Last Saturday, I went to a birthday party.
I’ve been doing some life modelling, getting a few jobs here and there, mostly with art students and their shabby-chic tutors. It’s been a studious business. But Saturday’s lot met up at a gastro-pub bar where my glass of prosecco was waiting. ‘Hello, I’m the model’, I said, and there was a flurry of air-kissing. Welcome to my first life drawing birthday party.
There were nine guests and the birthday girl, Kate, who I’d guess was turning about twenty eight. It wasn’t a birthday people comment on (no thirty-angst) but the gang were professionals, a few working years to the good, starting to establish themselves. Seven women, three men, a smart young Crystal Palace crowd. CP’s a south London ‘burb on the up, vegan and craft beer-friendly, where a two bed flat costs half a million pounds.
Kate had hired the beautiful upstairs room with dark blue walls, distressed floorboards and a mirror over the fireplace, and Jim, the tutor who’d booked me, had set the place out. There were a circle of easels, charcoal, pencils and paper. The glow of a lamp, which beats unforgiving fluorescents. Centre-stage seat for me with a soft red throw.
I’ve worked with Jim three times now, and I think he’s a really good teacher, funny and down-to-earth. He gives lots of practical tips, and the joke here was that Kate’s friends weren’t sure they could draw at all, let alone the complexity of a naked person. The prosecco was there to help. There were several runs to the bar for more, and a lot of giggling.
Robe-off was the counter-cultural moment. This is nothing like naturism – not with that edge of sensation. But the quick little break in the norm was absorbed, and the minutes flowed on. Jim knelt on the floor in the front so the group could see him work, and began to demonstrate: dots across the paper to catch the figure proportionally within the frame, faint lines at first ‘til you are sure that the outline is right. Then they tried.
Sitting there makes me still in ways that aren’t just physical. It has to be nicer to draw a person who’s calm: the heartbeat of a nervous model would speed up the space and make people edgy. Jim puts on quiet music and (unless a pose misfires and I get a bit sore) I drift close to becoming sleepy. In between poses there was more chatting than normal; they’re friends and they laughed at each others’ drawings.
So it grew into a lovely, funny afternoon. Some of the drawings were great: natural talent emerging, or in one case a course in Fine Art providing a definite advantage.The tentative ones started out with squiggles in a corner of the paper, but everyone improved. Feet, we all agreed, are hard. Kate said to me, on one of the breaks as she topped up my glass, that she’d thought about doing a bit of life-modelling herself.
When the last pose was done I got dressed and there was a prize-giving: Best Female Artist, awarded by Jim, and Best Male, judged by me. And when I came back in my clothes, one of the guys double-took. ‘I didn’t recognise you!’ he said.
That’s how used to my nakedness he’d grown. It wasn’t the most important thing about me. Undressed-ness was ordinary, peaceable being. That was the best part of all.