The first minute of a life drawing class always comes as a small shock. The model disrobes, steps into the middle of a circle of people and easels, and all of a sudden you are faced with a stranger’s naked body, well lit, right in front of you, purely for your examination.
By the time you’re halfway through your first sketch, however, you’re seeing their body as you would a still life; measuring proportions, mapping them onto your paper, finding where the light falls, trying not to overdo the shading. The weirdness fades fast. Once you start drawing, your regular headspace falls away. The situation is no longer a circle of clothed strangers around one nude one – it’s a study, a room abuzz with pencil scratchings and the energy of concentration, people slowly honing their skills.
Life drawing can be many things. Meditative, relaxing, skill-improving, a wonderful hobby. For me, it has been all these things, but there’s also something else I’ve gained from life drawing – an invaluable change to my concept of what beauty looks like.
Think about this: in your day to day life, what do you see when you look at a body, a face, a person? Most likely, you do not see them exactly as they are. In fact, you likely measure them by an invisible template of perfection that exists in your head.
This template is formed by what you see day to day, in the media, on your phone, on your computer screen – it’s formed of the bodies you are presented with as examples of beauty. These images embed themselves into our minds as templates, edges; chalk outlines into which real bodies must fit in order to be seen as beautiful.
At least, that’s how it was for me, especially as a teenager. Presented by images of ‘perfect’ female bodies on my phone, on my tv screen, on my computer, and in magazines, thousands of images folded themselves into my head as a template and began to cast cruel judgment on the real bodies I saw day to day.
It was inevitable, then, that at some point I would turn that judgment onto myself, measuring my own body up to that invisible template.
When I did, I felt terrible. I tried dieting to become slimmer, and then frustrated that slimming down also decreased my curves. It’s a cycle I think many, many women are familiar with: they dedicate themselves to the perfect body, work ridiculously hard in the gym, eat tiny portions of food, and when they reach their goal – realise they don’t fit that template for perfection for some other reason anyway. I was sixteen, and just starting to cycle through these stages when I began taking life drawing classes.
It wasn’t immediate, but with time, I realised that part of what I loved about my classes was seeing and drawing shapes that I didn’t already know off by heart from magazine covers and Instagram. In the six years since then, I have sketched bodies of many sizes, ages, and genders, and found all of them to be beautiful and intricate and unique.
Drawing made me look at these bodies in their purest sense, without judgment. And it was this kind of depersonalisation that shifted my perspective. When you draw, the usual caricature you sketch in your head when meeting someone disappears.
“You are forced to look at the person as an object – an amalgamation of lights and darks, shadows, highlights, textures, and angles”
Instead, you are forced to look at the person as an object – an amalgamation of lights and darks, shadows, highlights, textures, and angles. You essentially objectify the person that you’re drawing, but it is a positive objectification. By looking at bodies in this way, any body you see becomes art, worthy of immortalizing in an image. And when I started looking at my own body in this way, I began to see it as beautiful for the first time. I thought, ‘look how the angle of my stomach meets my legs when I crouch. Look how lifting my arm casts a shadow on my torso. Look how the light and my changing positions throw my body into different compositions – look how I am art.’
What’s more is that the pieces of ourselves that we often want to hide are also the ones that add texture and beauty to drawings. Scars, body hair, uneven skin – these things offer contrast. Beauty comes from disruptions and variation, not from one-note smoothness. Cellulite, for example, is hard to draw without making it look like dalmatian spots. But when it’s drawn well, it’s beautiful because it’s recognisable – those legs look soft to touch, like they would jiggle running up the stairs. The sketch would be lesser without the inclusion of that texture.
“Beauty comes from disruptions and variation, not from one-note smoothness”
Life drawing classes changed my body image by fundamentally morphing the way I look at other bodies, and therefore my own. They redefined my concept of beauty. Improved body image and acceptance may not be the purpose of life drawing, but for me it has been a wonderfully positive side effect.
I still spend a lot of time on Instagram, reading magazines, and seeing the small, defined mould of beauty that fashion tends to promote. And the invisible template creeps back, every now and then. But trying to realign my eyes from that kind of thinking to the way I would look at an object actually helps. I focus more on the texture and contrast and composition of my body – how would I fit onto a canvas today? And it feels ridiculous, and often pretentious, but it helps. Any person in the world right now could be the next great masterpiece. All it takes is putting a frame around them.