How to Survive as a Female Artist Model

How to Survive as a Female Artist Model

Life modelling involves taking your clothes off and letting strangers depict your form on canvas for money. Worth it?

Let’s imagine that you’ve tried every job under the sun, only to discover that you a) don’t get on with tills, b) don’t get on with customers or c) don’t get on with tills or customers. I was so bad at being a barmaid, specifically at remembering the prices of all the drinks, that I was once asked in all seriousness whether I was on heroin.

I stumbled into life modelling by chance; a friend was going travelling and needed someone to cover her classes. Generally, though, beginning work as a life model needs nothing more than a quick phone call to local colleges and… hey presto! You’re in business! Don’t forget to scout out evening classes too; they often need someone.

There is a huge variety of models both male and female, many of which tend to be on the older side. The classes I pose for are also a cross section of male and female, young and old. Likewise smaller galleries rub shoulders with the established like gentle leviathans, so in order to be sure they match the standard of £10 a hour you can join The UK Register for Artist Models.

Sketches taken from A Small Life, Part I of the autobiography of life-model Suki (in her words, a bit anorexic, just slightly suicidal). The sketch on the left is by artist Edie Gardner. The sketch on the right is by artist Sam Dalby.

Gone are the days when it was a shameful profession; historically life modelling was once seen as worse than prostitution because you were immortalised in a painting so that nakedness would simply never go away, and the Victorians sometimes covered the faces of nude female models in order to protect a model’s perceived loss of modesty and to emotional distance themselves from the live subject they were painting.

However, even these days a man might occasionally misconstrue what you do and assume you’ve told him you’re a stripper when you divulge your occupation. There’s nothing wrong with being a stripper, but that isn’t what I do. Just set him straight politely and firmly, and then ignore him.

Our feminist icons the Guerrilla Girls challenge gender preconceptions of the art world

A common fallacy is that life models are consistently confident about their bodies. You’d think this was true, being that it’s exposed all day long, but it isn’t the case. I’m as unhappy with certain lumps and bumps as the next person, but at work I just don’t think about it. It’s that simple.

You just need to remember that they’re studying art and the bigger the variety of body shapes and positions held the more they’re going to learn. When you disrobe nobody screams and points or starts laughing (though on my first day I of course thought they would), they listen carefully to the teacher and pick up their charcoal/chalk/elephant poo and get to work, because they’re mostly worried about getting it right.

The same goes for any giggling you might hear; I guarantee it’s because they’ve drawn you looking like a deformed scarecrow and not because they’ve noticed the knee you hate so much. They’re generally a talented bunch and you’re there to help them pass their exams, which is their main focus.

Time can drag sometimes, I won’t lie, but when the alternative is dealing with angry customers or tills with a vendetta the freedom is fantastic. I’ve worked out entire plots to stories and books as well as singing Christmas carols (in my mind); you’re basically a professional daydreamer.

Likewise, feats of endurance are sometimes necessary. Emulating the famous life model Quentin Crisp, I make a game of holding uncomfortable positions. Can I make it ten more minutes without falling over? Does my arm really bend that way?

I hope you enjoy your new career option. You’ll need to work in a number of colleges in order to get decent hours but it’s good pay and they have heaters for when it’s cold. Just remember to bring a warm coat for the journey home.