When I settled myself down with a glass of wine and a set of pretentious charcoal pencils at Knox Street Bar’s life drawing class, I felt quietly confident that the model lurking behind the heavy red curtain would have no more impact on me than a bowl of artfully arranged grapes. Granted, the only claim I can lay to being an ‘artist’ is the few years of high school in which I slogged my way through lino printing. Still, I was sure of my ability to appraise a human body with a detached, artistic eye. Then the model walked out and I discovered otherwise.
It’s an amusing irony that in a society where we use boobs to sell watches, I felt suddenly nervous at the naked body in front of me. A room that a few moments ago was very grown up with its moody lighting and exposed brick walls now felt indecently small. I could feel the heat from the model’s body. I could see the way his chest moved when he breathed. There’s a sudden and unexpected intimacy that comes with being the custodian of someone’s nudity, of having to translate it into lines and curves on a page. Because for once the nudity isn’t sexual, and it isn’t trying to sell you something. It’s asking you to look and draw what you see.
We have such a binary view of nudity: that it’s either offensive or sexual, and can’t be anything else. But regardless of the moral judgements you pass on this phenomenon, the commonality seems to be that we draw a sense of safety from keeping nudity and humanity separate.
I’d wondered about another way of looking through art. Based on the reactions of the people around me in the class, I could see how everyone reacted to this new responsibility in a different way. The animation students drew bold, sweeping lines across their sketchpads as they attempted to capture the fall of the light across the model’s back. Of the two people I’d dragged along, the first refused to go anywhere near drawing the model’s genitals, censoring the area between their legs with a modest charcoal smudge. The second drew stick figures. Regardless what camp you fall into, there’s something liberating about the chance to see a body just as a body, and spending an hour patiently working it into a sketch on your page.
After the class, as people chatted and shared tips on shading, I made a point of chatting to the model. I asked if it’s strange having people draw you, of knowing they are scrutinising every bulge and curve of your body. He laughed and told me no, it’s not weird, if anything it is “intimidating”, as “everyone here is really good!” But clearly the calibre of art students hadn’t fazed him too much, as he revealed with a grin that sometimes “you do mess with people by looking directly at them”. So maybe there is a mutual vulnerability to drawing and being drawn after all, something that might be called being human.
Matilda attended 3C’s Life Drawing ‘Drink and Draw’ class, which runs every Wednesday from 7.30pm at Knox St Bar Garage, Cnr Knox St & Shepherd St, Chippendale