Due to happenstance, I am currently posing for four ongoing portrait classes; three painting and one sculpture. That contemporaneous amount is unusual in a model’s schedule. I can’t speak for other models, but I’ve always found that portrait work differs from figure work in some fairly significant ways. Before I elaborate, I should confess that portrait sitting is my least favorite type of modeling assignment. Why? A few reasons, some petty, some less so. It bothers me somewhat that portrait sitting can be done by pretty much anyone who can sit reasonably still for a couple of hours, therefore the services of a professional artist’s model is not required. So I suppose I harbor a touch of snobbery in that respect. I know what I’m capable of with my body in terms of movement, posing, and gesture, so why am I just sitting in a chair with my clothes on staring into space? Also, portrait work often demands that the same garment, accessories, hair clip, necklace, etc. be worn for each session. This is a minor nuisance to me, having to manage tops and scarves and remember to have them washed and ready to wear the day of the class. What a huge pain in the ass!! <– just kidding
From a more serious perspective, portrait sitting produces a distinct relational energy between the model and the artists. Now this may sound strange, but I actually feel less connected to the artists when I pose for portraits than when I pose for figure. In fact, I feel more objectified. It’s bizarre. Portrait artists are observing the face primarily, and this leads to open examination that scrutinzes my eye sockets and eyebrows, upper lips and earlobes. Sure, part of me is interested and amused by such talk, but it is a tad unnerving. Conversely, class study of my nude body doesn’t bother me in the slightest. For some reason I’m much more at ease and in my comfort zone having my rib cage and pelvis discussed in an open forum than, say, my nostrils. Ah, maybe I’m just a freak.
One could argue that the face is the truest, most honest and unvarnished broadcaster of a person’s character, preserving the badges and imprints of one’s life journey, the visual seat of our fluctuating moods, temporary irritations and worries. Facial expressions vary from day to day, even from hour to hour. We look different on stressful days than we do on carefree ones. When we’re lacking sleep or experiencing anxiety, our faces tell the story whereas our bodies do not, or at least not as overtly. When I am having a bad day emotionally, I much prefer to do figure modeling than portrait sitting. As models we can “fake it” with our bodies if need be. You’d be surprised how unsettling it can be to maintain a portrait face when your mind is racing with troubles and everyone is staring at you. Eyes dart, hands and feet fidget, brows furrow. It’s a mess. And then you hear the instructor, as he assists a student in creating a likeness, utter the phrase “laugh lines” and your whole day is ruined! As a professional artist’s model, I’m used to being stared at. That’s a huge understatement. But the few times in my career in which I’ve heard the silent scream in my head of “What are you looking at??!!” have occurred during portrait sitting.
I think I’ve babbled enough. Let’s conclude with two expressive examples of portraiture, an art genre that I sincerely admire. I have nothing but respect for the creators and the sitters. That’s the truth. Heck, the most famous artwork in the world is a portrait. And effective portrait painting is a rare specialty that demands tremendous skill on the part of the artist. In other words, pay no attention to the trivial gripes of a jaded artist’s model. We just like to bitch once in a while
Young Woman with Lowered Eyes, 1869, by Frédéric Bazille:
Portrait of William H. MacDowell, 1891, by Thomas Eakins: