The Model Within

Nude models allow artists to interpret and understand the human form.

The model within.

Photo by Boomer Jerritt

If you were to be paid a certain sum, ailment
though not a large one, to take off all your clothes before a roomful of strangers, would you do so?  It’s fair to assume the majority would not.

Most of us have a certain modesty, learned in childhood, that tells us to remain garbed except when bathing, visiting the doctor, or making love.  Otherwise, we keep our duds on.

However, some people can and do doff their gear in front of others of both sexes, and among the more notable among them are those in what is a perfectly respectable occupational calling—artist’s models.

Modeling is an old and honorable calling and it is one that has been in huge demand by artists from the age of the Renaissance through to the moderns.  There is truly no way to accurately depict the human form in all its incarnations but for the artist to study the poses and sometimes even contortions of an accomplished model.  Looking at a photo just doesn’t do it when compared with the real thing.

And one important element of this process must be made perfectly clear; there is absolutely no sexual component to the encounter between the artist and the nude model.  The models themselves state that if anything even slightly “creepy” seems to be transpiring, they would have nothing to do with completing the sitting.  So there isn’t a Trilby amongst them, and latter-day Svengalis have not been sighted in any of their modeling sessions.

In the case of this community, the Comox Valley, though smaller than significant cultural centres like Vancouver and Victoria, is no stranger to the arts.  Indeed here there is a significant demand for experienced and disciplined models thanks to both the fine arts program at North Island College, as well as privately offered life-drawing courses and programs held throughout the community.

Profiled as follows will be three female and one male model, all of whom have offered their poses for artists ranging from the most highly accomplished to the rankest of amateurs wanting to improve their skills.

For the sake of preserving the privacy of the models I have chosen to offer only their first names. Their stories, as soon will become evident, are all slightly different in terms of how they got into the realm and how they all remain enthusiastic and committed to the artists who hire them.

For Sabine, who also carries out a career as a physiotherapist, modeling is an avocation that arose due to a request by an artist friend who was seeking a life-drawing model.

In Carolyn’s case her entry into nude modeling came about due to, as she puts it, “a reaction to a traumatic professional experience.” Asked to take a management position with a Victoria business, she was terminated a year and a half later for reasons that remain unclear to her.

Not knowing quite what to do with her life as a middle-aged woman, a moment of serendipity transpired in which she ran into a friend who was a life-drawing instructor and was seeking competent models.

“I literally applied for a chance,” she says.  “I was apprehensive so I went with a friend and I faked it by trying to indicate that I knew what to do.  I didn’t think I stood much of a chance since I’m over 50.  But I was accepted, and so far it has been an amazing journey.”

Cat was a student in El Paso, Texas and became friends with an artist group there.  She was told they needed a model so she applied. Although she stopped modeling for a while, she has been a model off and on for about 15 years.

For Sabine (left) and Cat, nude modeling is creative. “The human body is fascinating,” says Cat.

Photo by Boomer Jerritt

The second most pressing question the artist, or indeed anybody, might have about modeling—the first, of course, asks how the models are comfortable disrobing in public —is how they are able to hold a single pose for an extended time period; often as long as two hours or more.

“For me it’s like an exercise in meditation,” says Sabine.  “It’s a challenge to hold a pose and it’s very much like an endurance sport.”

For Carolyn, posing demands “focus.”  She says the model never knows what part of the body the artist is centred on and that she has to disregard that for fear of becoming self-conscious.  Consequently, she fixes her own eyes on a neutral space that never involves looking directly at any of the artists.

Cat finds posing a very relaxing thing to do and finds it leaves her with a feeling of totally inhabiting her body.  While it may seem to the outsider that it would be a stressful challenge, she finds it to be the opposite.

Sabine adds that the model has the right to choose her own poses so there is a creative aspect to the task.

“It’s creative,” she says. “The creativity lies in knowing how to strike different poses and adjusting to the environment of the modeling setting and acting accordingly.”

Cat says that she focuses on how the pose might look for the artists and tries to give those who are working to capture her what they might seek.

“If I’m in a teaching environment, like at a college or university, it’s different from the situation in a smaller studio. Also, and you have to be really conscious of this, you’re not offering your perception of yourself but somebody else’s.  I also find each time is different. The situation varies from day to day and so does the image I offer when I’m modeling.”

As far as the nudity question is concerned, the models were all completely comfortable with that aspect of the calling.  In the words of Cat regarding nude modeling: “It’s cool and I love it.  Everyone is so beautiful.  The human body is fascinating.”

Sabine adds that the environment is situational and it’s one that deals with a culture and tradition that goes back centuries.  At one time being an artist was an unacceptable calling for a woman, so many women entered the world of modeling in lieu.

And indeed right through the 19th century it was a challenge for artists to find women who were prepared to divest in a studio setting, which was why Toulouse Lautrec, for example, often used the dancers and even the prostitutes at the Moulin Rouge as his models.

The actual act of posing is to Cat the most natural thing in the world.  Her concentration at any session lies in providing the artists with an interesting pose.  The nudity aspect, for her, is not a big deal.

There are two parties in the modeling situation; the model and the artist.  While separate, a certain unity must prevail for the thing to work and in Carolyn’s eyes, it’s a collaborative group effort and it’s essential that the model eschew self-consciousness and inhibition.

“You’re not being looked at esthetically,” says Sabine, heeding the same sentiment. “I’ve been in a room with all male artists and always there is an etiquette and I’ve never been made to feel uncomfortable.”

So, what is modeling like as an occupational calling for those in the business?  For example, are the models aspiring or amateur artists themselves?  None of them, except for Michael, whom we’ll meet shortly, have artistic aspirations within themselves.

“We all come from Cumberland,” says Cat, with a chuckle.  “All naked ladies come from Cumberland.  But seriously, I just started back modeling recently.  The usual rate of pay is between $20 and $25 an hour.”

In Carolyn’s case she also models at North Island College and at Emily Carr and finds herself sometimes being too busy and facing clashing commitments to model.

How does the amateur go about the business of establishing herself or himself as a model?  There are no schools per se, so the skill of the model is largely up to the individual. That stated, some models remain more in demand than others and that has absolutely nothing to do with a physical esthetic.

“I think a lot of it is just a matter of knowing your own position in space,” Sabine says.  “I look at pictures and I strike certain poses to see how they work.  I’m pretty lithe, and that helps a great deal.  For that same reason a lot of artists in larger centres use dancers as models.”

In that regard Cat notes that in Europe there are actual art banks at which models can register.  She emphasizes that the most important aspect of being a successful model is being comfortable with your own body.

“While there is a certain vulnerability in posing nude,” Cat says,  “I get exasperated with models that are uncomfortable with the process and who are careful not to expose themselves by positioning themselves so that breasts or other parts aren’t visible to the artist.  The hardest thing to draw is the human body and that’s why it’s essential for the model to be fully exposed according to the artist’s wishes.”

“The biggest problem I’ve faced,” says Sabine, “is being freezing cold in some places. But, I won’t drop the pose even if I’m suffering from the temperature.   I’ve chosen a certain pose so it becomes a question of pride for me.”

Meanwhile, Carolyn says she has no problems with long poses, some of them lasting as long as three hours in a single position. “I find I’m never sore afterwards,” she says. “During the breaks I counter stretch and I find that really helpful for when I go back into the pose.  The key to success is that the model must be dependable and so I feel I have to do what they want me to.  There’s a lot of pride in wanting to do a good pose, and I want them to want me back.”

Cat captures her feelings about the process in a very simple way:  “It’s just so much fun. I don’t do things that make me bored, and modeling never bores me.  I trust where I go to model and that leaves me feeling safe and secure and loving what I do.”

On the male side of the equation – for males are as much part of the modeling process as females—is Michael Ward.  He is comfortable with his last name being used as his reputation as an in-demand model is widespread, not only throughout Vancouver Island, but elsewhere in the province, and indeed nationally.

Michael has been a nude (and sometimes draped) model for countless artists and photographers for 35 years.  He is also a follower of a family tradition as his mother and grandmother were both nude models.  His grandmother actually modeled for A.Y. Jackson of the Group of Seven, so Michael’s connectedness is profound.

“My mother was a model, I am a model and now my two youngest sons are models,” he says.  “Modeling is more a lifestyle choice than a job for me—where everything I do is centred around modeling in some form or another.  I like to imagine that I’ll still be modeling when I’m in my 90s.  Why not?  Wrinkles are cool to draw.  Imagine looking at drawings of me in my teens and then to me in my 90s.  Now that would be a true life model!”

Oh, and just in case the modeling hits lean times, or he’s in a place where there is low-demand for his skills and discipline, he’s also a land surveyor.

“Mother was an art teacher,” he says.  “I grew up in wall-to-wall drips of oil paints and there were nudes running through the house all the time when I was a kid.  It didn’t bother me at all and this was back in the ‘50s and ‘60s.  I had my first modeling gig when I was 15.  I didn’t find it an odd thing to do because I was so used to it.  This isn’t bad, I thought; this is freeing.”

What is the role of the model in relation to the artist, as he sees it?

“An exchange takes place between the model and the artist.  The artist sees me for who I really am—there are no secrets here, no hidden agenda. To thine own self be true is particularly true for the art model.  If I’m in a lousy mood, these emotions will be picked up by the artist, not unlike a magnet, and their work will reflect these emotions.  An experienced art instructor/artist is able to side-step projected emotions and see the inner model, whereas a less experienced artist might be caught off guard.”

For Michael as well, long poses are one of the most demanding aspects of the job.  “I go into a near-trance for long poses,” he says.  “Modeling takes away all of my stress and it leaves me feeling refreshed with a tremendous feeling like Nirvana coming over me.  I am totally in tune with my body.  It’s like doing meditation or inner tai-chi.  Depending on the music being played or even the silence, I have fought bulls in Spain, danced with queens at royal balls, knelt at the feet of the Pope, climbed Mt. Everest with Sir Edmund Hillary and cried at the funeral of my sister.”

One of the real bonuses in modeling for Michael is that he has been able to acquire a considerable collection of art works in the process of interacting with both notable and talented beginning artists.

“I’ve said to artists, if you want me to model, then give me art,” he says.  “There have been times in which I have said no to money, and yes to works of art.  And some of the artwork features me, which is gratifying.  As it stands, I am represented in drawing books and there is a life sculpture of me in Victoria (where he resides and is in big demand).  Virtually every artist in Victoria knows me, and that’s only to my advantage.”

That life sculpture, by the way, is in front of the Victoria police station showing the character depicted by Michael holding up a pillar.  The sculptor was Jay Unwin.

For a number of years—and it’s a memory that sticks fondly with Michael —he ran a life drawing ‘event’ in the south Island.

“It ran for five years and it was sort of a ‘draw-a-thon’ in which we gathered 23 models and created what he calls a Cirque du Soliel of modeling in which the models and artists (noted, such as Robert Bateman, and fledgling to the tune of 300) came from all over.”

Unlike some models, Michael does involve himself in the creative aspects of the field.  “I do draw and paint—obviously not as well as some of the people who do me, but I get a lot of pleasure from it,” he says.  “I do have a BFA, and I’m also a surveyor and this has enabled me to survey by day and model in the evenings right across the country.”

On this part of Vancouver Island Michael has modeled at Painter’s Lodge in Campbell River, and models regularly in the Comox Valley.  He also teaches modeling and is often asked to give tips to aspiring models.

“I suggest new models come out and watch me at art schools and pick up some techniques,” he says.  “And my main instructions to new models include: Don’t rehearse; convey how you feel; don’t make eye-contact with the artists because it will break their concentration and it also can mean that the model will pick up negative feelings from the artist if that is the way he or she is feeling.”

Meanwhile, Michael says modeling continues to be a passion with him and he cannot imagine not doing it.  Money, he says, is not an issue for him, and he gets his greatest joy from meeting struggling artists.

4 Responses to The Model Within

  1. It’s sad that though you quoted me – you didn’t add one single photo of me. I’m disappointed.

  2. I have been an artist since the early 60’s and quite familiar with most of the Comox Valley models that are available. They do a tremendous job and we are always quick to tell them how well they do when holding a pose or finding an especially interesting pose. Artists never take the model for granted. I know Michael also and have been planning a series in which I hope to use him as he has a very professional and creative reputation among artists. Thanks for publishing this article on a subject that most would never think about!

  3. My initial reaction was that there was no image of me but when I really sat down and studied what Ian has written about me – no one picture would tell my story like the words he has used. I’m on art walls, in books, a sculpture on a street corner and it has been a true honour to have been a part of the learning experience of so many art students and artists over the years. Modeling will always be the one passion that I will crave above all else. “Models are an integral part of the fabric of art – we are as important as the charcoal, the pencil, the paper, the paint and the canvas”, my Mother said that to me when I was 15. Excellent article Ian, well done.

  4. I am grateful to every model who has ever worked with me, male and female. Life-drawing is really a collaboration between two creative spirits – the model and the artist – with a synergy that deeply influences the work. Each and every drawing session is a unique and valuable learning experience. Without the models’ openness and generosity I simply could not make my art.

    In one-on-one sessions it often happens that the model learns as much about the artist as the other way around, and in more than a few cases the shared experience develops into a long standing friendship. Underlying it all is the hope of discovering that elusive “muse” who will elevate the artistic achievement beyond what is otherwise possible.

    I have worked with Michael on several occasions and gladly affirm the comments about his professionalism and talent. Thank you to all the models out there!!