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Spirited Bodies at Figure This! 2019

6 Dec 2019

Figure This!

Between 9 November and 1 December 2019, Thames-Side Studios Gallery hosted an exhibition, conference and workshops, convening international artists whose work addresses the human figure. The aim of Figure This! was to pose questions such as: Is figuration a useful label? Can a work be apolitical? What is the role of beauty? Can the artist’s gaze ever be neutral? It would also showcase some fantastic art.

As part of her ambitious programme, curator Elina Cerla had invited Spirited Bodies to organise a model-led life drawing workshop in which two models – Esther Bunting and myself – would lead discussions about the role of the model, body image, and the challenges of traditional life drawing perceptions. On a balmy August evening in Paris, we all got together to make exciting plans over a light repast at Chez Marianne.

Exhibition preview

Our workshop was to begin at 5:30pm on Saturday 9 November, immediately after the exhibition closed at the end of its first day. Ahead of that we checked out the artworks and what would be our pose space during the exhibition preview the evening before. It was cold, dark and damp outside, but a good crowd of people made the effort to come along. No doubt they appreciated the great art – and tasty wine – as much as we did.

Details above: Max Middleton, Irene Cuadrado, Charmaine Watkiss, Jennifer Sendall, Luca Indraccolo; Nan Qiao, Elina Cerla, Jane Clatworthy, Marilyn Durkin, Wendy Elia.

The artworks were inspiring, but it didn’t escape our notice that the gallery space was rather chilly. We wondered whether it could be made warmer for our nude poses…

Model-led life drawing workshop

As it turned out we had nothing to fear. Large plastic sheets partitioned the far end of the gallery to retain its heat. We occupied one side of the space with artists arranged as two arcs before us. This being a model-led session, Esther and I decided the type and duration of each pose. We set our timer to open at 5-minutes, then began to talk; taking turns to share our personal backgrounds, experiences, insights and opinions.

Poses were 5-minutes, 5, 10, 10, and 20-minutes up to a break; then five of 1-minute, 15-minutes and 20-minutes to the close. We had prepared an outline of all the issues we wanted to cover, but in practice our delivery was loose, spontaneous, diverse and unscripted. Artists engaged with questions and seemed receptive to observations we shared. Our dynamic developed at a steady pace and overall it seemed to go well.


I can neither recall nor recount everything we said throughout the full two hours but I can share an essay I’d written while supping cocktails and wine at the Masoch Café in Lviv, 40 days earlier. I didn’t read or recite it at our workshop; I’d scribbled it solely as an exercise to help focus my own thoughts ahead of the event – but, for better or worse, here it is now…

Where I’m from

I was fortunate to have a very safe, secure working class upbringing near Tilbury in south Essex. Money was never in abundance but always well managed. We lived in an area defined by its industry and docks, mitigated by surrounding swathes of open countryside.

My father worked the land before becoming a labourer at an oil and chemical terminal on the River Thames. My mother was – in the terminology of the era – a housewife; cooking, cleaning and making clothes for me and my younger brother. When my father was made redundant about four years before his pension was due, my mother immediately took work on a supermarket checkout while he saw out his career doing back-breaking shifts in a dockside warehouse.

In both cases, they endured grindingly hard, under-appreciated employment of a kind I’ve been spared in my own working life, but their example has shown me a strong work ethic that I’ve tried to carry forward into my life modelling. By that, I don’t mean unquestioning adherence to instructions or unimaginative repetition, but understanding the value and contribution of every piece of work in any setting, doing it to the best of one’s ability, respecting those who pay for it and being due full respect in return.

My attitude as life model

I work as a life model because that is what I choose to do for myself, but I give all I can for every individual in the room, as far as my body and mind will allow.

I am neither athletic nor muscle-bound nor beautiful nor sexy by any classical or contemporary standard, but I am a unique human being with a singular physique and an innate will to use it as best as I’m able for artists observing me from every vantage point.


I understand that it’s not good enough for me to revel in self-indulgent satisfaction simply at being the centre of attention, or to expect you should gaze with wonder, awe, admiration and gratitude at the sensational sight of me naked before you. Life modelling is work – hard work, requiring focus and imagination. It exacts a physical and emotional toll. It should be valued on both sides of the easel.

I believe there are very few models that can be considered true narcissists of the type who glory in flaunting their own self-assured magnificence or gorgeousness. I’m not one of those and, whilst I wouldn’t mind having a bit of magnificence or gorgeousness, I am also aware that without a touch of humility it can inspire as much sniggering as admiration.

No, I suspect I belong to a much more common species of life model, one that is hugely self-critical and dislikes many aspects of their body, but who has arrived at a point of thinking: if I am to be seen and judged at all, then let all of me be seen and judged.

This is a surprisingly powerful idea. Once it has taken root, it can quickly flourish into a compulsion that urgently needs an outlet – ideally a legal one.

The logic of nudity

When a person is fully clothed, they may be judged by their tastes and choices – outward manifestations of their personality. Even when they’re in swimwear we are judging, consciously or subconsciously: how well they have conformed to society’s expectations; what they’ve chosen to reveal; what they conceal; the apparent confidence with which they do both.

Naked, however… if we judge the naked body, we’re daring to judge nature itself, in it’s purity and authenticity.

Nakedness is truth – it is the honesty of life.

I remember once in my late teens, sunbathing alone in my parents’ back garden and – in a vivid moment of clarity – realising how insane it was that I’d undressed indoors, but then put on shorts to get a tan. And how when we go swimming we get naked, then put on trunks or a swimsuit or bikini before getting in the water. Afterwards we have to wring out these bits of cloth, deal with their dampness, let them dry, wash them, dry them again… it seems so senseless.

Since that time I’ve been very much at ease with the comfortable common-sense of nakedness. But I’m aware it’s also something I enjoy and for which I actually have an enthusiasm. That’s a circumstance I’m less able to intellectualise, but then why do any of us have particular predilections? In my case, perhaps I was simply marked from birth to live my best days as I was born: naked.

Bodily perfection

It’s important to understand that having the capacity, keenness and professional capability to be naked in an art room or even society at large is not the same as having a body positive self-image. There’s a big difference. But the condition of the body that nature has given me should be a matter of concern for me alone. Nowadays I’m pretty much at ease with it in the art studio, but not all days are good days. I’m grateful to artists who discover and capture the best of me.

I suspect many of us share a common idea of the perfect male body, or at least would imagine many common attributes. This form of perfection is, for most men, an unrealistic ideal that has been partly predetermined by human evolution, but is also relentlessly reinforced by modern social conditioning.

We’re an intelligent species – we can discern reality from fantasy – yet still we constantly judge ourselves against fantasy ideals and think less of ourselves if we don’t conform. Through art, print, film, television, and now in maximum overdrive through the tyranny of social media, we continue propagating flawless archetypes with which to torment each other, subliminally if not literally. I defy anyone to tell me that’s not the case. And it’s happening in life drawing too.

In London

In present day London – the greatest melting pot of diversity and creativity on the face of Earth – we’re witnessing an unprecedented boom in life drawing, with new groups springing up almost on a weekly basis. But what are we seeing in terms of representation?

Whilst an increase in groups ought to mean more work for a greater diversity of models, in fact it appears that competition for a finite pool of artist ‘customers’ means we’re lapsing back onto the well-worn mantra that “sex sells”.

Don’t just take my word for it.

Check the social media adverts for life drawing sessions in any given week; are those models representative of the whole population?

Check the range of artworks posted on Instagram and in Facebook life drawing groups; are those images an observation of all humanity?

Even when a life drawing event is advertised as being – quotes – “Body Positive” it’s mostly likely to mean they’ve booked a young female model who is – quotes – “fat”. I understand the strong body politics of that choice, but as a perpetual totem for body positivity, it’s as though youthful female fleshiness is the only imaginable variation from the physical ideals of antiquity.


There are more people willing to try life modelling than ever before, but I do feel that over recent years, in London especially, life drawing has been ‘sexed up’. It’s now artists alone – as paying ‘customers’ – who can exercise their influence and reverse this trend by demanding more from their groups and classes.

Of course, show us young bodies that are effortlessly lithe and sexy, but also show us old bodies, ancient bodies, lived-in bodies with character; show us the able and the disabled; and let us use our full palette of colours.

Shows us confidence and trepidation, show us ordinary bodies and extraordinary bodies, show us ourselves and the other, and all the others. Show us the easy choices and show us the hard sells.

If an artist says “I found that body difficult to draw” then challenge them again and again – not mercilessly nor relentlessly, but with fair regularity.

The role of art

I’m sentimental enough to believe that the figurative arts should serve a higher purpose than just aping popular culture, and that a goal of the artist should be to develop their talent to observe and creatively interpret all that humanity can offer, be that mainstream or mundane or magnificently mutant.

The art world loves to see itself as cutting-edge, confrontational, uncompromising and pushing boundaries, but I fear in twenty-first century cosmopolitan London, the life drawing scene has drifted closer to Love Island than biennale Venice.

That’s not to say it isn’t the most progressive life drawing city in the world – in all likelihood it really is – it’s just that the ingredients are here to facilitate a wildly diverse study of human bodies and all their astonishing colours, shapes, sizes, ages and abilities, yet the default seems to be stuck on bland beauty; the unimaginative erotic.

I don’t know what it will take to shift this position in reality. Maybe artists are quite happy with the scene as it is, and in fact there is no appetite for change.

I do believe London life drawing has its own cultural elite who for the most part are good honourable people, but who seem so mired in commercial considerations – maybe with one eye also favouring their own personal preferences – that perhaps they don’t realise how their own modest yet not insignificant contribution is helping perpetuate toxic body ideals.

The London life drawing scene offers innumerable opportunities to draw the nude human form but caters disproportionately for traditional hackneyed tastes.

Reclaim life

My appeal to life drawing artists is this:

If you truly wish to develop your observational abilities and your skill at capturing unfamiliar forms, then ask your group organisers for more variety.

That doesn’t mean a variety of clichéd sexiness, and nor does it mean only the extremes of any given variation. It means the ordinary variety we see around us every day; naturalness without sensation or glorification – or to put it another way, ‘life’.

Let life drawing turn its gaze back to ‘life’ as it really is, not how mass media would have us believe it should look.

Whilst Esther and I have our own unique physicalities and styles, we are nonetheless slim, white and able-bodied, and thus part of an over-represented demographic within the modelling world. My appeal for more ordinary variety is not with ourselves in mind, but rather for those who may have much to offer as life models yet feel excluded from opportunities that increasingly seem to favour glamour or outlandishness.


Somehow despite receiving a double-barrelled outpouring of life model ideology and probable egotism, our artists successfully retained enough focus to create wonderful drawings from beginning to end. A selection are shared below, with the names of the artists who were happy to be credited. As the saying goes, “it’s good to talk” – I hope we did justice to our profession.

Two 5-minute poses, two 10-minute poses

Artwork by Sue T

Artwork by Rodger Kibble

Artwork by Steve Carey


Artwork by Nan Qiao

Artwork by Steve Carey

Artwork by Elina Cerla

Artwork by Rodger Kibble


Artwork by Sue T

Artwork by Nan Qiao

20-minute pose

Artwork by Elina Cerla

Artwork by Elina Cerla

Artwork by Rodger Kibble

Artwork by Sue T

Artwork by Steve Carey

Artwork by Lee Fether

Artwork by Nan Qiao


Artwork by Ken Bruin

Five 1-minute poses


Artwork by Steve Carey

Artwork by Rodger Kibble

Artwork by Rodger Kibble


15-minute pose

Artwork by Ken Bruin

Artwork by Nan Qiao

Artwork by Steve Carey

Artwork by Rodger Kibble

Artwork by Sue T

Artwork by Elina Cerla

20-minute pose

Artwork by Sue T

Artwork by Rodger Kibble

Artwork by Nan Qiao

Artwork by Lee Fether

Artwork by Steve Carey

Artwork by Elina Cerla

From → Art

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