Credit: Illustration by Stephanie Rudig

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I took off my robe and tossed it on the floor, and all eyes were fixed on me. No, this isn’t some Penthouse fantasy, but the start of a nude drawing class. I’ve had the opportunity to attend them both as an artist and as a figure model, which has been an, ahem, revealing experience. 

My first foray into figure drawing was in high school when I wanted to build a portfolio that I could use to apply to art colleges. So my mom signed me up for a class at a local university. I was as nervous about the situation as any awkward teenager would be, and even more so when I arrived to find that the model was an old man. While the instructor set up the lights, I dug around in my bag of supplies and tried to act nonchalant. I didn’t need to act for long—the robe dropped, and nothing much happened. The model settled into a pose, and my discomfort vanished as I focused on outlining the sketch.

Turns out that a person sitting still in the nude isn’t really that alluring. Trying to puzzle out how to depict that oddly shaped shadow under the model’s ankle bone, or how to draw that thumb positioned at a strange angle, it’s difficult to view the person in terms of conventional attractiveness. Wrinkles, cellulite, paunchy stomachs, weird patterns of body hair, hunchbacks, and so on all serve to add visual interest in a sketch. Drawing long and often enough exposes a wealth of body types, providing a reminder of the sheer diversity of human biology. Toiling over the task, scanning every millimeter of a person’s skin and watching every muscle tense and twitch, I marveled at the complexity of our bodies the myriad personalities contained in mounds of flesh. 

I ended up studying art in college, and freshman year I took drawing classes in which I’d often spend eight straight hours staring at a nude form. In this intensive studio setting, nudity became almost mundane, nothing more than endless hours of inhaling charcoal dust while staring at an old woman’s knobby spine. On top of this, there was lots of homework, which often meant having to find models during non-class hours. Seeing that posing nude was no big deal, I occasionally stripped down in a friend’s dorm room for a few sketches, in addition to having my torso cast in plaster and covering my naked body in paint and splattering it onto a canvas. 

After graduating college, I was working in a coffee shop while looking for a job, and modeling was a great side hustle, paying more than double what I made as a barista. I was also genuinely interested in posing for other people as an artistic exercise. Having spent so much time on the other side of the easel, it was interesting to take what I had observed and apply it to create dynamic poses. Some classes or sessions consist of a single long pose, but more often each pose lasts anywhere from a minute or two to half an hour. In those situations, I had fun choosing those that conveyed a certain mood or that I thought would be interesting for others to draw.

Modeling is also a deeply meditative experience. I’m full of nervous energy, and “sitting,” as it’s called (even when standing), forced me to stop and soak in the stillness. I developed a yoga-like hyper-awareness of my body. In addition to giving me a feeling of serenity, modeling became a way for me to claim my body for myself. Every woman is familiar with the feeling of her body not fully belonging to her. It happens when a stranger tells her exactly what they’d do to her if they had the chance, or when someone critiques their appearance, or during any number of the other indignities to which women are often exposed. Some might think that posing naked for strangers would feel unsafe or objectifying, but I found it safer and less degrading than the street harassment to which I’m regularly subjected. Most people I’ve met at drawing sessions take it seriously and tend to be laser-focused on the task at hand. Plus, it’s a pretty cool out-of-body experience to see yourself depicted in drawn or painted form. 

I found not only bodily autonomy in modeling but artistic ownership, too. Art history is full of examples of the lover/muse figure, often an artist herself who was limited by the opportunities of her time or her “master’s” ego. From Victorine Meurent, best known from Édouard Manet’s “Olympia” but a talented painter in her own right, to Camille Claudel, who sculpted the hands and feet on many of Auguste Rodin’s masterpieces, these women were doomed to be overshadowed by their partners, relegated to historical footnotes, or remembered mostly for their physiques. I wanted to rebuke that tradition, to be considered an artist first and model second. I made a point of showing up to sketch at the same places I modeled, usually prompting a glimmer of recognition from those who had previously seen me nude. 

It’s been years since I’ve modeled, but I’m certain that my time as the subject has informed how I approach drawing the human form now. My casual attitude toward nudity in art has convinced some of my friends to be my amateur models, and I’ve been delighted to discover that they too find the experience illuminating. So now, when dealing with stage fright, perhaps I’d do better to picture myself naked in front of an audience, rather than the other way around.