The Life Model
Setting eyes on him turned me into someone I no longer recognize, a moment
that will live in my memory the rest of my life. One early spring day, during my
sophomore year, second semester in art class. That’s when it happened.
Last fall the first semester began with still life studies. From there, we
moved on to impressionism, and finally landscapes, which included a few field
trips out into the country. This semester began with the human body. The first
few weeks we studied form and function, doing sketches from photographs and
other works of art, learning about muscle structure and perspective in relation to
different poses: sitting, standing, reclining, viewed from both front and behind.
Not as easy as it sounds, especially the hands. Hands are difficult, even for
guys like Michelangelo. Look at the statue of David; his hands are too large.
Today, the day we had anticipated, the day some of the girls had giggled about,
we’re using a life model to draw the human form.
I arrive early, set up my easel near the windows, watch my fellow students
file in and take their positions; young men and women, like myself, aspiring
artist, most of us fully engaged in the study of art. The studio, a large room
filled with sunlight from the wall of windows, feels warmer than usual. I learn
later Mr. Reynolds had turned up the thermostat a few degrees so the model
wouldn’t feel chilled.
After a brief preliminary lecture, Mr. Reynolds opens the door to an
adjoining room and nods to someone inside. My anticipation heightens. I’m
somewhat intimidated by recreating the image of a real person in charcoal on
manila paper. The model steps into the room, draped in a knee-length robe, and
takes a position on the platform centered in the room; a male, perhaps a couple
years older than me, tall and lean, casually mysterious, quite composed as he
lets the robe fall to the floor. I had expected a female.
Studying him, I wonder if the male form will be more challenging than a
female. The room is silent except for the two girls in back whispering to each
other; like me, probably surprised we’re drawing a male. Some of the students
have already started. With charcoal in hand, I stare at him. Before long
everything else vanishes from my consciousness; it’s just him and me. I wonder
how he manages to stand there so casually, exposed to thirty fully dressed
people focused exclusively on him. He makes eye contact with no one.
Instead, he stares out the window, his distant gaze thoughtful and fixed, here
physically but mentally somewhere else. I realize this will be far more
challenging than drawing a bowl of fruit, or even the human form from a
painting or a photograph.
A three dimensional, living, breathing man, a guy in deep thought, but
thinking about what? Does he feel my eyes on him, contemplating every detail,
sadly comparing my own body to his? Is this some kind of connection I feel?
Misguided on my part to make that assumption—he seems utterly detached.
Yet something is there, some form of intimacy, if only in my mind; but perhaps
that should be expected between artist and subject. It haunts me nevertheless;
he is sharing his body with me, letting me capture it permanently on paper.
I study the length of his arms in relation to his torso, the length of his legs in
relation to his height, the size of his head in relation to the breadth of his
shoulders; then find a starting place. A few curved lines on the paper. I stare at
them wanting to feel triumphant, wanting to visualize within them the chest, the
abdomen, the shoulders. Instead I feel frustrated, distracted, curious about a
guy that can walk into a room and stand naked in front of thirty pairs of gaping
eyes. And there are other emotions I can’t identify; a swirl of wind inside my
head, thoughts like weightless ghosts. Yes, this will be far more difficult than I
had imagined. The practical concept of picking up a stick of charcoal and
drawing something placed before you doesn’t seem to apply. I’m not prepared
for the emotion, the intimacy, the irrational imaginary connection. I wasn’t
expecting to be affected this way.
An implausible thought draws me into the shadows, despite my instinctual
resistance, despite my lifelong definitions of masculinity, despite the fact such
thoughts had never entered my head, like something is going on with me,
something unrelated to artist and subject, something both frightening and, if I
dare acknowledge it, exhilarating. Why are my hands clammy? Why do my
fingers feel useless, making it difficult to even pick up a piece of charcoal, let
alone draw with it?
My eyes lift from the paper, comb over him head to foot, absorb his beauty
leisurely. I had seen men nude before, in the showers, the dorm hallways, my
own roommate changing into the shorts he always wears to bed, fleeting
glimpses, consciously discarded, chased from my mind like unwanted visual
taboos. I had never purposefully filled my mind’s eye with the image of a nude
male, never allowed my imagination to come into play while my gaze wanders
over a man’s body, as I’m doing now. Seized, I stare at the mysterious blue
eyes, the thin expressionless lips, the taut jaw line, the way the neck joins the
shoulders that broadened slightly into the chest, the arms hanging loose along his
ribs, the hands near his hips, the shock of dark pubic hair, the uncircumcised
penis drooping and relaxed, the curved sweep of the buttocks, muscular and
firm, the legs like invincible columns supporting his weight, the feet firmly
planted under his motionless stance.
My natural inhibitions have abandoned me. I stare at his hands, wondering
what he likes to do with them, how he uses them with his lovers. I watch his
chest rise and fall on each muted breath. I notice, if watched long enough, you
can observe the subtle way his testicles retract and relax, perhaps caused by
barely perceptible currents of cool air. These fixations seem to multiply and
evolve into something even more difficult to explain, to the extent I feel a
change in my body chemistry, a nervousness of some kind, a faster beating
heart; something I don’t understand but want to be free of. I have to complete
I tear off the page, stare at the off-white blankness of the next page. As my
eyes shift back and forth between the page and the model, I begin to visualize
the chest. Charcoal to paper, the chest takes form, the shadows and contours
and subtle angles. With a quick flick of the wrist, the nipples. Next the
shoulders appear, the creases near the underarms, the biceps, the elbows, the
forearms, the shadows of dark hair. Back to the neck: the jaw line, the lips, the
rest of the face left for later. Back down: the hips, the ...
Mr. Reynolds approaches the model with a small carton of orange juice. I
can’t believe forty-five minutes have passed. Time for the model’s break. I
watch him pick up the robe, drape it over his shoulders and walk over and sit
down on the window ledge, one foot braced on the floor, the other resting on
the ledge, his knee drawn up, the robe hanging open. While the instructor
silently passes among us, observing our work, the model tilts the drink to his lips
and stares out across the courtyard.
My attention shifts from the lines and shadows on my pad to the silhouette
of a young man backlit by bright sunlight on the ledge, my breaths shallow and
quick. My unfinished work had taken form in a kind of frenzy. I feel a low
level of exhaustion as I wonder what he’s thinking. Is he curious about the
interpretations of himself fixed to the thirty easels across the room? Is he
conscious of the time, thinking only one third of his three hours are up? What’s
going on with me? Why all this insane curiosity?