The Model Student
If one were to survey my peers and mentors as to what I was going to be doing straight out of college, answers would range along developing neuropsychological research, working my way up as a foreign service officer, performing opera, teaching, writing books, or working art galleries. No one would have guessed what I actually would do first.
I began university life at BYU two weeks after graduating high school, going into fine arts and illustration. I needed a job quickly. The “Starving Artist” is a reality, never more so than as a student. A small tube of paint could be the cost of a good meal, and that’s not even considering high quality. The material list is very long, expensive, and very quickly used up – and at even higher rates the more talented you are. A long-standing feud exists between studio and commercial artists over the value of a regular paycheck vs. making “true art.” While it was easy to get caught up in the philosophy of fine artists in the classroom, going home to an uninspiring fridge made me reconsider.
The sustainable answer for me came during a semester of Figure Drawing. I was excited to draw live models, eager to be inspired by a pose – a glint of light on the shoulder, the pushing of form through shadow. Drawing the living is an incredible exercise, as your eye becomes quickly discerning of shapes and the intricate lacing of muscle over bone. You comprehend the human body in a way that only doctors would appreciate. Your fine motor skills become very subtle, your mind more swift in calculation, quicker to adapt. As your model is a living creature, there will be minute changes in position that your own drawing has to make room for – otherwise, if you keep your observations locked on this or that part, your overall construction will inevitably become disproportionate. Figure Drawing was going to be so enlightening!
Figuring It Out
The majority of models I had that semester made me grumpy with dull stances and highly fidgety bodies. The worst were models who just stood or sat, relying on their vanity, not understanding what artists were trying to accomplish and learn. Students, especially beginners, often murmur and complain when a model is even a hair off from the original pose. These models did not have the patience to be perfectly still beyond five minutes, which was problematic for long poses, which can go up to 30 minutes before a break. They would attempt conversation and jokes to break up their own boredom, disrupting the focus of the classroom. Their occupation tended to be short-lived. I knew what I wanted to draw, and wasn’t getting it. Then the obvious hit me.
I was talented at being still and quiet.
It took me a week to become an official figure model. The next semester, I began work. I quickly discovered that being still was a very strenuous workout, unappreciated by observers. I relied on previous training I had as a dancer and competitive fencer, using muscles that go generally unnoticed in daily life. I mimicked classical pieces I had seen at the Louvre and in art books growing up. I learned to regulate my breathing into a low, slow zen state, which helped to manage the pain of maintaining poses. Despite the physical strain of stillness, it was a job I would enjoy doing over the next six years.
Unobtrusively, I would enter a classroom and get ready, sometimes getting out personal props like a scarf or sword to add some real weight, tension, or context to positions. Off came the glasses, onto the dais I would go, and a performance of one began. Unable to read expressions in the dim light, spotlights on for highlighting form, I could hear quick inhales and sudden flurries of conte or charcoal against paper. I became a highly requested model by instructors and students alike for my offering of pose variety and ability to maintain them. I was referred to as “the girl with Raphaelite hands,” thanks to a tendency of my middle fingers sticking together. The un-tanned skin frowned upon in high school was now a benefit, as it reflected “a rainbow for the palate,” as professional oil painters frequently observed. Being an illustrator myself, I knew exactly what my fellow artists found interesting, useful, challenging, or boring. Every class I modeled for provided me both income and free education, as I listened keenly to instructors’ lectures and critiques.
An unusual job, figure modeling was a great work opportunity, full of mental and physical growth, creativity, (literal) flexibility, amiable networking, and plenty of ego boosting. The job gave me the freedom to focus on my academic, career, and creative pursuits more easily. I was free to be me.
Considering Figure Modeling?
- At the peak of popularity, I worked for three universities and a private art school, with consultation work with studios. There is incredibly high demand for this little known job. Artists need and crave variety for further development and personal projects. A sweet aspect of such work is the nature of the pay. While an institution may offer a base rate of $15-$40 an hour, most classrooms also provide tips, encouraging repeat performance. For a 2-3 hour block of time, I could earn as much as $75 or as little as $7 extra. The downside was the sporadic and uncertain nature of pay. Long poses for a sculpture or painting can ensure a few weeks of work, but the need of variety often meant a quiet spell thereafter as other models cycled in. Not all students and instructors tip. Tipping also wanes as finals approach.
- This is the one job where all your natural looks matter and are valued. There is no age, shape, gender, or race discrimination — the only limits are your own capacity. A pretty face means nothing if you cannot simultaneously be still and dynamic. If you are working for an institution where there are few other models for a class to work with, you are more valuable and more frequently used if you are willing to present a variety of versions of you: perfect to haggard, sporty to tired. The best models I ever worked with were trained in dance, theater, or martial arts, providing countless variations that were expressive and interesting.
- This kind of modeling requires realistic, dynamic, or traditional posing — it is not meant to be provocative and sensational. This is an educating service. Models who do not respect their observing audience will not be asked to return. The inverse is also true. Poses should reflect the allotted time intervals, 30 sec and 1/5/15/30/60 minute standards. Be your most creative on short gestures, allowing for “relaxed” poses for longer times.
- Unless you are willing to burn a lot of cash on gas, this is not a good job for stability. If not proactive in acquiring regular gigs, work tends to be more clustered. This is a great secondary job to fit around other life activities.
- Universities, colleges, and respected studios are great to work for! Be careful with private propositions and ads for artist models, as few are legitimate, honorable, or worth your time. Always ask for references and an artist’s portfolio or website before consenting. Know your worth and your limits. Be ready and willing to walk away. Even a professional artist can be a bad patron through inattention or being too demanding, which can lead to “breaking the model” – injury from strain.
- To reduce fainting, cramps, falling, falling asleep, and other risks, it is necessary to take care of yourself. You need plenty of food, water and sleep beforehand. On the job, keep energy and blood-sugar level by frequent snacking with water near to hand. Insist on your breaks and do not let them be cut short, using the time to wiggle, walk and stretch. Most instructors and artists accept the use of discreet earphones, which can allow great multi-tasking and stimulation for you as well as a great marker for time.
- This is a physically strenuous job that should be a mandatory first if you are an art student. You should understand what goes on for both sides of the canvas. By being a model, you will learn swiftly what positions are or not sustainable for a given length of time. You will be more understanding and respectful to any model you employ because you will know exactly what can be expected.