From inside the enclosed space of the gallery, a low and almost silent chatter accompanies the subtle sounds of pencil on paper. The illuminated gallery houses dozens of artists huddled before their art materials, all focusing intently towards the middle of the room where a naked human figure stood.
While the thought of stripping down in front of a group of strangers may cause many to flinch, life models, or simply nude models, unapologetically bare their most intimate parts and allow themselves to be scrutinized on a regular basis. Despite being widely accepted in the art realm, there still remains a taboo mindset towards the profession in the wider community.
A day in the life of a figure model
Sweat dripping down the nape of their neck, the familiar tingling snaking their way into tired muscles, the pain almost unbearable. Almost. Rarely do figure models have the chance to express what goes on their minds as they pose. Rarely do they get to express the trials of posing nude in front of artists, of being scrutinized by society, and of their issues with their body.
Joni Galeste is a professional ballet dancer by day, but when the sun goes down, she leaves her clothes behind as she stands inside a draughty room where dozens of strangers pick apart her bare form.
When asked what she looks at during the process, she replies, “Just gazing at nothing in particular, sort of staring into space.” For her, the concentration to hold a stiff pose spares no thought on what she should look at. At one point, she even found herself staring at a person’s watch to pass the time.
For Duane Pascua, another figure model, life modeling puts her in a meditative state, “Posing and holding a pose for a long time is a tiring, painful thing– but if I allow myself to go through the pain and let go of my physical, corporeal self, my mind goes free,” she explains.
While holding a pose for a long time may cause discomfort to some, she allows the pain to course through her physical self, separating her mental self from it. Duanne shares that one of the recurring visions that often makes her feel at peace is of herself, swimming with various creatures under the deep and vast ocean.
People may think posing nude rattles whatever self-esteem exists within them; anxiousness may start cropping up and scurrying through their minds. However, these two models share one thing in common; confidence. The ability to be naked and bare for people to see is a daunting thing, add that to the risk of being sexualized and objectified, then it becomes even more so, yet Joni and Duanne muster the courage to do what they love. The process of posing is a grueling and long event, but in the end, it is worth it.
Confidence is hard to build up and easy to knock down. The figure models expressed how they built their confidence and overcame their nerves, two skills they needed to develop in order to feel comfortable in an environment open to all kinds of scrutiny.
Before entering the room, Joni has to prepare herself physically and mentally. Given that she’s a ballerina and is fit for most of the time, she shares that she does 20 push-ups before entering the room to emphasize that extra muscle. However, she shares, “I did not put any make-up on because I thought that if I were to bare my body, I might as well keep my face bare too and keep it as natural as I could.” Mentally, she gathers her courage and wills herself to trust everyone in the room.
For Joni, preparing physically and mentally helps her overcome the anxiety and nerves she may feel while being sketched on paper. Duane on the other hand, has been comfortable with her body ever since. She hasn’t felt any nerves before or after a pose, and is generally at peace with being sketched nude.
There is nothing more unnerving than the thought of posing stark naked in front of a room full of strangers, so for a lot of people, it poses the question, “Why do it?” Joni simply shares this piece of advice for those who want to try their hand at nude modeling, “Make sure you know exactly what your reasons are for doing it and why. How you carry yourself and how you demand to be perceived makes the biggest difference. In my case, I wanted to be seen as graceful, strong, and pure. It’s up to you to decide what it is that you want your body to communicate.”
On the other hand, Duane shares that what she values the most about the experience of posing nude is the meditative experience she gets. It is the feeling of separating her mental self from the pain her body absorbs as well as being able to imagine herself in situations she would otherwise not venture in. Ordinary people rarely see what Duane sees, therefore she values her unique experiences and opportunities keeping it close to her heart.
An artist’s perspective
On the other side of the room, a girl sits facing the model, fully engrossed in her work as she sketches out the shape before her, trying to translate what she sees with charcoal onto paper. She had just spent the past twenty minutes trying to capture the way the light falls towards the curves of the model’s backside.
Going into the class, Kathy, a Multimedia Arts student from DLS-CSB, felt a mix of excitement and awkwardness—a common reaction most people have during their first time participating in a life drawing class. Yet as soon as the class starts, she finds her mind going silent as it becomes attuned to depicting the human form in its shapes, shadows, and mid-tones. Initial feelings of awkwardness start to dissipate.
“As soon as it started and the model took off her robe, there was a conversion of interest. I became more focused on breaking down the subject before me on canvas and giving it a new being, one that cannot be reproduced,” she shares.
Meanwhile, Noel Cabangbang found himself relaxed upon entering the class. As someone who frequently attends life drawing classes, he found himself gradually becoming comfortable with the process. He comes from a conservative background, and was hesitant in joining his first class 24 years ago.
“If it weren’t my finals for my art subject, I probably would have never gone,” Noel admits. “This was my first time seeing a naked woman live, but in a weird way, none of that mattered. Instead of feeling sexually aroused, the model became purely a subject manner. I saw man in his most basic form, pure and still and existing in light, time, and place.”
Confronting the taboo of nude art
Stripped off the clothes on their back, the naked human body has always served as a special kind of muse, one that takes on the very aspect of humanity in all its complexities and forms. Every curve and roll, every flaw and imperfection, becomes open to recreation. To be nude is to be our most human, yet in a culture where nudity is treated with extreme discomfort, it is treated as something less.
While the social stigma towards nudity can be traced through a long winding history of its sexualization in the media, more often than not the intention of nudity in art is to depict an important message.
“Nudity isn’t always equal to sex,” Joni explains. “Sometimes the presence of nudity is to drive a point. Sometimes the body is used to convey something political, or beautiful, or an accessory or detail. The difference is in the way you present the body, and art has always had the freedom to do that.”
Kathy is one who hopes to utilize nudity in art as a medium to advocate body positivity. Kathy admits that she used to feel uncomfortable at the sight of the nude form because of the insecurities she had about her own body. For her, capturing the human form in its simplest and depicting it on paper has been one of the most effective ways to confront her body issues.
“Somehow society constructs this image of how our bodies should look like, but when you see one up close, it gives you a more realistic view of our bodies. It shows how our bodies need not to be perfect to be beautiful, and that it’s okay to have imperfections because it is what makes each and every one of us unique.”
Out in the open
Nude art doesn’t have to be sexual or erotic. For artists such as Kathy and Noel, life drawing classes have served as an embodying experience that allows them to explore different body structures and have a healthier depiction of their own bodies.
For Joni and Duanne, posing nude serves as a form of self-expression. By opening themselves up to vulnerability, they are able to express themselves in the most honest and pure light, providing a transformative and empowering experience for the models.
Nude art exemplifies the long standing art of the naked, human body; the natural shape of a model’s figure. Gone are the distractions of the wrinkled blouse, or the slightly tilted belt. Gone are our prejudices against clothes, fit and color. What is presented before our eyes is the truth of what we look like—the naked and honest truth.