Monday, 18 August 2014

Nudity and the Drawing Theatre.

Take two words. Drawing (ooh I love drawing) and theatre (ooh I loooove theatre), put them together and you have the Drawing Theatre (funnily enough). For me, seeing those two words together caused such a tremor of excitement, that I had my credit card out and the event booked quicker than you can say ‘white rabbits’ on the first of the month.

I have always loved drawing classes, especially life drawing. Back at college, at the tender age of 17, I saw my first naked body. Other than my own body, and a few glimpses of my sister, cousins, friends and parents growing up, I had never seen one close up. And yet, here was a naked woman, draped with a sheet (to protect her naughtier bits), reclined on a sofa, in broad daylight! I couldn’t quite believe it. She sat so still too, that I almost held my breath for her, wondering how it was possible not to itch a scratch or yawn or cough or sneeze. I had grown up being told to ‘stop fidgeting’, so it seemed impossible to sit still for so long. All I could focus on, for those first few hours, was the model moving accidentally, getting a spasm or blushing. Something completely human!! It’s like when you watch a gymnast or a high diver do an amazingly difficult routine… it’s fabulous when they do it perfectly but it’s also a bit exciting when they mess up!! But she never did. As the weeks and years went on, I saw every shape and size of model possible… there were the creative bendy models who could hold elaborate poses for 30 or 40 minutes; there were vast hairy men and women who’s privates lay nestled in thickets, and nipples hung down to their tummies; there were proud bald men, tall sinewy women, short, fat, handsome, ugly… you name it, I drew it. 

When I got to art college, I was so used to the naked form that I thought, well if they can do it, so can I! It just so happened that the life model hadn’t turned up to our class one evening and I thought, how hard could it be, and volunteered? Don’t worry, it wasn’t as if my friends were drawing me… that would just be weird, no, thank God, I knew no one in the class, and the teacher generously allowed me to cover up a little more than the normal models, being my first time and all. I had a single boob on show, and one buttock, but apart from that, everything else was tastefully sheet-covered. Still, nothing quite prepares you for being stared at by two dozen eager artists. Out of the corner of my eye, I would notice someone focusing on my right breast, holding up a pencil, squinting, closing one eye, flicking their focus between flesh and paper back and forth, paper, boob, paper, boob. Others were drawing my nose, my foot or my shoulder, staring so intently that I felt I should have a quick look myself, to make sure there was nothing else there. And the torture of trying to stay still! After 5 minutes I already had itches, ticks and cramps everywhere! I subtly tried to wiggle my toes or wrinkle my nose, trying to relive the agony without moving too much. I remember one man tutting at me, telling me I had moved my hand… could I please put it back where it was. What? Where was it? He directed me, impatiently... right a little, no down a little, fingers closer together, not that much, STOP! I was a nervous wreck! A glorious 5-minute stretch, after half an hour of sitting, made things even worse. I couldn’t remember where my leg had been, what had been crossed over what? Nothing felt quite right. More tuts. The teacher rolled her eyes and re-arranged my limbs herself, to the classes liking, prodding, pushing and sculpting me like a lump of plasticine. And then it was over. Thank God. But after an hour of hideousness, the desire to see what the artists had drawn at the end of the class was too too much. You aren’t supposed to care, of course. All the models I had drawn in the past, had simply got up at the end of the session and disappeared to get dressed, without a backwards glance. I couldn’t help myself though, I had to have a quick peek, and I warn you now, if you have any insecurities at all, and if you ever decide to do this yourself.. don’t look at the drawings. It wasn’t as if the artists weren’t talented, they were, but artists tend to exaggerate features. Some were kinder than others, using pastels and watercolours, softening my flesh, reducing the extremities, but others, the majority, had used charcoal. Dark bold lines emphasised all the things you want to hide. My bum cheeks were like giant black orbs on the paper, my nose shot across the page like a caricature, everything was enormous! Oh my God! Was my head that shape, were my knees that knobbly, did I really have that many rolls of flesh, or those dimples, there!!! It took me quite a few days to recover and I never modelled for a life drawing class again… but did I learn my lesson? No.

In 2004, an artist friend asked me to model for him, for a series of photographs. He was putting on an exhibition in a wonderfully opulent patisserie in Soho and wanted me to pose with a cupcake. He was then going to photoshop it a little, making the light more etherial, whilst enlarging the cupcake on my outstretched hand, so that I resembled a sort of Statue of Liberty, but with a cupcake, not a torch! I arrived in his studio loft early one morning, was immediately plied with champagne and took my clothes off (as you do). Once again, some discreet drape-age was arranged, and only one breast appeared in the final shots, taken from the side. The shoot went very smoothly but after about ten minutes we realised we should maybe shoot away from the window a little, as quite a few office workers, in the block opposite were showing a little too much interest in our goings on! They should be used to that in Soho!! The photographs were quite lovely actually and I still have a copy on the wall in my flat (friends, you have missed that one!), they were so bleached out and softly focused, in fact, that you can hardly tell it’s me! Bonus!

Did I stop there? Of course not. Twice more did I venture into nakedness for the sake of art. Once for my Auntie, a wonderful photographer, who placed myself, my two younger cousins, and my cousin’s baby, on some very cold wet grass, in the woods above our family house in the Lake District, early one autumn morning. Naked? Need you ask? The photographs were beautiful… of my 3 cousins. Slim, young beautiful girls and gorgeous baby Pip, nestled in my cousins arms in the foreground. I meanwhile, am squatting down at the back, looking like I've been caught short, with a slightly embarrassed expression on my face. Awkward. I still love it though, which is a good thing, as it was recently in my Auntie’s photographic exhibition for all the world to see. So people know me just a little better now!

After that, and my final foray into nude modelling, was for another photographer... a friend of a friend in America. I did a whole afternoon’s shoot, fully naked. Fully naked.. sorry I said that twice, but I still can’t believe I did it and still reel from the experience. The shoot was great, the results horrific. I was so upset with how awful I looked, suffering with a large bout of self-consciousness and self-loathing, that I begged the artist to promise never to use a single one of the photographs in her upcoming or any future exhibitions. I felt bad about that but I was so mortified with how I looked that I couldn’t bear the thought of anyone else seeing them. And that was that. The end of my public nakedness. Phew is an understatement!

So, when the man sitting next to me - at the Drawing Theatre class the other night - leant towards me and asked if I had ever done any nude modelling, my first thought was not... well that’s a very odd question to ask a complete stranger, instead my thoughts went back to all the times I had done it. Before I could answer him, however, he began to tell me of his own nude exploits. Now I don't know what you're picturing as I type this, but a hunky adonis this was not. My new friend was mid 40’s, a redhead and very very pale, with a discernible paunch. Nothing wrong with that, in fact, I sound like I'm describing my ex boyfriend, but there was something in his eyes and his demeanour that made me slightly shudder at the thought of him naked. And the fact that as he began to describe his experiences, he stretched out his arms and spread his legs wide, saying how liberating it all was, with a big sigh. Ewwwww. In an attempt to stop myself retching, I turned to my other neighbour to change the subject a little, but it’s hard changing the subject when the subject is about what you're actually doing, and he nudged me and asked me again if I'd done it myself. I replied quickly, that I had, but when I was much younger, leaving it at that. ‘Ooooh’, he said, ‘You must do it again, now that you’re older, you’re probably a far more interesting shape to draw. Far more curves and flesh. I would love to draw you!’ Ugh, creepy icky yuck yuck. Ironically, for years I've actually had a fantasy of meeting a famous artist and becoming his muse, being drawn beautifully, but this was far from that imagining I can tell you. I laughed, sort of, and tried to smile, turning to my neighbour again with a look of, ‘Help me!’ She simply rolled her eyes and shook her head, implying that this was not a new topic of conversation for my ginger friend.

The rest of the evening was amazing though. The class was held in a beautiful interiors shop called Heals, in central London. The organisers aim is to combine stunning architecture, dramatic lighting, music and actors as part of the experience, so I knew this was going to be a very different sort of drawing class. On arrival, we were given wine and nibbles and then let loose on the sets they had designed, able to sit anywhere and draw whatever we wanted. There were tables full of art equipment and we were given leather bound drawing pads to keep, as well as a beautiful glass candle holder and a goody bag!! Not bad for £25. The first scene was very Great Gatsby-esque. The actors posed on the sweeping art deco staircase as the music seared through the vast room. I busied myself with a few collages and was happily cutting and gluing paper, content in my own little world, when I realised an hour had already passed. We broke for another glass of wine (very civilised), and went to the second set. I gasped as I entered the bed department (never thought I would type those words!). It was so beautiful. The actress was dressed like an old movie heroine, reclining on a huge silk-covered bed, with giant fluffy clouds made of gauze, bundles of cotton wool, and oversized lamps. Honestly, it looked like a fairytale fashion shoot, simply stunning. 

But unlike any other drawing class I have been to, the models actually move. They aren't static, holding poses for hours on end, which means you suddenly look up from your pad, having kept your head down for a few minutes, and realise they’ve gone somewhere else. Keeps you on your toes and also makes you try and capture the essence of what you're looking at, rather than a long intense study. I loved every second. They do them every few weeks at different locations around London, and have had classes in crypts and churches, in libraries and art galleries. And after all that talk of nakedness, funnily enough, the models weren’t. They were fully clothed. So I'm not at all sure what prompted me to spend most of this blog talking about naked people. Hmmm. Maybe I should talk to the ginger man again!