What is it like to take a life drawing class?

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Above photo source: Tarrant County College NE, Heritage Room

If you love to draw, but feel nervous about studying a live model, this one is for you!

Many people have questions about life drawing classes. The two biggest insecurities I’ve noticed that students tend to have are these:

  1. “What if I am terrible at drawing people? I’m afraid to look silly next to other students.”
  2. “Isn’t it embarrassing and uncomfortable to stare at a naked person posing in the middle of the room?”

I had very little observational drawing experience at sixteen when my mom signed me up for life drawing, and a big attitude going into the class (I did NOT want to do it). I was pretty quiet, but my irritation with the whole idea was basically plastered on my face that first day. By the way, my old teacher, now boss and friend, loves to point that out. I was embarrassed at the thought of a nude model and thought my limited skills would be laughable. The class days that followed showed me that people from all skill levels take life drawing classes. Some had done a lot of figure drawing, and many were trying this for the first time. All of my classmates wanted to learn something, and started each drawing with the simple goal to do a little better each day of class.

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Photo owned by the Visual Art Institute and taken by Andrea Paustenbaugh.

The class my mom signed me up for was actually a 10-day long summer workshop called “Figure Academy” at the Visual Art Institute, a non-profit art school in our town. At the beginning of the first class, I felt a little uncomfortable. It was just a new experience, I didn’t know any other students and was still kind of young. The models we had were not fully nude, but in nude-colored underwear, so that helped me ease into the idea.

My drawing skills sharpened and confidence blossomed once I embraced this new challenge.

At Figure Academy, and in college life drawing courses, my instructors introduced us to new figure artists nearly every day and showed us different techniques to experiment with each time. We worked on several drawings and/or paintings every day, which taught us to work faster and make better gut decisions. At Figure Academy we worked from 9 AM – 4 PM each day, then had critiques until about 6. Doing this over a ten-day period improved my drawing/painting skills (and attitude) in a major way. The technical improvements were almost measurable because I could see my work getting much better over such a short period of time. The hours just flew by. Everyone in the class had a similar experience. We were all working at different levels, each improving individually, and everyone was having a great time.

Adriana Vawdrey_ ink sketch

Some of my own gestural ink drawings from an old sketchbook.

I decided that life drawing classrooms just feel like libraries with a little music in the background.

Even after the first day of Figure Academy, I realized that the more time and concentration I put into each drawing and painting, the more I was looking at the models as actual forms in space. This is not something I could have learned drawing only from 2d photo references. When I graduated from high school and went to study illustration at an art college, the models were fully nude. Students were respectful and mature, classes were quiet, and during their breaks the models wore robes. No model I knew ever walked straight off their platform to saunter around the room and have a naked chat with the class.

Even though these classrooms have always felt like safe spaces to me, I imagine it takes much bravery to show one’s bare body for everyone to study. I have a lasting appreciation for the people who have allowed me to draw their beautiful bodies. The human form is nothing short of awe-inspiring, and each body is individually stunning. I imagine this is how med students must feel in the anatomy lab. It’s a very similar concept.

This is a tried and true form of classical training.

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“William Etty at the Life Class” by William Holman Hunt (Source: Wikimedia Commons)

I started my first life drawing class with the same anxieties most people have, and the experience literally changed the course of my life. Learning to draw the human form is a challenge that builds confidence when you don’t let yourself give up. I still regularly attend life drawing sessions, sometimes as a teacher, and always learn something new each time. If you love to draw and would like to train your artist mind the same way Michaelangelo did, I encourage you to take that next step and attend a life drawing class. For more useful advice on this topic, check out lovelifedrawing.com, specifically the article called: “What You Need To Know For Your First Life Drawing Class.”

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