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Features / Art

Revealed In New Ways: We find out how life drawing is transforming from fine art to therapy

First published in Printed Pages Spring 2015

Words by

Emily Gosling

Illustration by

Dan Stafford

In a life drawing class, there’s no direct physical contact, but there’s contact with other humans. People miss hugs, they miss their parents, they miss the human body.

I’m talking with Tony Pianco, the founder of the Life Drawing Society, a London-based network that organises life drawing classes. Today, we’re stood in the hallway of a church hall in Bethnal Green, east London, while a class goes on through the door. It’s fairly busy, around ten people are sitting on old chairs while classical music plays from an iPad in the corner. Everyone is absorbed in their task, focussing on today’s model, Clifford, who sits motionless on a piece of foam covering a tatty chair surrounded by small, ancient electric heaters. One buttock haphazardly flops over the seat, and the room feels toasty, like an old person’s house. The air is pregnant with concentration.

These classes, Tony tells me, have always been popular, and always will be – they act as sort of therapy, one that established artists, students and east London mothers alike can indulgein without the fear of pills, or bringing up painful memories, or having to explain themselves to anyone.

“It’s extremely therapeutic on many levels,” says Tony. “That’s why people come, to do something different and to relax. When you’re drawing from life you don’t have a choice but to forget everything else. You have to use the right side of your brain – the one that makes you chill.

Some people who come here suffer from depression, or they’ve tried to commit suicide, or they’re trying to stop drinking or something. It’s like a valve – people feel pressure pressure pressure and then they come here and it goes ‘PFF!’ It’s a release.

Professor Stephen Farthing, Chair of Drawing at University of the Arts London, sees this release as a product of the reflective nature of life drawing, and how it forces a contemplation of both the physical body and of mortality. “Drawing is a tool of investigation – it isn’t just about making things to put on walls,” he says.

“Whether you’re looking at Leonardo da Vinci or Stubbs, whether you’re drawing from life or from a cadaver, you’re not just making a physical investigation or an anatomical one – you’re looking at the very nature of who and what we are.”

When I set out to write this piece, I wasn’t really interested in why people went to life drawing classes, or why people drew. It’s an obvious point to make that creativity in any form can be therapeutic; a way of quieting the mind, of silencing voices or releasing emotions. What interested me was what life models themselves get from it. But the further I investigated the more it seemed that drawing, and drawing from life in particular, is inextricably linked with a certain form of self-help. People see drawing as mental health tool, and people who put themselves forward to be drawn often do so for the very same reasons.

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Clifford, who I mentioned before, had no idea of my intentions with the piece, or this line of investigation. But when I asked innocuously how the 62-year-old got into life-modelling a career, he told me that it directly followed a breakdown, when he decided to leave his job as a lawyer to do something completely different with his life. “I was depressed and no one was really helping me,” he says. “People are there to draw me as a figure, not as a person. All you think about is keeping the pose – if you start to think about something else, you can move, all the muscles might tighten up. You have to focus and concentrate, your mind has to be clear.”

I wonder if he ever feels vulnerable surrounded by eyes, all gazing on him. But as Clifford points out, when you’re a life model, people aren’t interested in who you are, but what they see. You’re a subject, not a personality; a point that many people keen to sit are looking to exploit in a way that can help them overcome certain issues or difficulties.

This notion of becoming a subject to overcome barriers, to explore a sort of zeitgeisty pathway to mindfulness, or therapy, feels very new. It’s hard to imagine that sitters for Lucian Freud or Egon Schiele were doing so as a self-help tool. Freud’s sitters were famously people he knew – friends, family, lovers, peers – and while they may have been sitting to help the artist, or perhaps out of vanity, there’s no suggestion they did so for their own mental health needs. However, Freud has been widely quoted as saying: “The subject matter is autobiographical, it’s all to do with hope and memory and sensuality and involvement, really,” a loud echo of Tony’s theories on why people from all backgrounds seek out life drawing classes. They’re looking for a human touch without the touching, to find out about themselves through the naked body of another; and it seems today, the subjects are looking to pitch their own body as “other” to help work through their own issues with it.

This is something we observed first-hand working with Mike Perry on the London leg of Get Nude Get Drawn, a series of events he began in 2008. He puts out an open call for people to pose for a number of illustrators at a time, who create quick-fire drawings that go on display in a public exhibition very shortly afterwards. Every sitter, it seems, has a story behind their decision, and often a very personal one.

There was one woman who had a pubic hair phobia, and she’d always shaved her pubic hair,” Mike tells me. “Part of her therapy was that she had to be in public, naked, with pubic hair. She was pretty nervous but she did it and it was amazing. It was magical.

In this way, what started as a project for Mike and his friend Josh Cochran to try and improve their life drawing skills seems to have turned into a sort of group therapy, albeit one that’s very lighthearted, and results in often thousands of brilliant, expressive and brightly coloured illustrations. “All of a sudden it turned into a social experiment,” Mike laughs. “When you see the model, it’s not sexualised – it’s just a form to draw.”

It’s that sidelining of the self that seems to appeal to many of the sitters, looking for a way to prove their confidence and step outside of themselves, becoming simply a tool by which someone else can create an image. What’s different about Mike’s sitters to Clifford, though, is that they have already established a connection with the artists first through social media where the models are sourced and later through the events themselves, which have a decidedly convivial, informal feel.

Where Clifford talks about “an etiquette that I expect to be observed; there should be no talking, and I only talk to the organiser,” Mike says that his approach means that a “connection” is established between artist and sitter. “When you can talk to them you can see who they are, and they reveal themselves in different ways.”

But even now, no amount of informality and prior Twitter chit-chat can cover up the life drawing elephant in the room – the naked body. However liberal, or creative, or just plain chilled out you are it still carries something of a frisson or shock. As Stephen makes clear, throughout most of art history the idea of drawing a real, live human naked was an earned privilege.

“The academies in the 18th Century had students drawing from plaster casts, then only in the final years of training were they allowed to draw human flesh,” Stephen explains. “They had to graduate to drawing from life after learning the theory, and I think that’s a very important point – it was a privilege. I once had a conversation with the person who ran the anatomy department about whether it was different drawing live flesh or from a cadaver, and he came up with a good idea: dissecting a cadaver for a surgery student, and life drawing for an art student makes them feel separate. “It’s a ‘special’ thing, that physical engagement with a subject.”

Stephen thinks this idea of the naked body as being a “privilege,” and even a shocking thing to view, is a key reason people engage so intensely with life drawing. “At a very basic level the point of drawing a naked figure is not unlike the point of drawing a cadaver: it’s shocking. When everyone’s running around in clothes thinking about their tax return and you’re standing in front of someone who’s stark naked, it’s quite shocking subject matter compared to a coffee pot or a bottle of wine in a still-life.”

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But why does something that’s inherently shocking – even in 2015 – force such self-reflection, to the point that so many cite it as a sort of therapy? Stephen says: “I’m not a religious person but I think it’s a similar thing to using prayer, or reflective activities like chanting. You have to step outside yourself, while remaining in contact with another self, but in a way that’s entirely formalised.”

One of the people who volunteered to be drawn during our collaboration with Mike last year, Nudes No. 4, is Carrina Gaffney. As her rather wonderful story goes, she got involved when “she put a call out to the universe” and it responded. Having said to a friend while at the Royal Academy’s Anselm Kiefer retrospective how much she wanted an artist to draw her, just a week later she spotted the call-out for models on the Printed Pages Instagram.

Carrina says that while she is “very comfortable” with her body, she has a constant fear of judgement and on the day she was drawn she had a terrible hangover, spending much of the time she was posing focussing on not being sick. Overall though she sees the experience as overwhelmingly positive.

“I think we’ve created a society where so many people have issues with their bodies, which is a shame because as objects, they’re little bundles of miracles,” she says. “But I was terrified at how they might see me and that I might not like what I saw [in the drawings]. I realised that any weirdness, though, would be my own weirdness. They’re artists; they weren’t looking at me as Carrina, they were looking at my body as a subject or an object. And that made me feel really comfortable.”

These discussions are exciting and new, and Carrina’s observations feel like a very recent development in the ongoing story of artistic nudes. This idea of the autonomous subject, out there for themselves, is far removed from that of a passive muse.

“They’re not judging you,” Carinna says. “The pictures are just their interpretation, so you can’t take it all too seriously. Some of them were beautiful and I thought ‘Oh my god I look amazing!’ and some were more stylistic, and equally as wonderful. It was a celebration of their talent: I was a subject for them, helping them experiment with what they do on a daily basis. So I have to deal with it whether I like what I see or not.

“When you take of your clothes, you’re still you, you’re just more visible. They still can’t see what you’re like inside,” she says. “You’re making yourself open to interpretation, and you might not like what you see. But it’s important we learn to be vulnerable – that’s part of being human.”