The Liberating Experience of Being a (Naked) Life Model
I’ve thought about being a life model a few times in my life, but until this year, the idea of it has kind of terrified me.
Life modelling is holding poses in the presence of artists while completely or partially nude. Creating an image of the human form is actually one of the oldest known arts in the world.
It’s also super exposing. You’re literally sitting, nude, in front of people who are drawing you, painting you or taking photos of you as a “subject”, for a piece of art.
But even still, I wanted to try it. I thought it would help me to get more comfy with my naked body, to accept it as a thing of beauty; a thing worthy of art. And I was right.
My friend, Anthony Stephens, is a painter who specialises in nude portraits. We’d been chatting about doing a piece together for a while and finally, our schedules and creative energy aligned and we set up a date.
So, one Wednesday, he came and picked me up and went to his studio to take some photos he could use for a piece. He gave me a glass of water and asked if I was comfortable. I wasn’t totally comfortable, but it had nothing to do with him.
It’s always super strange to take your clothes off in front of someone you’re not being intimate with. It doesn’t feel wrong in a dangerous way, I think it just feels weird because we’re taught not to show our bodies too much.
Especially as women, we’ve been taught to cover and hide ourselves. So much so, in fact, that even stripping nude in front of someone we’re about to have sex with feels like a lot sometimes.
I closed my eyes and told myself that I’m beautiful and had nothing to be afraid of. Then I took my clothes off. I do this a lot actually, positive self talk about my body, to myself. I do it at modelling fittings and lingerie shoots, or really any time I need to be exposed in front of people that don’t know my body intimately.
I asked Anthony what it is about nudity that inspires art for him.
“I think nudity acts as a great equaliser,” he said.
“When you strip someone of their clothes, you take away a layer of social protection and without that, you can capture something closer to the ‘essence’ of a person.”
“Also, the style of painting that I respond to and admire most is generally figurative, and the human form has traditionally been seen as the pinnacle of that expression.”
It’s hard not to feel stripped of a protective layer in this scenario. I got myself into a few different positions and we workshopped them, so that he could take some photos to then paint off.
Getting into position was the most awkward part. It’s like when you’re trying out a new sex position and wondering how your body must look. It’s a little awkward but you want to make it as smooth as possible and you just hope that they can’t see how hard you’re trying.
He took photos of me in three or four different positions. We drew inspiration from old nude paintings and nude photographs out of coffee table books. It really helped to have a visual reference of what positions looked good.
The whole experience was liberating and exhilarating. Getting comfortable with someone looking at your body in a more literal way, is truly freeing. You stop caring about the way you look and just let yourself go; because you have no other option.
And then, when he showed me the photos, I actually loved them! I saw a side to myself that was sexy and beautiful and completely naked and honestly, that’s always a vibe.
I look at myself naked in the mirror all the time, but that’s different, because you can hold your body in a way that makes it look “better”. But, when you’re looking at yourself through someone else’s lens, it’s super intimidating because you don’t know if they’ll highlight the things you would.
Anthony knows all of this, and the environment he created definitely allowed me to feel free and comfortable.
“I know from experience, as someone who has painted myself nude and has sat as a life drawing model on a few occasions, that there are things that you absolutely DO NOT want to happen while posing nude for someone,” he says.
“As such, I set very clear boundaries and expectations before clothes come off–eg. That there’s a robe available between shots, that the room is at a reasonable temperature–that there is no touching to move a model (for example moving an arm etc) without direct conversation and permission.”
“Discussing expectations for posing and figuring out the intention of the painting together, prior to disrobing, is also incredibly important.”
He just recently finished painting me, across two panels on a beautiful rosewood Omann Jun sideboard. He asked me if he could tag me on Instagram and I said “of course”, which is just another layer of newfound freedom in this whole experience.
I’m not ashamed of people seeing my naked body. In fact, I’m super proud of it.
“I am trying to create a body of work that communicates a breadth of human experiences, and I want people to have some sort of emotionally response or connection to that,” says Anthony.
“I think I’ve done my job if people look at the pieces and laugh, they yell, if they’re happy or sad. If there is even the slightest emotional response, the paintings have done their job.
“Equally as important as that-that every person deserves the opportunity to see themselves painted and hung in a gallery. That no matter what you look like, you are valid.”
I have to say, I definitely feel this way now. After seeing my body painted onto something physical, I feel much more liberated to be free with my body in what I wear and how I portray it; both in real life and online.
I’m actually thinking of making life modelling a bit of a side hustle. I’d like to get even more comfortable with my naked body, and the idea of other people looking at it as a thing of beauty. Because it is.
Anthony is part of a group show opening on October 20, 2022 organised by Hunter&Folk at Rainbow Studios in Sydney, with a theme of restoration and rebirth. It will feature the work he did of my bod, on the sideboard. Check it out here.