Viewing Life from the Other Side

Earlier this year a reporter from ABC Radio came to one of my life classes and interviewed not just me but one of my students and also the life model, Cat Lawrence. Cat gave a very revealing (excuse the pun) and candid account of her experience as a life model. You can read the article here, and you can hear the interviews with me and Cat here and here.

Yesterday I had a very insightful session  at a workshop designed for educating life models, led by Hannah McNicol.  The models were all relatively inexperienced and were keen to pick up tips on what props to bring, general etiquette, what can go wrong and how to deal with it, how to pose without harming your body and ways to care for your body in order to maintain fitness and remain relaxed. In addition, Hannah showed the models ways of posing that would be appropriate to hold for 2, 5, 10 and 20 minutes. That was where I came in: my job was to draw the poses and provide feedback on what I found the most successful poses from a drawer’s point of view.

2 min poses


The first pose, 2 minutes, was slightly challenging for this model: I found it exciting to draw but I was aware it was putting a strain on her leg and arm muscles.  I commented that I had to adjust my drawing as her arms moved under the strain, but that made the drawing more dynamic, and I was 100% concentrated on the pose. I would have equally enjoyed doing a one minute drawing of this pose – many beginners find a one minute drawing a daunting prospect, but it forces you to focus and gives the model an opportunity to try poses that are full of action and muscle tension. I occasionally ask a model to perform an action, such as throwing a ball or rising from a seated position, in slow motion, pausing several times in ‘freeze frame’ for 1 minute or even less. This gives us a better understanding of how the body looks in action as well as in repose.

5 min pose


The next pose was a 5 minute one. This model caught my eye immediately: he understood the fact that a five minute pose does not have to be static, but it’s important to make sure you are not putting too much strain on your legs and arms. Here he is supporting his head on his knee and the position of his right leg helps to maintain his balance.  The pose also creates exciting negative shapes without looking contorted.  Crouching poses take less time to draw than standing poses, as you are not having to deal with the symmetry of limbs – my first instinct in this case was to draw the outside shape of the figure, which is basically a triangle, and then it was a fairly simple matter to add the foot at the bottom and then carefully observe the negative shapes, firstly between the model’s right arm and left foot and right knee, and secondly between the two arms and the head.

10 min poses, 30 sec & 2 mins

Hannah and Sufiyo

I had a minute or two to spare before the buzzer went, so I drew the pose above right which was also meant to be for 5 minutes. Again, although it’s a standing pose it is also compact – her arms and breasts form a shape with her bent over head, and her legs are posed one in front of the other so initially I only have to draw one shape instead of two.  The two drawings on the left are 30 second sketches of Hannah showing examples of comfortable 10 minute poses.  I’m going for the essential lines here, and it gives me just enough information so I can remember what she was showing us.

10 min pose, 7 mins


The next drawing was completed in about 5 minutes, and the pose was a 10 minute one.  It didn’t look great from the front, but when I moved around the model I was suddenly inspired. Again, this is a compact pose except for the extended right leg, and I focused at first on getting the outlines of the torso as accurately as possible. After that it was easier to fit the positions of the arms on either side. I couldn’t see the head at first, but either he raised it or I changed my position slightly and it looked altogether more ‘human’ when I added the curve of the head. I like to reassure people that foreshortening is not as hard as it looks: if you use a pencil – held vertically in the picture plane – to measure the length of the model’s body and compare it with the distance from the top of the thigh to the toes of the right foot, that’s all you need to make sure you have the right proportions. And always remember – the right foot is bound to be bigger than you think it is!

10 min pose, 3 mins.1


With the 5 minutes I had left over I attempted a standing pose. I love drawing a different model at every life drawing session, but the biggest challenge of today’s session was that with each drawing I had to tackle a different body shape! This model is petite and her legs are quite muscly. She was able to maintain her pose with the support of a pole, which Hannah demonstrated could be very handy for a number of different poses. Another useful prop is a scarf, which can enable a model to hold his or her arms up in the air without undue strain. You’ll notice here that I drew a line down the model’s torso to enable me to see more clearly what the shapes were on either side. When I’m drawing quickly I make myself look at the negative shapes, so the model inevitably looks like a silhouette. I don’t have time to draw more than one or two construction lines, but it’s often helpful to define the angle of the spine and the slope of the shoulders in a standing pose – and we often fail to notice that the model might have more weight on one leg than on the other.  The way I draw is also influenced by the lighting: in this studio there was daylight and fill light created by several spotlights directed at the ceiling, so I wasn’t conscious of strong shadows.

20 min pose, 13 mins


Last of all was the 20 minute pose. For the first time ever, I found myself in a room with mirrors on one wall. I realised what a useful device this was for life drawing – you could effectively draw two models at once! Instead of having to move around the room to get two angles of the same pose, I was able to study it from two angles at once. Another first for me was that to draw this pose I had to move into the middle of the room, as the model was standing in a corner. Suddenly I was the centre of attention, as all the models were posed around me! I felt more acutely what it’s like to be a model, but I also knew that I was not being stared at, as models generally don’t look at the people who draw them. First of all they don’t need to, as they are not doing the same job as the artist, and secondly in order to maintain their pose it’s important for them to focus on something static that will not distract them.

I felt this model’s pose was very natural, and I enjoyed the symmetry that was created by his reflection. I found the two angles of his left leg particularly intriguing to draw.  20 minute standing poses are hard to sustain without some support, and this is a good example of a long standing pose that works. We have sometimes asked a model to lean against a wall, but this is a difficult pose for everyone to draw, as we can only stand on one side of the model. Having a reflection overcomes this problem to some degree.

I had 8 minutes to spare before the end of the 20 minutes, so I chose a delightful reclining pose.

20 min pose, done in 8 mins.1


I loved the way the model’s hair flowed back from her face, perfectly balancing her horizontal body. She was lying on a bench, which was an ideal height – often if the model lies on the floor we don’t get enough overlapping of shapes to make a really interesting picture (note that I am constantly excited by the abstract shapes that the human body creates, rather than being slavishly devoted to studying the anatomy – but it does help to know what’s going on underneath)!  I also like the way she was receding from me at an angle, and I was careful to draw the edge of the bench accurately so that she looked as if she was lying on something. The foreshortening in this case is going in the opposite direction to the drawing I did of David. So this time I had to make sure her feet weren’t too big! The arm looks impossibly large in relation to the legs, but this pose gives you wonderful practice with contradicting your bossy left brain – if you don’t believe what you’re seeing, measure the horizontal distance between the model’s head and her elbow and compare it with the horizontal distance between her elbow and her right foot!


Here is Hannah (fourth from left) and her models. They all said they found the workshop stimulating and enlightening – and I also found it very valuable.  I now know even more than I did before how professional life models need to be, and that means that a training session like this one before your first modelling session is absolutely essential. Anyone who is thinking of becoming a life model should contact Hannah, who will be running similar sessions on a regular basis.  She runs a Facebook page (a closed group for life models only), called Life Models of South Australia.



2 thoughts on “Viewing Life from the Other Side

  1. Pingback: Viewing Life from the Other Side | Mi Mi Designs

  2. Pingback: Life from the other side part 2 – Touchpaper Drawing Tips

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