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The Conservatoire, Blackheath, 14 June 2021

Through the cold dark months of winter, coronavirus (COVID-19) lockdown number 3 seemed tougher than the two that preceded it. There was precious little in-person life, let alone in-person life modelling. I had a couple of tries at the online version – one in March and one in April – but it wasn’t until this booking at The Conservatoire that at last, in 2021, I could once more stand in the presence of artists and do my thing.

Tutor Victoria Rance was one of the few people I’d had a chance to catch-up with as lockdown eased. We’d met outdoors a couple of times by her wonderful ‘In Real Life‘ installation at Cable Depot (I feature in her film ‘Myth‘). Now here I was, posing in the round for her and seven artists. I counted down to call the times for our opening three 1-minute poses. Next came poses of 5 and 10-minutes, give or take a few minutes…

These quick poses got us warmed-up from 7:30pm to 8pm, and would be followed by one long pose up to 10pm. When Victoria asked what I would like to do, I said I didn’t mind as long as it wasn’t a back-bend. She looked a little disappointed but I’m far too rusty to be bending backward for two hours – even with three breaks! Instead I stood symmetrically upright with hands on hips; Victoria likes me to be symmetrical.

When getting into pose I’d thought nothing of the stance in relation to my nakedness, yet I was surprised to find I felt curiously exposed and brazen when at first the artists walked round me scrutinising aspects and angles. Fleeting self-consciousness aside, it was a physically-undemanding, painless position. The only challenge on this humid evening was to keep my palms from slipping slowly down the ledge of my pelvis.

During the deepest darkest hours of lockdown I couldn’t help but wonder whether my modelling days were over. There was no existential crisis, just uncertainty as to what kind of figurative art scene might emerge. If the rise of online life drawing had fuelled appetites solely for young sexy flesh, there may be no place for physiques outside of mainstream body ideals. Happily we’re not there yet. It’s good to be back.

Life drawing online, 22 April 2021

One of the more exciting aspects of providing poses for gesture drawing – poses that last mere seconds rather than minutes, hours, days – is that neither artists nor model have any idea what their next pose will be till the moment it manifests. In this session, for example, I was asked to start with twelve poses lasting just 10 seconds each. Not the kind of routine that can be planned in advance.

This online life drawing class was one of a series organised by artist Jo McCormick. She had invited me to model for this particular session as my physique lends itself to variety and the observation of clear lines within the form. Whilst the intention was not that students should draw ‘stick men’, it didn’t harm their practice to have a stick man for their subject. Next the poses lengthened: four of 30 seconds each.

After the half-minute poses came five of 1-minute. I know several life drawing groups where 1-minute poses are a warm-up; here, however, I had already barrelled through sixteen poses just to reach this point. The two 5-minute poses that followed felt like a sedate luxury, and the subsequent 20-minute pose might have been an eternity. How to proceed from there? With a portrait study, of course.

For 35 minutes I sat with my phone positioned a few inches from my face so persons unseen could study it and all its flaws in unflinching detail. Psychologically, it’s not for the faint-hearted, but in practice the artists have more than enough lines, shapes and shades to grapple with through their computer screens. Hopefully soon we can return to these challenges in-person, face to maskless face. Surely it’s coming.

Life drawing online, 6 March 2021

Locking down

I’d said I wasn’t going do this. The idea of online life modelling hadn’t appealed to me right from day-one. Through much of last year that feeling only strengthened.

In September 2020, I’d shared my unease at how online life drawing had manifested during the UK’s first coronavirus (COVID-19) lockdown. My primary concern was that: “newcomers to London-based life drawing might see it as an elitist scene accepting only bodily perfection” as “the overwhelming majority of models being booked were either conventionally attractive, physically athletic or – most likely – both.

After its incipient rush of blood, the scene eventually calmed down but I still harboured reservations. As recent as December 2020, a tutor for whom I have the highest regard offered me an ‘in-person’ booking with a caveat that it might have to be moved online. I declined ruefully, saying:

It has emerged that online life drawing is by far the most profitable format for models – even if the rate isn’t increased, there’s still a saving on travel – and potentially the most comfortable, but the idea of it still leaves me very cold (metaphorically). Perhaps it’s too much like my day job, which also currently keeps me stuck at home in front of a computer with no real life human interaction.

Furthermore, having seen so much of London life modelling being ‘sexed up’ over the past year, I’ve become slightly disenchanted with the whole profession recently. I need to rediscover my love of it properly, as it was always meant to be, and leave the online world to those with a greater need or passion.

So in short, if you remain in the position of potentially having to flip an in-person booking to be an online booking at relatively short notice, I will respectfully bow out and leave the floor to my fellow models who can commit to either.

Even as 2020 drew to a close, in my Life during lockdown, part 2 blog, I was clear: “I’m yet to find a place in my heart for life drawing online and still see it as a substitute of last resort rather than a desirable practice.

Opening up

I can’t trace the mollifying of my stance to a single moment. I’d helped Esther set-up cameras and presided as Zoom gatekeeper for her events, in which she was model, performer or host. I’d also modelled for a ‘hybrid’ event at Lewisham College, where some artists were in the room while others were online. Maybe these soft encounters were a first dose of vaccine against my doubts.

I was also aware that the New Year lockdown would probably ease from early spring, allowing in-person life drawing to come back. I’m certain the online version will never disappear but I could foresee it slipping in my consciousness without me ever having tried it. Even so, I still had no appetite for a full evening of modelling alone at home in front of my laptop, straight after a full day of non-modelling work in the same manner.

On 4 February 2021, I received a text message from Joanna McCormick asking me whether I might like to repeat my hybrid event of last year for Lewisham College, only this time fully online. It would be from 10am to 3:30pm on the Saturday of a weekend to which I’d already tagged a day’s leave from my day job on the Monday. It felt like a now-or-never alignment of chance and opportunity, so… I accepted.

Of course, I still had technical matters to work out. First I bought add-ons to convert a top-notch but decades-old Velbon camera tripod into a tilting, turning smartphone grip that could be extended to almost 2m high. Next, I tested simultaneous Zoom links on my phone and laptop. Finally I created a pose space in front of a bare wall at the rear of a spare room that gets plenty of natural light. Everything seemed fine. I was ready.

Being me

Cometh the day, Jo opened the Zoom session at 9:55am. I signed-in using my phone and laptop – the former to capture my modelling; the latter so I could engage with the session between poses. After about dozen artists had joined us, Jo secured the room and we began: five 1-minute poses as a warm-up; three 3-minute poses searching for circles, rectangles, triangles; two 5-minute poses for negative space and shadows.

The plan was to have music playing with each pose but that ended when Jo’s Spotify account ground to a halt. Instead we enjoyed the soothing sounds of her pen at work. My next offerings were 10 minutes seated holding one knee, 15 minutes striding with one arm high, one arm low, and a 20-minute portrait sitting for which the camera had to be moved unnervingly close. At intervals, Jo demonstrated drawing techniques.

It wasn’t all plain sailing. For an upcoming 35-minute pose I had made up my mind to stand with one arm across my head and all my weight bearing down through one leg. From the outset my body warned me the leg had been weakened by a previous pose, but I didn’t listen and duly endured a lot of pain. This was compounded when an artist asked me to stand for a further 2 minutes while they re-measured my proportions.

As a recovery pose for the next half an hour, I slouched upon the floor with head and arms resting on a chair. This was the first and only pose in which I couldn’t see either my phone or laptop, and thus it was also the only pose in which I wouldn’t know if my internet connection dropped. Needless to say it dropped, albeit only enough to knock out the camera for a couple of minutes. Jo’s voice alerted me. Lesson learned.

We reconvened after lunch to finish with an hour-long pose. Before getting underway, Jo demonstrated blind contour drawing using a continuous line – unusual techniques to deploy on a long pose but suggested mainly as a means of making initial marks for subsequent refinement. I positioned myself comfortably on a padded chair and, whilst offered the chance to take regular stretch breaks, opted to stay in situ throughout.

Once I had completed my hour it was time for artists to take the Zoom spotlight. Each took a turn in holding up favourite works and saying a few words. Their feedback was positive and the mood appeared genuinely upbeat, which is especially gratifying after a long day. I felt the same way myself, having suppressed most of my earlier agonies by that stage… although I was destined to be achy for a couple more days.

Despite this enjoyable experience, the opinion I expressed in December remains true: “I’m yet to find a place in my heart for life drawing online and still see it as a substitute of last resort rather than a desirable practice.” Really, however, that says more about me than about online life drawing. I’ve now seen the happiness and satisfaction it can bring others, and I wouldn’t deny that to anyone. Thank you, Jo, for giving this.

Life during lockdown, part 2

On 11 September 2020, I published a blog post called Life during lockdown, part 1. That date marked 6 months since the World Health Organization declared COVID-19 to be a pandemic; the blog shared how Esther and I had changed our lives in getting through those months. My penultimate line was: “I appended ‘part 1’ to the title of this blog because the virus is still out there.” Now, 100 days later, a second lockdown has been and gone, yet the stakes have just gotten even higher. This was our ‘part 2’.

Finding a way

By late summer there were clear behavioural divisions across UK society. Those who lived in greatest fear for their health remained sheltered indoors, whilst others started capering about as though COVID-19 never existed. Most of us trod carefully between these two extremes, cautiously seeking new ways to enjoy bygone pleasures without compromising our own safety or that of others. Mental health was a big consideration too; our function as humans is to be rational and social. We have to strive.

The lockdown part 2 look.

The day after I published my first lockdown blog we re-engaged with the arts in a big way. Spencer Tunick was back in London to create a: “communal, social distancing, mask wearing, human artwork“. We were among two hundred and twenty volunteers who stripped naked to pose outside Alexandra Palace for ‘Everyone Together‘. This was more than just another mass nude photographic installation; it was statement of hope and possibility, tenacity and care, and it reunited us with old friends, safely.

© Spencer Tunick / @spencertunick.

© Spencer Tunick / @spencertunick.

Everyone Together did not say now we can all carry on as in the past, but it did say we can find ways forward in the future, and that we must seize the moment when we can. Being outdoors was key. It felt healthy, free, with more possibility for safer social distancing from others. Esther and I continued cultivating our garden crops and going for long walks through the countryside. We visited our artist friend, Catherine Hall, in Margate and met London friends in open spaces whenever we could.

Esther harvests our first pattypan squash.

Wind-swept with Catherine at Margate.

Aside from participating in the arts, my other passion is travel. Throughout the year, I looked constantly for opportunities to journey abroad within an ever-changing narrow framework of restrictions. A planned trip to Prague had to be cancelled, so I turned to Naples instead. As the departure date got ever nearer it seemed the rules could shift at any moment and deny me once more. Restrictions tightened, paperwork had to be signed and forms filled-in online, yet I managed to get away on 27 September.

A bit nervy on a sparsely populated plane to Naples.

Me and The Seven Works of Mercy (Caravaggio).

By now Esther had embarked on a college course from which it was too soon to take time-out, so I travelled alone. I was sad not to be sharing the experience, but to miss the trip myself was unthinkable; I needed it badly, for my mind and my spirit. Visits to Herculaneum, Vesuvius and Pompeii were dream-fulfilment. I had my temperature checked almost everywhere I went, and was constantly hand-sanitising. Masks were commonly worn outside; in general, Italy seemed a lot more disciplined than the UK.

On the coast at Naples, with Mount Vesuvius for backdrop.

In the Building of Eumachia, ancient Pompeii.

Life drawing in the flesh

Tunick and Naples were to be high points in a desperate year. The travel corridor for Italy closed very soon after I returned, and there were to be no more art installations, though life drawing in person – in the room with artists rather than online – was back for educational settings and covid-safe venues. When I posed for LeNu life drawing on 22 September it was my first time modelling in more than 6 months. I’d lost a little flexibility and suspected my bones were slightly less visible, but it felt great.

Appropriately rusty, at LeNu life drawing.

I’m yet to find a place in my heart for life drawing online and still see it as a substitute of last resort rather than a desirable practice. In my last lockdown blog I criticised the ‘sexing up’ of life drawing that, as it appeared to me, seemed to accompany this shift online. Three months on as online groups have become better established and more confident, sexing-up has toned-down; but for me psychologically, the online format is tainted a little. Even so, I respect its importance for livelihoods and mental health.

Long pose at The Conservatoire.

I’m still not responding to life model call-outs or pursuing new bookings as I prefer to leave opportunities for those with greater needs. The few jobs I’ve accepted were all offered to me directly for differing reasons. In October I posed at The Conservatoire and Hesketh Hubbard Art Society. I had modelled for their artists almost fifty times in total over the years, but these sessions… they were both exhilarating and eerie. In each case, human interactions – connections in the space – were essential qualities.

Short pose for Hesketh Hubbard Art Society.

In mid-October, Esther and I attended an exhibition of quite magnificent paintings by Artemesia Gentileschi at the National Gallery. While we were queuing to get in, a chance encounter with artist and tutor Joanna McCormick got me another booking, in November at Brockley Adult Education Centre. I didn’t realise it at the time, but an increasing rate of coronavirus infections across the UK meant this would be my final booking of 2020. A fortnight later, the second national lockdown was announced.

Esther between of Artemesia’s Judiths.

National lockdown 2.0

It was Halloween when our atrocious, incapable, self-obliging oaf of a prime minister got up on his hind legs to decree, belatedly, that national restrictions lasting 4-weeks would begin on Thursday 5 November. Another lockdown. What’s to be done in such situations except apply face paint, put on vaguely sinister clothes and go to the pub? We spent that evening in the bohemian surrounds of The Railway Hotel, Southend, feeding and watering our sorrows at their ‘Public House of Horrors‘ night.

Halloween and the Public House of Horrors.

A witch! A witch!

On 4 November, the last night before lockdown, we returned to The Railway Hotel to catch a gig by musical comedy duo, Cumposers, with revelatory support, emotional and strong, from Ren Stedman. I had tickets for other gigs after the lockdown, but a tightening of local restrictions meant they were destined to be cancelled, so this was my last of 2020. It was a very special evening. We bought Ren’s T-shirt and CD, had wine, shots and a good meal, then retreated home to brace for the 4 weeks ahead.

The extraordinarily talented Ren Stedman.

Cumposers, riffing the Railway regulars.

The second lockdown, when it came, was quite unlike the first. Pubs, restaurants and anything remotely cultural or uplifting were closed or cancelled, but otherwise it felt as though life continued much as before. Supermarkets were busy, schools stayed open, roads stayed noisy and outdoor public areas were more crowded than before. For me its main downsides were a scuppering of holiday plans, colder days and longer winter nights, meaning I couldn’t go for cross-country walks after work. I was stuck indoors.

At Brockley Adult Education Centre.

At Brockley Adult Education Centre.

With schools and educational settings staying open, my full-day life model booking at Brockley Adult Education Centre was able to proceed on 7 November. It was hybrid, meaning some artists were present in the room whilst others painted online… my first taste of online life drawing, and one I felt was a valid compromise. Meanwhile, Esther faced either having to cancel her Spirited Bodies 10-year anniversary event or move online instead. After much agonising, she chose the latter course.

Lockdown life ~

~ at home with Esther.

As a warm-up practice before Spirited Bodies, she ran ‘Lockdown life ~ at home with Esther‘ – an online life drawing and performance event for a modest-sized audience, which allowed us to trial the best technical approach. This included testing the use of three webcams, though we stayed with only two for Spirited Bodies. The anniversary event went extraordinarily well with 40 people taking part, including Esther and seven others modelling. It was a genuine feel-good occasion shared with many old friends.

Spirited Bodies is 10 years-old!

Ursula poses and performs ‘Sea Too’.

Out of the frying pan

Although the shift in public attitudes and behaviours meant at times the lockdown felt like a lockdown in name only, it affected me more than the first one. This time I would see Esther at weekends-only and in between would sometimes not see another flesh-and-blood person for two or three days. Coupled with an intensification of my day job at home, I was quite relieved when national restrictions ended on 2 December; albeit London emerged from lockdown into the high local restrictions level, ‘Tier 2’.

Tate Britain in neon.

Tyger Tyger, burning bright.

We didn’t know it then, but we had just two and a half weeks before things would get worse again. Time was precious. We visited the Royal Academy Summer (Winter) Exhibition, went Xmess market shopping at ever-wonderful cave and accompanied friends, Marinella and Gaylyn in viewing the illuminated façade of Tate Britain. Most importantly, we managed to escape from the capital for a 4-night break in Penzance, Cornwall. No rules were bent or broken. We needed it; I needed it.

Esther at The Merry Maidens stone circle.

Atop Creeg Tol.

We arranged this trip only when November bookings to Sicily and Athens fell through. Little did we know at the time that after lockdown was lifted, Cornwall would be left as the only part of mainland England in the lowest tier of restrictions. We walked around the coast to Mousehole, visited Land’s End and best of all, discovered ancient stone circles and megalithic standing stones. Pubs and restaurants were open; we even ate a full Christmas dinner. It was a huge boost for minds, bodies, spirits and souls.

Support for Piper I megalith.

In alignment at Boscawen-Un stone circle.

On 17 December, the day after we returned home, London and the southeast moved into very high ‘Tier 3’ restrictions. So be it. At least we knew the rules for the next two weeks and could plan for Christmas. I immediately commenced a period of voluntary self-isolation so it would be safe for me to visit relatives on Christmas Day. So naïve! Two days later our crap prime minister declared a virus variant in the southeast to be much more infectious, so we had to go into a new ‘Tier 4’. Christmas was cancelled.

We go on

Disappointment abounds, but where there’s still life, there is hope. During the course of this year I’ve had twelve life model bookings, five holiday bookings and two tickets for gigs all cancelled. In-person contact socially has been minimal and for my day job has ceased completely. Since March I’ve seen my parents maybe half-a-dozen times, whereas previously I visited them weekly; I won’t now see them for Christmas. And in all this, I’ve been lucky. I’m lucky I’ve lost no-one to the virus. I’ve been lucky.

Midwinter performers – photo © Simon Bradley.

This evening Esther and Ursula Troche staged a ‘Midwinter Words and Plays‘ event online. It marked the longest night, and perhaps these are our darkest days. There is always a way through, though. With each new twist we must strive and seek and find the new way for ourselves and our loved ones. Our world is smaller for now; we don’t yet know what lies ahead, but there will be a way forward. The nights will get shorter, the days brighter. The light will come. We go on. Stay strong. Life will get better.

Brockley Adult Education Centre, London, 7 November 2020

What bliss! A full day of proper life modelling, in person. And what good fortune! I was with Esther outside the National Gallery waiting to enter its Artemesia Gentileschi exhibition, when Esther said, “Isn’t that Joanna?” Right enough, Joanna McCormick was walking by. After we’d chatted a while, Joanna said she needed a male model for the whole day on Saturday 7 November and asked if I would be interested…

It was to be a hybrid session at Brockley Adult Education Centre, with some artists present in the room and others participating online via Zoom. The latter aspect would make it my first experience of online life modelling in any situation. This hybrid format made the prospect more palatable for me, as personally I still struggle to find the idea appealing. I arranged my pose space in relation to five easels and a webcam.

Between 10am and 11:15am, we would be working through a sequence of very short poses, each timed by music of the exact length required from an eclectic playlist: five 1-minute poses to start, then three of 3-minutes, two of 5-minutes, one of 10-minutes and one of 15-minutes. Windows were wide open to keep the fresh air circulating but temperatures were mild for mid-autumn. Sunshine and exertion kept me warm.

We took a drinks break for quarter of an hour, then resumed with poses of 20-minutes and 30-minutes. Prior to each pose Joanna suggested a new method of mark-making for artists to try if they wished, and most would give it a go. Afterwards everybody was invited to show their work and talk a bit about their choice of materials. Remote artists were able to engage with those in the room, and the vibe was upbeat throughout.

We took half an hour for lunch before closing the session with one long pose. I chose to be seated and settled into position at 1:20pm. Stretch breaks could be taken every 20 minutes but I declined the first, opting to stay motionless till 2pm before easing my limbs for a minute or two. At 2:20pm we paused again and all took a 10-minute break before resuming for what would be our final half-hour, taking us up to 3 o’clock.

This session was able to go ahead during England’s second nationwide ‘lockdown’ of the coronavirus pandemic due to an exemption for schools and colleges. In the week that followed, however, all my remaining bookings for 2020 were cancelled. The risks simply appear too great for many institutions. It’s a shame, but understandable. If this was indeed my last booking of the year, well… it was a lovely way to spend the day.

Mall Galleries, London, 28 October 2020

It’s a frivolous observation to make amidst the trauma and upheaval of pandemic, but one entirely unanticipated consequence for me was a booking on 15-minute poses at Mall Galleries. All previous sessions for Hesketh Hubbard Art Society had been on portrait, long-pose or 30-minute poses. Now, with strict COVID-19 safety measures in place, artist numbers limited and other models dropping out, my time had come!

These days the gallery has a one-way system, requires artists to wear face coverings and prioritises social distancing. Such restrictions leave room for only three models to work. Long-pose and portrait pose would be as usual, but I was to provide a hybrid of 15-minute poses for the first hour and 30-minute poses for the second. By agreement between the artists, however, we switched to make it 15-minute poses throughout.

Drawing by Liz Elmhirst.

Drawing by Liz Elmhirst.

Drawing by Liz Elmhirst.

Drawing by Liz Elmhirst.

On the busiest evenings of bygone years, there might be a hundred or so artists here. This session had, I reckon, perhaps twenty split between two rooms with six or seven drawing me. Not many to witness my debut 15-minute poses at Mall Galleries but the connection felt stronger with those who were present. The space had become almost serene; the uncannily becalmed eye of a coronavirus storm across the world outside.

I’ve often jokingly referred to short-pose bookings here as the ‘sexy slot’ in recognition of an unspecified quality that, despite a change of model each week, somehow seems to be ever present. I never imagined carrying the responsibility myself, but gave of my best – just my own quirky lines and angles – and felt gratified to get positive feedback. Exceptional circumstances, desperate times, special moments.

The Conservatoire, Blackheath, 12 October 2020

This session at The Conservatoire, Blackheath, was only my second life modelling job since the UK coronavirus (COVID-19) lockdown of spring and summer 2020. The door is once more ajar for in-person life drawing, yet with coronavirus cases, hospital admissions and deaths on the rise, I fear it won’t be for long. At least the Victorian art studio here offers plenty of room for two-metre social distancing.

All doors were wide open to the street when I arrived, providing maximum ventilation. Instinctively I wanted to close them and keep the cold air out but, of course, priorities have shifted now. Two mini radiators and a ceramic heater soon got the space warm. They felt safer than fan heaters that redirect each exhaled breath towards the model. We began with quick poses of 1 minute, 1 minute, 1 minute, 5 minutes, 10 minutes.

A single long pose would occupy the remaining 2 hours. Tutor Victoria Rance asked whether I would oblige the class with a standing pose – in particular, a revision of the arms-out posture I’d made with 219 others for Spencer Tunick’s Everyone Together photographic installation one month earlier. Victoria called it the “Doctor Who pose”, as it resembles the Time Lord’s dramatic stance when regenerating…

‘Everyone Together’

Doctor Who

For a mass photoshoot, one might be in pose for a few minutes. For the wracked and dying Doctor, it’s mere seconds. For me, however, it would be a couple of hours. With six artists looking on, I planted my feet, arched my back and spread my arms. From a little after 8pm till 8:35pm it was OK. From 8:45pm to 9:05pm, my left arm went numb and my back began to lock. Thereafter, it was agony. We finished a bit before 10pm.

It would take days rather than seconds for my human body to regenerate. Six months of limited activity, chair-bound hunching and insufficient preparation took an inevitable toll. Put simply, I was out of shape and out of practice. Life in 2020 has been all about getting through it and finding a ‘new normal’; here my muscles experienced the same. I’m sure I must have grimaced a few times but portraits were captured nonetheless.

Despite my pains, I’m thankful for the opportunity. My last job had been comfortable, and now this was more of a test. But with a second lockdown looking probable before the end of the year, both rough and smooth are to be cherished alike. What once had been regular work is now a rare treat. Hopefully it’s not unreasonable to keep it going into the long dark months of winter. No life has no risk; this one felt well-managed.

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