Life models bare it all in service of art

Posted: Sunday, October 24, 2004


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  Professor Celia Anderson talks about angles and shapes students should consider as they draw a pose during one of the five-hour classes. She gives models an idea of the position she wants them to maintain and then lets them work the idea into a pose they can hold. Photo by M. Scott Moon

Wearing nothing but a gold chain and a lot of patience, John Allen maintains a pose for students working in a life drawing and composition art class at Kenai Peninsula College earlier this month. Models hold poses for up to an hour at a time while artists hone their skills.

Photo by M. Scott Moon

A man walks into a classroom. The students are chatting before class and take no notice of him. He makes his way to a corner near the front of the room and begins to take his clothes off. As he strips off the last article and stands naked before a room of a dozen mostly female students, one woman blurts out, "Oh, my God!"

The woman is talking with a friend who said something surprising. The outburst has nothing to do with the naked guy in the corner of the room.

The instructor quiets the classroom and turns toward the naked man and asks, "John, are you ready?"

John nods and steps onto a low platform. The instructor tosses him a miniature basketball a little larger than a cantaloupe and John strikes a pose, holding the orange ball straight overhead for 30 seconds, before dropping to one knee, the ball outstretched before him. He changes poses every half-minute or so, as the students furiously sketch rough outlines of his various poses on large sheets of paper propped up on artist's easels.

The naked man is John Allen. He is a model for Kenai Peninsula College's life drawing class an advanced art class that routinely uses nude models to teach students how to draw the human form.

Standing naked in front of a room full of strangers who stare at you and jot down what they see is a lot of people's idea of hell. But to Allen, posing in the nude for art students once a week is a pleasant way to spend the day.

Allen is a 56-year-old merchant marine who likes to fish, hunt and take his clothes off. He's been a casual nudist for 20 years, but made his pastime official three years ago when he joined the American Association of Nude Recreation.

Allen likes the sense of freedom that comes with being a nudist, or naturist. He's visited a number of nudist resorts and said naturists, as a group, are easy to get along with.

"I like the openness, the nonconstraints. Everybody's at ease with everybody else," he said.

Although he's been a nudist for years, posing for the art class was the first time he'd done any nude modeling. He quickly found that modeling for artists can be demanding work.

After performing a series of quick "gestural" poses at the beginning of each class period, Allen hunkers down into a stationary pose, usually sitting or lying down, that he holds for up to an hour, while the art students make more detailed drawings. After he and the students break for lunch, he strikes a second pose for another hour.


Allen holds a classic pose under track lights that are positioned to highlight nuances of form.

Photo by M. Scott Moon

Keeping still for such long periods can make your limbs fall asleep. Allen likens the experience to flying coach on a commercial airliner.

"You tend to lose circulation," he said. "It's like when you're sitting on a plane and you're all cramped up."

Despite a few stiff muscles, Allen said he has little difficulty holding the poses. He credits his hunting experience and military service for allowing him to remain motionless with little discomfort.

Allen learned to stand at attention for long periods during his service in the Army, especially during basic training. His drill instructor, Sgt. Nakagawa, would make Allen's unit stand at attention and assign KP duty to whoever moved first.

Allen said he also learned how to freeze in place while turkey hunting. Turkeys have excellent eyesight and spook easily, so hunters have to hold still if a turkey spots them, he said.

Recreational nudists make a point of not staring at each other's bodies, according to Allen.

"You'd be surprised at the amount of eye to eye contact at a nudist camp," he said.

The opposite is true in an art class, where students examine the details of the model's body in order to reproduce them. However, life drawing is an art, not an anatomy class.

In drawing the human body, art students focus on technical problems having to do with things like perspective and proportion, white space and shadow. This reduces human nakedness to a geometric puzzle.

"You're not really looking at a naked guy. You're looking at the shapes his form makes," said Erin Keene, a student in the class.

Keene teaches at the Kenai Montessori School and plans to use the techniques she's learning in life drawing in her own art classes.

Keene's mother, Marlene Pearson, also is in the class. Pearson said that to draw the human form you have to break it apart, which has improved her attention to detail.

"I'm seeing detail more than I did. I see more shapes," she said.

Regina Daniels took her first drawing class last fall. For her, a challenge in drawing the human figure is to not get lost in the details. Daniels said she wants to learn to draw her interpretation of the figure, instead of trying to reproduce every detail.

"I've got to try to draw what I see, instead of drawing what's there," she said.


Student Erin Keene interprets the sitting in a charcoal study. Quick poses done at the beginning of class help students capture gestures. Other poses, lasting as long as an hour, give students time to develop their ideas.

Photo by M. Scott Moon

Allen spends summers in Alaska but lives in Los Angeles. He could only model for the first four class meetings of the life drawing course, before he had to return to Southern California and his job on a cargo ship heading for Asia.

Adrea Dyer, a 21-year-old KPC student and Soldotna native, replaced Allen. Dyer had some experience as an artist's model. Her stepfather is an artist who has been drawing her portrait since she was 6 years old.

Dyer said she'd thought about trying to get a job modeling for some time, but hadn't considered nude modeling until she visited the Kenai Job Center looking for a part-time job.

"I saw the job listing and I thought, 'Hum, I wonder if I could do that," she said. "It's kind of one of those little girl dreams, 'Oh, I want to be a model,' but I never thought I'd be posing naked."

Unlike Allen, Dyer had never been naked in front of a group of strangers. She felt self-conscious of being looked at and of how she looked.

"It was really hard. Everyone was looking at me," she said. "I was a little gun shy, because I knew I put on a little weight this summer."


Professor Celia Anderson talks about angles and shapes students should consider as they draw a pose during one of the five-hour classes. She gives models an idea of the position she wants them to maintain and then lets them work the idea into a pose they can hold.

Photo by M. Scott Moon

Dyer stepped up on the modeling platform and just as she was getting used to the idea of posing naked in front of a group of strangers, a student she knew showed up late for class.

"I thought I had a class that I didn't know anybody in," she said. "Then a guy walked in I went to high school with."

Once she started posing, Dyer said it didn't matter if anyone in the class knew her, it was more about occupying her mind to make the time go by and trying to ignore her limbs' attempts at getting her attention.

"It's not so scary once you're up there," she said. "You space off, look at the time and go, 'It's been 45 minutes, my foot's asleep and my arm's tingling.'"

After posing for four hours, with a couple breaks, Dyer took a look at the students' work. She said she was impressed with the quality of the artwork and the student artists' ability to put what they see down on paper, although how some of the artists see her is different from how she sees herself.

"These guys are excellent artists. I think it's interesting to see the different perspective artists have," she said. "I look at some of the drawings and think, 'Do I really look like that?' But I definitely see myself in some of them,"

The life drawing students at KPC often draw a single model all semester. The students this semester got lucky. Between Allen and Dyer, the students got to draw both the male and female form.

For Paul Tornow, a full-time student who is planning to apply to art school and is taking the life drawing class to build his portfolio, there's little difference between drawing a man or a woman, from a technical point of view. He said drawing people is a lot like drawing anything else.


Allen is surrounded by students as he holds a pose in a studio at Kenai Peninsula College. A tiny space heater helps Allen and other models stay warm while they model.

Photo by M. Scott Moon

"Once you learn the basics, you use the same basic shapes," he said. "You don't really see them as a nude man or woman; they're another composition, like a landscape."

Laurie Marta, who has been working on an art degree at KPC for four years and has one more year to go, agreed artists use the same skills regardless of the subject. But she said she found a difference between drawing a man and a woman. For her, men are more difficult to draw.

"The female body has more curves and is much easier to draw. Males have musculature and not as much curvature, they're more angular," she said.

Whether drawing the male or female form, Marta said the human figure is the ultimate figure to master as an artist.

"If you can draw the human body, you can draw anything," she said.

It's necessary for artists to learn how to draw people, because the human form is the basis of art. The human figure can be found everywhere in the art of today and the past and seems to fulfill some need human beings have to look at ourselves, according to Celia Anderson, who has taught life drawing for 20 years, 10 of those at KPC.

"We're pretty egotistical beings. We like seeing ourselves. Probably 90 percent of art has human forms in it," she said.

The necessity for art students to master the difficulty in drawing the human form helps explain why drawing from human models is at the core of an art program.

"Really, it's the foundation of art programs. You have to have life drawing to have an art program," Anderson said.

Art students can't just waltz into a life drawing class. Drawing the human figure is considered an advanced skill. Before students can take life drawing, they must take beginning and intermediate art courses.

"People off the street just can't come in and take the class," Anderson said.

Because of the prerequisites for students, the models are assured they're posing for serious artists, she said.

Over the years, Anderson has worked with models of all ages and body types. Although students need to learn how to draw muscles, she said models with Playboy or Playgirl figures are not the body types she's come to prefer. She prefers models whose figures, or forms, are extreme either very thin or really round.

"What we're doing in life drawing class is looking at the beauty in the abstract forms," she said. "Extreme forms are more obvious and more interesting for students to draw."


Amanda Brail shows Allen some of her drawings after class. "All of these students are artists," Allen said after listening to them critique their work at the end of the day.

Photo by M. Scott Moon

Anderson said one of the best models she ever worked with was a 65-year-old woman who weighed close to 300 pounds. The woman's figure was fun and challenging to draw, but equally important was her personality. The woman put the class at ease by telling stories while she sat for the students, shattering the myth that an artist's model must sit still and silent as stone.

"Sure, models can talk. It reminds the students they're drawing a human being," Anderson said.

Anderson has never had trouble finding models for her classes, but she has had trouble keeping them. Modeling for artists is very different from modeling for magazines or advertising. An artist's model doesn't "make love to the camera," just the opposite. A life drawing model generally takes a more neutral, natural pose.

Sitting still for an hour isn't exactly glamorous, and Anderson said she thinks some of the models that quit in the past didn't understand the requirements of the job and were simply bored.

Life models get paid $15 an hour twice what most student jobs pay on campus. But considering the importance of life drawing classes to an arts education, the service they provide to the students and the art program is priceless.

"You cannot get enough life drawing, just period. You can't get enough," Anderson said. "It's the best training there is in the arts, as far as I'm concerned. It's just the best."

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