I've been working with live models for about 10 years and weekly since August 2015. My experiences with models have varied depending on the circumstances. This is a post wherein I try to explain to you and to myself, my evolving relationship with painting live models, both friends and strangers.
I should explain that by "live model" I'm referring to a living, breathing human being posing in front of me for various lengths of time, clothed or unclothed, while I draw or paint them.
During the past year, I've been painting with a group of painters, mostly women, in a small gallery space in Berkeley, California. There are definite rules to this seemingly peaceful gathering. Come early to stake out your spot, pitch in 20 dollars to pay the model. There is no talking as we paint for 20 minute stretches. These are punctuated by five minute model breaks. Music is curated by our "hostess", the woman currently organizing the event. Sometimes, I have spoken during the painting stretches but I have been quickly reprimanded. Concentration is the key to life painting, whether in the studio or plein air.
So even though I may grumble at times, there is a predictability to this structure that supports my success at painting from life. The models are strangers, professionals from the Bay Area Models Guild. It actually makes it easier not having responsibility for the model's feelings and whether or not I create an acceptable likeness of them (often I do not). Let me say that the more I know the person modeling for me, the harder it becomes.
My familiar way of working was shaken when I came to the Vermont Studio Center this past month for an artist residency. I was excited to learn that there would be daily model sessions, but there was none of the order and familiarity of my home group in Berkeley. I have new artists to wrangle with and we had different goals. The model was not accustomed to long poses of several hours and made this known.
But I also had another goal for my time at VSC: to personally ask people I know to pose for me. After my slide presentation during the first week, I asked for volunteers interested in posing for a portrait. I was overwhelmed by the response of my fellow artists, my peers, and the generosity with which they offered their time to me. But it also made me anxious. Being one on one with a model, a stranger or a friend, is a fraught situation for me. "Are they bored?" I wonder to myself. Will they like the results? Am I taking too much time? These are the thoughts that fill my head.
One of the issues I have is talking. When it's just myself and the model I tend to talk a lot, partly to ease the discomfort of the model (or what I think is their discomfort) or maybe to ease my discomfort. It's a co-dependent thing. To be honest, I think I get better results when I refrain from talking but I just can't seem to help myself. Perhaps it's about my loneliness.
I read that the painter Alice Neel talked a lot during her sittings. In fact, from all accounts I've read, she was quite a chatterbox. Picture a dottie old lady, maybe your grandmother, chatting away and you're unable to get a word in. That was Alice Neel. So when I reprimand myself for talking too much, I think of Neel and I don't feel so bad. I think I might be evolving into one of those eccentric old lady painters anyway.
One day I found myself alone with the male model (MM) in the life drawing studio and I didn't know what to do with him. Feelings of low self worth bubbled out of me and I began to cry. The model, who previously had complained about long poses, reassured me that this was MY session, that I was the artist and I had the right to pose him as I wished.
During my solo session with MM, he became, during that time, my therapist. Or maybe I acted as his therapist. We shared our life stories with each other - the tragedies, the despair, the sadness. In this way, we became intimate and that's what can happen during a sitting, but not always. I painted a fellow artist a week later and we didn't say a word to each other. It's always different.
I've learned different ways of working and I've grown as a painter, portraitist, and illustrator.
BTW: The two portraits on the left in the triptych above were actually painted from photographs, so there's that. I also discovered during my time at VSC, that I don't have to always paint from life. ;)