for children, and remind children of what they have a right to expect in the way of care from adults. To illustrate this point, notice how confused a small child seems when an older person holds that child above eye-level to look at. Fear of falling may be part of the reason for this, but the child also feels vulnerable and, in a sense, helpless. Where a child feels deeply trustful, the vulnerability is offered freely, and with delight.  When people get elderly or are otherwise debilitated, they tend to lie down or sit down more often than when they are in “prime condition”. Even an older child can see them from an “adult” perspective, and recognize their need for care. This is quite helpful in the process of growing up, and is something that makes grandparents very valuable.

Perspective and Perception
On “the stand”, artist’s eyes to midpoint, the model gets close to the viewpoint an adult has of a child, while the artist returns – to some extent – to the child’s viewpoint: restoring with that viewpoint, at its best, the wide-eyed wonder we attribute to children, but which needs to belong as part of us all our lives. In monumental art, the child’s perspective (though not always the child’s wonder), is almost completely restored.

Sexual equality will gain from presentation of women with similar openness, so that what is most desirable is also most revered: most wanted, most feared; fiercest, most comforting; most frightening, most peaceful, in an ever-changing, heady, confusing mix. Power and vulnerability increase and decrease in direct proportion to each other, rather than in the inverse proportion we are likely to expect: they spread into everything else we are, too, so that the midpoint we look up to in a model can serve as center for intellectual and spiritual, along with mechanical, physical, and emotional self.

Quite simply, it is looking up to a person, in every sense, that shows that person’s monumental character. Looking down on people is likely to persuade them to close up, protecting themselves against us. I have found, much to my surprise, that a good number of people who model use this “protection” as their focus in modeling – seeming to be there, but not being there at all. We who are trying to draw them “haven’t a clue” who and what they really are. This approach dries people out very fast, unfortunately.

Many artists feel that eye-to-midpoint is the most appropriate artistic approach for them: looking up at what is above the genitals, looking clown on the genitals and what is below them: particularly when the subject of the work of art being produced is a woman. There is a special richness for art, however, and also for viewers, in reclaiming a child’s perspective, opening up to the model as a monumental presence, looking up all the way. Models who use “presence” rather than absence as how to be with other people find themselves to be seen as larger than life, and to keep growing with the people who grow with them.

A dear friend of mine, Meredith Borden, wrote an “Appreciation” of her own first modeling experiences, which I find valuable to quote, with her permission, at this point. “Posing in the nude was a big leap for me in a certain way but it was (and is) something I am open to and ready for. And being my first experience as such, it was certainly wonderful.

I can see (and feel!) some new things in regard to nakedness and beauty and self and performing and sharing. Something that is hard to articulate. Posing seemed like an event of utmost sacredness and certainly a performance of sorts. But somehow it went beyond all that in the sense that I came back to myself in a way that I had not foreseen. It was kind of scary in a way but not in a bad way. But I certainly felt vulnerable in a way that I have also felt at other intense moments in my life.

The second sitting, as you say, was different from the first. I guess I was more myself and therefore more expressive and able to give more. And I certainly could feel the smile in my body. It was a spiritual connection I felt. I can best describe it as contentment.”


Adding a “new” book!

Dear User,
Here is the beginning of a new book “Perspectives on Figure Modeling,” which I started writing 30 years ago.  I’ll plan to post other chapters later.  Please send me your suggestions and comments.
-Hugh Kilmer


Drawing People Whole:The Artist-Model Relationship

Western art typically distinguishes between portraiture and figure drawing. The model-artist relationship would benefit greatly – for justice, for purity, for respect, for human understanding, for common sense, and for better art – by being brought closer to the artist-sitter relationship, or better, by being fundamentally a human relationship which has production of art work together as part of its goal.

Blond Girl by Lucien FreudThere are three basic expressions used in schools for a particular kind of artwork.  The expressions are “figure drawing”, “drawing from life” and “drawing from the model”.  Any of these terms can be used to describe one of two fundamental ways of approaching human beings as subjects of art work.  The other of the two ways is “portraiture”.  In portraiture, artists work to express the character – real or supposed – of their “sitters”.  In figure drawing, painting, or sculpture, artists work to depict what art critic Grace Glueck has called “the elusive human body of the model.”

There are several differences between a model and a sitter in relation to an artist.  First, and almost most obvious, usually the sitter pays the artist, while the artist pays the model.  Second, the resulting art work stresses character in the portrait and form in the figure drawing.  Third, the work of art that results in portraiture belongs to the sitter, while the work that results in figure drawing belongs to the artist.  Fourth, figure drawing sessions usually result in “sketches” which may be used in some way later for something more major, while the portrait is the major work for which the sitter is sitting.  Fifth, the portrait is usually partial, featuring face and, in recent centuries, hands, while figure work is usually full-figure, with attention to extremities – often including face-reduced.  Goya Maja VestidoFinally, and perhaps most obvious, a sitter is usually clothed, and a model is usually (though not always) naked.

Two paintings which point up the most obvious distinction between sitter and model, by challenging it, are Francisco Goya’s “Maja Clothed” (Maja Vestida) and “Maja Nude” (Maja Desnudo).   Both are portraits of the same person in almost the same pose.  The nude version is as detailed and personal as the clothed version (though there are surprisingly meaningful variations, such as an apparent absence of make-up and of bed covers in the nude version), and the nude portrait becomes allowable in standard society because it mirrors a clothed version.  Goya Maja DesnudaThe existence of both shows society that a dichotomy between how artists treat people with clothes and people without them is, to speak gently, artificial.

This very artificiality is the point of the dichotomy.  Portraiture comes as close to some apparent reality as possible; a figure, clothed or naked, is presented for reasons apart from the people involved in the work: you are meant to look at the picture.  That is why illustrations for fictional work are usually figurative, most clearly exemplified by illustrated children’s stories.  Portraits (except in the case of biographies), would bring in substance extraneous to the ideas in the text.

Western society has an interesting tradition of combining figure bodies with portrait heads.  Standard practice in ancient Greece, and then in Rome, demanded that people (almost always, men) be depicted as though their bodies were ideal, but the head was rendered as a portrait.  It was these likenesses that the vandals most thoroughly “vandalized” as a symbol that power no longer belonged to the people portrayed.

Honoré de Balzac by Auguste Rodin  Portrait bodies, recognizable as such, don’t make people comfortable.  Perhaps the best-known “scandalous” examples of this sort are several sculpted nude versions of Honoré de Balzac by Auguste Rodin. Human bodies are ordinarily presented in a way which idealizes them, thus encouraging us to pass over their reality and its various meanings, including sexual meanings. This idealization continued with few exceptions throughout the history of Western art. Exceptions are important: they include the nudes of Rembrandt and Dürer, among others. Painters such as Michelangelo and Leonardo da Vinci seem to have modified portraits in a figurative direction. Renoir found lovely “figures” to portray, among them his Young Girl Bathing in the Metropolitan Museum Collection. Young Girl Bathing by Renoir

Idealization is ambivalent.  It allows both affirming reactions and negating reactions, in a way that frees people from responsibility. This freedom from responsibility is key to development of such a deep dichotomy, in ordinary artistic practice, between the portrait and the nude.

This categorization, however, is often confounded by individual art works.  A portrait beyond portraiture, for example, is Hans Holbein’s Sir Thomas More. Hans Holbein’s Sir Thomas MoreIn this example, the universality beyond individual character was in the subject of the portrait, but it took a portraitist like Holbein to find and present it.  Rembrandt’s portrait of Hendrickje Stoffels as Bathsheba at Her Bath brings portraiture and figure work into unity, while transcending both.Hendrickje Stoffels as Bathsheba at Her Bath by Rembrandt

People do recognize a basic connectivity in all aspects of life. Because of this, there is deep concern to keep relationships between artists and models idealistic from the beginning, so that “due separation” will be maintained under every circumstance. If the relationship between these two people is allowed to become personal, it might well become sexual.  There are plenty of historical examples in which this has happened, and people are rightly worried that a “tainted relationship”, passing into an art work, might taint those who receive it.  This question needs an answer. Many people feel that it is the nude which, at its best, is our greatest art: we want to assure ethical safety in making and appreciating nudes.

Morning Nude by Alex KatzThe standard solution is to “keep sex out.” But we are neither whole nor truly nude when sexuality is somehow excised from us. A second solution often proposed is to “keep the relationship professional.” This last is the same as the first, but it is more complicated, has far-reaching social complications, and needs a complicated answer.

Supposition that a relationship between an artist and a model must either be professional or be sexual involves a set of presumptions that diminish art and turn out to be rather insulting to people as artists and, especially, to people as models.

People presume that the presence or avoidance of intimate relationship is the key to defining the two different artist-model relationships. To avoid identification with a model in a sexual way, artists have often withheld personhood from figures in their works. For much of Western history, genitals other than those of prepubescent boys have been hidden, diminished, cut out or overlooked in finished works of art.

The second presumption is that modeling is demeaning. It is seen as an activity outside a person’s real goals, unless that person is a “career” model posing at art schools for a meager living. In fact, modeling can be a valid performing art, worthy of the same respect as other performing arts. It demands projecting to the artist: performing artists know this projecting is important, and can provide it.

Isis by Jenny Saville Life drawing classes or workshops often have as their focus the depiction of the (admittedly, elusive) human body. Reduction of person to body is demeaning. Models are doing the artist the honor of entrusting themselves: for love, for money, for practice, for whatever human reason or combination of reasons brings them.

Finally, it’s presumed that professional interest should be less than personal. Professional is a word with various grades of meaning. It can mean extraordinary skill, gained through education and enhanced through experience, performing a humanly valuable function which requires such skill: from doctors, to teachers to mechanics. Sometimes skill needs exercise without the truly human framework where it belongs: it would not be practical for a doctor to become friends with every patient. Where this is recognized by both doctor and patient, it is appropriate. A human relationship cannot be truly human unless it is equal: superiority-inferiority has no place. For artists and models, the two types of relationship—impersonally professional or intimately sexual—are both one-sided. Instead, both model and artist can give as much as they feel appropriate in the situation, and take as much as seems right to them, in agreement with each other.

Nude with Joined Hands by Pablo Picasso  Alleged “professionalism” does not provide the protection against corruption which it first seems to offer. Pablo Picasso is well-known as someone who had sexual experience with people who worked with him as models, and also as an artist who did not only nudes, but erotic art. This art is often delightful, and need not be arousing except through personal effort on the part of the viewer. As St. Paul notes, “to the pure, all things are pure.” There are complications, but the complications belong.

Prudence always has a place. This applies to our abandon, which is the ultimately valid attitude to any work of art. There has to be a special kind of value in something, so that I may allow it to overwhelm me:  let it transform me, so that I have become different because of it. Picasso Faun Abandon sometimes has to be careful and gradual, rather than immediate; but it can become complete, in time, as a work shows itself worthy of abandon.

This article was begun in the 1980s, and my brother Nicholas suggested that I update it with reference to some contemporary artists. Man Posing by Lucian FreudNude portraits by Lucian Freud, Alex Katz, Alice Neel and Jenny Saville are included here. These painters taught me other ways of doing things right, and remind me that human perception, understanding and expression, at its best, remains individual and personal.

A given wisdom that insists that nudity be presented or received on an artistic level only in an impersonal way fosters continued separation of humankind from human sexuality and human sexual behavior, as well as anything else in personality that is fully human.  The relationship between the person who is a model and the person who is an artist embodies all the possibilities of change, development and dissolution that other specifically human relationships embody, and needs the same kind of care in order to be fruitful. That includes care that sex remains in its appropriate place within the context of the full relationship.  Everything belongs in context:  it is isolation that does damage. Sex belongs from the beginning because it is there.  It is part of any relationship between people mutually attractable to each other, unless they have blinded themselves to the attraction:  a blindness deadly to art.  Attraction, awe, fun, prudence, love and delight are surely part of the explanation of why people like to look at art work involving nudes, and why many people like to be involved directly, as artists, as models, or as both, in this work.

There is a rather sexist saying attributed to Renoir which, in some way, is more deeply right than it is wrong. To him, a nude was not finished until he was ready to pat her on the bottom. There is a sense of tenderness here, and of real play: real play is relevant, and reverent.

The Greeks told an admiring joke about their sculptor, Praxiteles.  When he had finished his great sculpture of Aphrodite, the goddess appeared to him and said, “Oh Praxiteles, wherever did you see me naked?” What Praxiteles had done was not a figure, it was a portrait.

William Blake, in one of his poems, offers a model of how to approach figurative art, whether as model, artist, sitter or recipient:

  To Mercy, Pity, Peace and Love all pray in their distress

And to these virtues of delight return their thankfulness..

For mercy has a human heart, Pity a human face,

And love the human form divine, and peace the human dress.

1. Artist and Model:Why the Tradition Endures,”NewYorkTimes,June8,1986
8. Picasso,“Nude with Joined Hands”
9. Picasso, “Faun Revealing a Sleeping Woman”
10. Lucian Freud,“Blond Girl”
11. Lucian Freud,“Man Posing”
12. Alex Katz,“Morning Nude”
13. Alice Neel,“SelfPortrait”
14. Jenny Saville, Isis, 2011


Two quotes, a comment and a riddle

  • “Beauty Rules,” from a Lord & Taylor ad in the NY Times.  I think that beauty knows better than to rule, because in ruling it ceases being beauty.
  • “There is a lot of anger in love sometimes.”  Garrison Keillor, Liberty:  A Novel of Lake Wobegon, p. 181.
  • When is an addition a subtraction?   When you put clothes on a good-looking person.

Modeling and Sexuality (2)

When I first started modeling, I did it in
answer to a dare from models and artists in my Hoboken (NJ) drawing
group that I would find it too embarrassing.  I shared this worry, but I
also recognized, with others in the group, that it didn’t make sense
for me to expect other people to do something that—because of
embarrassment—I wasn’t willing to do myself.  As soon as I opened myself
to public nudity, I found that the sexual arousal I had worried about
was neither as intense nor as frequent as I had feared.  I have once
been invited by a married couple to make pictures of their lovemaking. 
This was a most holy and most beautiful thing to do. Models should work
to be symbols and ideals, as well as examples of what we want to be, and
what we wish we were, as well as of what we are.


Drawing People Whole: Portraiture vs. Figure Drawing

Figure drawing is drawing people as people are; portraiture is drawing this person as this person is.  Figure drawing specializes in what is generic, portraiture in what is specific.  Portraiture’s excess is caricature, where individualism moves beyond reality by stressing the “unusual.”  We think of Titian’s last drawn self portrait, or Rembrandt’s last painted self portrait, or Bach’s, Bist du bei mir ( “If you are with me, I will go gladly to my death”) included in the collection he compiled for his wife, Notebook for Anna Magdalena.  For me, a portrait is always a gift, and I am not doing it right unless I am doing it as a gift for the person I am drawing, whether or not the person I am drawing is to end up with the picture. 


Modeling and Sexuality (1)

Many people are concerned about modeling and sexual expression.  For
many years I worried about this, even after I started modeling, and I
still recognize it, in myself and in others, as a disturbing event. 
Where sexual interest becomes evident in a modeling situation, it can be
difficult to temper so that it does not interrupt the artistic
environment.  In every culture since humanity began, our two chief
interests in other individuals has been loving them or fighting them: 
loving them to the point of conception, and fighting them to the point
of death.  Not surprisingly, our best art, music and literature has
embodied, nourished and celebrated these realities in our own individual
lives and in the history of our world.   We may find it surprising to
see a scroll of two Shinto warriors, each with an erection higher than
his head, or to see a statue of the Hindu goddess Kali with her baby
sitting in her open womb to bless us with a lotus flower; but this is
the way that artists in different cultures have found to summarize their
understanding of the lives we really lead.  They belong in our
consciousness, conscience, and memory as a part of what we are.


Fondness Over Time

In the last article, I wrote that “fondness is key.”  To some people we are attracted immediately; with others, fondness—even intense fondness—develops, but only over time.  Initially, it is respect and openness that is needed if an immediate fondness is not there.  Find leads to found leads to fond.


Modeling and Life-drawing: Fondness is Key

One of the things I have felt since I first began drawing people, and then modeling for them, is that I do best when I am fond of the people I am working with.  I want to be able to admire them, look up to them, and find them marvelous, so that my work with them can be my best.  Only my best will be good enough for them:  good enough for them to be their best for me.  I must not be less than my best, because my best is what they deserve.  I just realized today that, both as an artist and as a model, this is how I have approached making pictures of people since my first “nude” of Odysseus in third grade.