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Canada Street Studios, London, 22 January 2022

Some life drawing groups were determined to keep going throughout the coronavirus pandemic by any legitimate means. Others went into hibernation back in March 2020 and have not been seen since. And others, like the group of artists at Canada Street Studios, are now joyfully re-emerging. It was my privilege to be their restart model.

Upon arrival I was taken upstairs, and led past cubicles strewn high and low with any conceivable manifestation of art-making bric-a-brac, to the farthest corner. I would be modelling here for half a dozen occupier artists. After some impromptu brainstorming on how best to set the space and where I should be situated within it, we began.

I convinced myself we would probably start with a warm-up of 1, 2 or 5 minutes, tops. When it turned out to be 10-minutes, I failed to reset my mind and got a into kneeling pose not at all suitable for that length; nice for artists, but less so for my body. During the 5-minute standing pose that followed, my left thigh fibrillated violently throughout.

Heeding that particular lesson of cause and effect, I assumed more moderate though nonetheless interesting angular poses for the next two 5-minutes, then reclined upon my chair from the floor for a final 15 minutes before our break. After a refreshing mug of tea, I resumed with a 20-minute seated pose that emphasised hands and feet.

With 25 minutes remaining, I asked if there was any strong preference for a standing, sitting (chair or floor) or reclining pose for a finale. There wasn’t so, having the choice returned to me, I opted to sit upright on the floor with limbs forming a web of negative spaces. Thus I remained, absorbing the gentle ambience of weekend art in the city.

I’d only been booked here once before, back in 2019, but then as now I was warmed by the community-spirit, positivity and kindness of everyone present. At the end I was asked if I could suggest models for future sessions. Duly I put forward 10 names, and hope that any who accept the offer are able to share in the same bonhomie.

The Beehive, London, 13 January 2022

At last, an occasion to celebrate. Tottenham Art Classes had invited Esther and me to life model as a duo for their 8-year anniversary special at The Beehive pub. It was the second time we’d been honoured like this, having posed together when the group turned 5 years-old back in – what seems a lifetime ago – January 2018.

Whether it was to join the celebrations, or the promise of half-time cake, or – perhaps most likely – because the event was free to attend, the good folk of Tottenham turned up in droves. I reckon almost 40 people were present. Organiser Taz tried to get them seated in COVID ‘bubbles’, bless her, but within rules everyone knows their choices.

So, with a fantastic birthday vibe in the room, we started with four poses of 2-minutes each. We posed separately and dynamically, switching to opposite ends of the space at every change. I couldn’t see Esther’s poses, but knew they would be extraordinary, so I got into some strong shapes myself. The aches and pains began here!

Next, a 10-minute pose for which Esther stood whilst I sat on the floor and embraced her hips. It was an intimate joy, but alas our only pose close together. The Beehive is an excellent pub, yet cursed with a supporting column that blocks lines of sight in the middle of the room. Of course, it would be more cursed if the column was removed…

We reluctantly separated to make sure everyone in the room could clearly observe at least one of us, as we finished the first half with poses of 15-minutes and 20-minutes. An energetic connection was created when I sat on a stool and Esther reached out to me; a literal connection was restored as Esther sat both on the stool and my hand.

Break time was cake time. And what a superb cake too, courtesy of Sophia at Sugar Team Room. I was twice blessed, as a wholly unsubtle hint saw me rewarded with a second helping. That letter in the photo below? Not the proverbial ‘p, please‘, but the ‘d’ from ‘Celebrating 8 years of drawing‘. Never was an inverted ‘d’ more tasty.

When we restarted after the interval, it was once more with quick-fire poses, only this time even quicker: 30 seconds to begin, then three of 1-minute each. Throughout the next 15 minutes we stood side-by-side at a slight distance but near enough to have a hold of each others’ hands.

For the final 20 minutes of the session we were back-to-back; or rather, bum-to-back. Esther sat upon the stool whilst I stood behind her. My hands settled upon whichever surfaces of Esther’s skin they could reach, and vice-versa. Connections made. In this way we concluded a splendidly enjoyable evening’s work.

During darkest days of the pandemic, opportunities for modelling in person had been scarce, and modelling as a duo even more so. Things are still far from being what we once knew as ‘normal’ but this was a lovely return for us and another great milestone for Tottenham Art Classes. Let’s hope they have many more to come.

East Croydon United Reform Church, 8 January 2022

My return to life model for Croydon Life Drawing Group (first time back since 2018) was also my first modelling work of 2022 – happy new year! – and my first booking of any kind since the last week of November. I felt anticipation coupled with trepidation as I walked the wet wintry weekend streets of Croydon; still semi-deserted at 9am on a Saturday. Might the church hall also be wintry and semi-deserted, I wondered?

Wintry, it most certainly was not. With two electric bar heaters in front of me, and four more heater units raging away on the wall behind me, I felt warmer than I’ve been on many a summer evening. Neither was it semi-deserted. With fifteen or sixteen artists present – mostly-masked throughout – plus group organiser Francis and me, we had what I reckoned to be a full house, by current standards.

We began at 9:30am with quick-fire poses: two of 5 minutes each, then 4 minutes, 3, 2 and 1 minute, followed by two of 18 minutes, taking us to 10:30am. I made tangles of angles; standing, seated, draped, kneeling. We then took a break for teas, coffees and cookies, during which an artist declared to me: “you’re very difficult to draw!” I’ve heard this before but am still never quite sure whether I’m expected to apologise!

Overwhelmingly feedback was unambiguously complimentary and it was lovely to be able to talk face-to-face with people – albeit still masked – after such a long absence. We completed the session with one long pose lasting an hour and a half. I got myself into seated position of sufficient comfort that I was able to decline all offers of a break until the 60-minute mark, and then needed only to give my arms a brief stretch.

Forty-five days had passed quickly since I last modelled. At the outset of that period I suspect I caught, ceased being infectious with, briefly endured, but at last shook off a mediocre version of COVID-19. Lateral flow tests and a PCR test all yielded negative results so I’ll probably never know for certain, but a lingering uncoughable cough was suspicious. Whatever the case, it was gone before Christmas. Life goes on. (Phew!)

Create98, Leigh-on-Sea, 23 November 2021

Not only is Leigh-on-Sea widely regarded as the creative epicentre for visual arts on the north side of the Thames Estuary, it’s also only 15 minutes from my front door. It may seem extraordinary then, that in almost a decade of working as a life model and art performer I’ve never plied my trade in Leigh. In Essex, yes, in Hockley, Horndon and Hutton, but perhaps Leigh had felt a little too close to home.

Whether there’d been a mental block or (more likely) I just never had the opportunity, my breakthrough came at Create98 – an intimate little community hub for all manner of artistic workshops. I’d been booked to pose at one of their portrait classes led by artist Susan Allen. Upon arrival, I entered an immaculately-refurbished, characterful, charming space and was called down to a bright lower-level with a lower ceiling.

Being well over six feet tall I had no chance of standing up straight, but then that’s not why I was there. Instead I was to be seated within a horseshoe of tables from which a half-dozen artists would observe and draw me: face-on, three-quarter face or profile. I don’t usual take my seat till the last minute for portrait poses but it seemed sensible to make this an exception rather than stand with one ear pressed against the ceiling.

Artists who arrived first were able to choose their preferred vantage point, with advice from Susan on the considerations for each. Everyone was relaxed, friendly, open and engaging as they settled for the start. When we began, I entered the trance-like state required of my role, with gaze fixed on the white wall directly before me. ‘Trance-like’, most certainly, but not actually detached…

People often assume I’m lost in thought, meditating or mentally withdrawn when fixed with a blank expression for long periods, but that rarely happens for me. Blankness is the job; inside I remain attentive to everything in the room. Silence is golden for some artists, but it can also be dreary. This was the ideal class for my inner being, however, as Susan circumnavigated the floor offering positive one-to-one tutelage throughout.

I’m happy when art groups play music while I’m modelling, but I’m even happier when there’s fascinating tuition to eavesdrop. I love learning new things. For example, don’t shade-in 5 o’clock beard growth before capturing the shadows that define structure. It seems obvious when I think about it but I’d never heard it said before. Such first class guidance – clear, focused and practical – was given from blank page to final marks.

The icing on the cake was literally icing on the cake: at our half-time interval everyone was offered a choice of home-made sweet desserts, vegan variety, to accompany tea or coffee. I opted for the carrot cake and was blessed with a huge portion. Everything here was both proper and pleasant. I thoroughly enjoyed my first time posing in Leigh, at Create98, and for one of Susan’s classes. Close-to-home is where the heart is.

The Conservatoire, Blackheath, 22 November 2021

Tutor Victoria Rance wanted me dead, and not just because I arrived for her class at The Conservatoire in Blackheath fifteen minutes late (more of which in due course). No. By the time I burst breathlessly through the doorway into the magnificent drawing studio she had already begun circulating historical reference works of dead bodies as a foretaste of the long pose she had in mind for me…

Andrea Mantegna, ‘Lamentation over the dead Christ’ (ca.1480-1490)

Hans Holbein the Younger, ‘The body of the dead Christ in the tomb’ (1520-1522)

Ron Mueck, ‘Dead Dad’ (1996)

I always take great pains to be punctual so something fairly dramatic has to occur for me not to arrive in good time. In a decade of modelling it’s happened only twice; both occasions arising from catastrophic rail problems. This evening also: a train failure at Blackheath station meant the whole line was kaput. And I’d planned to be 20 minutes early! Oh well. We still had time for warm-ups: three 1-minute poses, one 5-minute.

In preparation for the long pose we cleared a space in the middle of the studio, swept the floor, put down three or four layers of foam, added a cushion support for my head, then covered the whole lot with my own white sheet. And there I lay down naked. The pose seemed so simple I felt I should at least attempt to add something, so I crossed my ankles. Tsk tsk. I was told to uncross! I wasn’t to do, I was just to be… simple.

We started at 8:05pm and I remained in this position without a break until we finished at 9:55pm. After all, what could I do in a break that was more relaxing? OK, come the last half-hour the insides of my elbows ached from being held straight for so long, but it was nothing really. Curiously, sometimes I’ll grumble if I have a run of sessions with painful long poses, yet now I felt guilty for having an easy one. It’s a work ethic thing.

When life modelling I have a notion of how I present to artists, but I cannot truly know. What I imagine to be extraordinary might actually appear rather mediocre when seen. Similarly a simple pose can offer all manner of unforeseen challenges and inspiration. The artists this evening had tackled measuring, perspective, foreshortening, light and shade, proportion… and together I felt we’d done fair justice to the reference works.

Time flies. Not only in the hallucinatory mindfulness of 2-hours as a naked corpse but also between occurrences; this was not the first time I’d died for Victoria. My previous lying-in-state at The Conservatoire had been nearly four years ago, back in February 2018. It’s taken maybe that long for me to realise the subtlety and power of this pose, particularly for a slightly skeletal figure: the late Steve Ritter. I should die more often!

Brockley Adult Education Centre, London, 13 November 2021

Since the beginning of 2021, I’ve modelled online both for Adult Learning Lewisham and for tutor Joanna McCormick, but this was the first time in over a year I had been back to model in person at Brockley Adult Education Centre. I confess that on light sultry evenings I warm to the weirdness of posing naked and alone for internet artists, yet I still firmly believe the most magical energies and encounters emerge in person.

On the Friday evening before this all-day Saturday session, I accompanied Esther to The Paxton Centre in Crystal Palace for an ‘Artist Launch Night’ of works by, among others, her friend Caron Clarke. Caron’s art is astonishingly good, but the event was all the more special for its magical encounters. Such unexpected joy to catch-up with veteran fellow model Richard Moon – still radiating a profound passion for his craft!

Richard and I exchanged tales of modelling in pandemic times, and sparked off each other as we recognised familiar quirks in our experiences. After red wines and hearty banter in great company, Esther and I retreated with our friend Dee to her household bubble for cocktails and shots with her and husband, Neil. The evening left me with a happy heart but a hungover head, as I began this session with five 1-minute poses.

For coronavirus safety reasons, windows in the art room were wide open so air could circulate. I declined the offer of heaters as the energy of quick poses keeps me warm, while the mellow freshness of autumn kept me alert. Three 3-minute poses were next. Artists were encouraged to draw using their weaker hand, then using both hands and finally to try blind contour drawing. Out of compassion, I kept my pose simple.

The focus of three 5-minute poses was: negative space, then starting a drawing at its centre, and finally drawing shadows first. This session was intended to be hybrid with artists both in the room and online. Up to the last 5-minute pose I had been drawn by five artists in the room, but only at this point did an online artist join us. I couldn’t help but wonder if they decided a lay-in was more appealing than my quick-fire stylings!

After a fifteen-minute break, Jo demonstrated how to use watercolour paints with pen and ink on watercolour paper. This was the prelude to two 10-minute poses. A further demonstration, this time using pastels, prefigured a 20-minute pose. The clock ticked past midday before the pose ended, meaning lunch was slightly behind schedule. No matter though, as our afternoon hours would be occupied entirely by a single study.

Upon arriving early in the morning I asked Jo what kind of long pose she would prefer. To my amazement, joy and relief, she said what she would really like would be for me to lay down, curled up on soft cushions. I couldn’t quite believe my luck! We’d had the heaters out since the first 10-minute pose, so I now seemed set fair for comfort all the way through to our finish at 3pm.

I declined the early offer of a stretch break, and instead continued to recline (possibly even sleep) for about an hour. When eventually I did stretch, the challenge thereafter was to get back into exactly the same position as before. Reclining poses are formed by relaxing one’s muscles, but must be recreated by tensing them. It meant I was not quite so comfortable during the second hour.

I’d hoped to go right through to the finish without taking another break, but a peeving ache required me to stretch again with no more than twenty minutes remaining. That last manoeuvre got me back into my comfort zone, though – and two stretches didn’t seem unreasonable for a 2 hour 15 minute pose. The reveal of superb final works by the artists was a vindication. Hangover or not, it felt great to be back… in person.

UCL Student Union, London, 11 November 2021

Such is my confidence – or maybe complacency – about rocking-up somewhere new to pose nude in front of strangers that I hadn’t even considered what to expect at this UCL Student Union life drawing session. All I knew was that its tutor would be artist, fellow life model and friend, Lily Holder. In extraordinary circumstances, however, at the eleventh hour and three-quarters, fate obliged Lily to drop out. So what now?

Leadership responsibilities passed to one of the half-dozen students who arrived first. She accepted the burden with admirable grace, taking us into the Chadwick Building, guiding us along corridors to a far room, and promptly reorganising tables and chairs. It seemed a vast space for such a small group; but then more arrived, and more, and yet more, until at 6pm I was naked on one leg in front of over 30 young artists.

Our leader made the astute call that, as they would not be getting the benefit of Lily’s expert tuition during each study, they should instead enjoy an evening of short poses. We opened with five of 2 minutes, continued with three of 5 minutes, and finished the first half with two of 10-minutes. In a starkly-lit room, my trusty white sheet upon grey carpet tiles within an oval of white desks, I tilted and turned and twisted till the break.

The more persons there are in a group, the more impersonal the group can be. Thus, while sub-groups of friends talked merrily among themselves, I detachedly sent a few messages on my phone and took photos of drawings. I tried not to interrupt anyone’s conversations but at least one artist was happy to pause and share her artworks with great enthusiasm. Happiness is an infection requiring no antibodies.

It was agreed that we would complete the session with two poses of 15 minutes and one pose of 20 minutes. I stood: right hand on right shoulder, left arm outstretched. I sat: legs folded beneath me, both hands on the floor. I lay down: right hand on chest, left arm raised. At the end, after a little cajoling from our leader, a few of the students put their drawings on the floor. Very good they were too. It’s good to share. 🙂

And, Lily – I hope destiny permits our paths to cross for longer some time soon!

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