Sang-froid

“You make it look so easy!”. That’s been remarked to me several times after a pose. And while I am sincerely flattered by the compliment, I’m not so certain I agree. Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers made it look easy. So did Joe DiMaggio and Rudolf Nureyev. All of us, myself included, are amazed when performers of all types appear effortless. As if their amazing feats barely caused them to strain, break a sweat, or, worst of all, second guess their ability. But with the exception of some human freak of nature, for us mere mortals it’s all an illusion.

I would be terribly remiss if I didn’t concede the role of artists in helping me come across as “effortless”. They know better than to incorporate a model’s agonizing pain and discomfort into their painting. That would make for a delightful piece of artwork, don’t you think? Possible titles could include “Woman Grimacing”, “Figure in Pain”, or “Nude on the Brink of a Physical Collapse”. Put those winners in the Met, why not?

In a long pose, it is the art model’s responsibility – duty even – to project the most poise and composure that is humanly possible under the circumstances. We are expected not only to hold still, but hold still with aplomb. Throw elegance and balance into the mix, and you’ve got one top-notch art model in your midst. Better make sure your painting does a good job capturing the magic.

I’m fortunate to have an image to illustrate my point. It’s a painting of me done by a bold and talented artist, Janet Cook. This pose was set up in Mary Beth McKenzie’s class last year. After 45 minutes behind closed doors, just me and the two class monitors, we finally agreed on this pose, which I volunteered. It looks great and everyone was pleased, but it was tough. For a few reasons. See my right hand? Under natural, less pressured circumstances one would put all their weight into that hand. But for a three hour pose, don’t even think about it. The weight has to be hijacked by a stronger part of the body. Art models, remember my earlier post about the abdominals? There’s the answer. Then there’s the twist in the torso, speaking of the abdominals. This was quite a deep twist, as you can tell from Janet’s superb rendering. That’s lower spine problems. Yes, it hurts. Then there is the arrangement of the legs. In an attempt to make the pose look more “active”, I positioned the right leg lifted off the ground instead of lying flat. Doing that also provides more “negative space” for the artists. It’s hard to hold, and before you know it you’re in a battle of wills with your thigh. It wants to drop down, but you’re forcing it to stay lifted in midair. By the end of the day, you and your thigh are not even on speaking terms.

So here we have a pose that demands strength, stability, and balance. And while trying to meet those physical demands, your mind is searching for equanimity and serenity – or at least, the illusion of those things. With an enormous amount of help from Janet – her skill and vision – we managed to create the image of a strong, self-possessed woman. Cool, in control and unperturbed. Man if only I were those things in real life! Illusion indeed.

Here I am by Janet Cook. Oil on panel, 2007:

9 thoughts on “Sang-froid

  1. Rog says:

    From afar I would imagine the posing as a personal yoga practice…

  2. artmodel says:

    Rog,

    If only it were! My yoga practice is of great value to my art modeling. In fact, I can’t understand any model who doesn’t do yoga. It helps with all the modeling essentials: strength, balance, and flexibility.

    But art poses are held for long periods of time, an unnatural thing for the body to do. Yoga, on the other hand, involves flowing movement from one pose to the other, so muscles can stretch. Art models are mercifully granted breaks – so we can stretch!

    Thanks for commenting.

    Claudia

  3. Ron says:

    That pose is a great illustration of what you meant in your previous column of how the abdominal muscles do the work of the others in supporting the body.

  4. artmodel says:

    Ron,

    I’m so glad you pointed that out, as it was very much my intention! Yes, this pose exemplifies perfectly what I was trying to communicate with the abdominals post. I relied heavily on my abs for this pose. If not, all my limbs would have broken off under me. It was still difficult, but aided quite a bit by ab strength.

    Thanks for making the connection!

    Claudia

  5. Museworthy, I am now going to talk an awful lot of gibberish on your line of expertise but, in ‘baring with me’ (forgive the pun), you might be able to instruct dim artists and sculptors like me around the world.

    I have always wondered why ‘leaders’ of Life Classes demand awkward or uncomfortable poses of both their models and their students. Your example is a good one. I am surprised the right hand wasn’t painted blue in sympathy and accuracy!

    The really great paintings over the centuries seem to have been (on the whole) quite simple and undemanding. If you have time, and don’t believe me then have a look at what I call the French site here it will keep you occupied for hours!

    http://printwomen.blogspot.com/

    I wonder just how many difficult poses there are? Your opinion Museworthy would be most interesting!

    What are the ones you consider to be unworkable but have great aesthetic value?

    Now in sculpture there has been some action packed works of note but these days surly these could be done by video or camera from 4 or 6 directions simultaneously? This would not dispense with the live model who is indispensible but it would save him or her from the horrendous pain of keeping still in an impossible position.

    There are also other ways of easing the pain. If the class concentrates on a particular part of the body the other part could take a rest. These are the sort of concessions one would offer a model on a one to one basis with out question.

    My view for what it is worth is that unless the artist is portraying great movement or group action then the simpler the pose is the better. What comes naturally is the most comfortable pose. No doubt ‘comfortable’ poses can become tiring very quickly if the model is not use to it.

  6. artmodel says:

    Robert,

    I’m sorry I haven’t responded to your comment sooner. I’ve been intending to for a couple of days and, finally, here I am. Your comments were great, and you definitely threw me a bone, on which I will chew away!

    I appreciate your compassion for art models, and the strenuous poses sometimes expected of us. I would hesitate to use the word “demand”. In my experience, I haven’t yet had a class monitor or instructor insist that I take a difficult pose – not if I objected to it. A model can’t be forced to do anything, and ultimately it is the model who has the final say.

    Now I can’t speak for all art models, but I will confess that I actually prefer challenging poses, for a couple of reasons. I personally like to be challenged. Just part of my nature I suppose. Also, I truly think that unusual poses make for more interesting art. Exciting pose = exciting painting. The model’s pose is the first thing someone will notice when they look at a painting. It’s the main thing that “registers”: model reclining, model sitting, model standing, model’s torso twisted, etc. Also, a pose that projects “action” of some kind, is more inherently interesting to look at, in my opinion. Something is happening, and people want to see it happen, through the artist’s eyes, of course.

    Yes, comfortable poses are easier to hold. But I often feel disappointed, believe it or not, when the monitors decide on a “boring” pose. How many paintings of a model sitting in a chair can one look at? The artist may be highly talented and skilled, but ultimately, isn’t it just a model sitting in a chair? I always offer to add some interesting element to one of those poses – anything to give it some import or distinction. Oftentimes, a subtle alteration will do the trick. Just an expressive gesture or unusual touch – anything to break away from the predictability of a “simple” pose.

    As for your suggestions for art classes, you made some great ones! Here in New York, the standard format for an art class is 20 minutes posing, 5 minutes break. That’s how it is pretty much everywhere I work. In my opinion, it is the strict adherence to that class structure that is the problem. If artists and students were willing to be more flexible, they’d probably get more interesting poses from models. A model may not be able to hold a given pose for 20 minutes, but she may very well be able to hold it for 15. But everyone is so rigidly married to the “20 on/ 5 off” format, that it doesn’t allow any compromise with the models. When I think of the things I could do with shorter pose lengths! It opens up whole new possibilities for everyone.

    You asked me about “unworkable” poses that have aesthetic value. Well, a standing pose with arms raised and gesturing is something I’ve always wanted to do (for a long pose. I do it for short poses all the time). Graceful arm movements are beautiful and dramatic. But holding arms up in midair for long lengths of time is not humanly possible. Circulation issues big time! But like I stated before, if a model can do it for 10 or 12 minutes at a time, have maybe a 6 or 7 minutes break to “shake them out”, then I believe the pose can be done. A strong, dedicated model could make it happen. But again, the 20 minute thing gets in the way. It’s a real impediment.

    There is beauty in the simple, “comfortable” poses. I don’t mean to dismiss them in one broad stroke. Many of the great works are portraits, and for a model that means easy sitting. But if the figure is the focal point of the painting – like Janet’s painting of me in the post – I prefer that the model’s pose demonstrate a greater range of what the human body can actually do in terms of movement.

    Robert you are so caring and considerate toward art models, and it’s really nice! Just remember that among models, attitudes vary widely. There are some who just feel completely detached from the work, don’t care much, and feel no “investment” in the art itself. And there are others who care deeply, and are bonded with the work. I fall into the latter category as I’m sure you know. So if you ever find yourself working with one of “us”, keep in mind that that model is probably willing to endure something strenuous, as long as a little compromise is offered.

    I enjoyed discussing this subject with you, friend. Thanks for commenting!

    Claudia

  7. You are clearly a gem and NYC should be very grateful to have you.

    The arms in the air do seem painful and are really important for us.

    I do hope that people who employ you read all this and take it all on board.

    From the artist’s view it was very useful reading and should be published for us all to see.

  8. I’ve managed to do some longer poses with my arms raised, but with ceiling mounted ropes wrapped around them. I find that having something to hold onto helps keep me steady, and the ropes make it easier to keep my arms aloft. But ten minutes has been the longest so far…

    • artmodel says:

      malefiguredrawingmodel,

      The ceiling ropes are not a common feature around the places I work, but they are definitely useful. I’m actually surprised more studios aren’t equipped with them.

      Thanks for commenting!

      Claudia

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