About Face

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:

Eakins, William H MacDowell 1891.jpg

10 thoughts on “About Face

  1. Bill says:

    Some sitters do know how to sit reasonably still, but many don’t — and many have trouble resuming the pose after a break. There are far fewer hassles with the professional models.
    I also have enjoyed doing multiple portraits of professional models down through the years. It’s a little like collecting baseball cards — it’s fascinating to see the same person in different uniforms down through the years. With portraits there are different hair styles, vantage points, moods, different media — so many variations on a common theme.
    P.S. And. . . an artist who is a gentleman may study a lady’s nostrils, but must never emphasize her laugh lines 🙂

    • artmodel says:


      Thanks for sticking up for the pro models! Yes, even for portrait sessions it’s advantageous to have an experienced sitter. And you’re right about the varying stages/forms of portrait work. I can imagine how fascinating it must be for an artist to record portraits of the same model over a period of years.

      Appreciate your comments!

      Claudia, aka “Woman with laugh lines” 😉

  2. Dan Hawkins says:

    I blogged about this not too long ago. Here’s what I wrote:

    I got the opportunity to model for a portrait anatomy class last night at the Texas Academy of Figurative Art. This was my second session for this course, and from the lectures I’ve heard to start each class, it seems to be a pretty intensive study of the anatomy of the head. In fact, I joked with friends before that class that I was going to get my head examined.

    Portrait modeling and figure modeling have some distinct differences, and I have to confess that I find modeling for portraits more taxing. The most obvious difference is, of course, clothing. Portrait models are fully clothed, while figure modeling is usually done in the nude. When doing a figure class, I’m aware that my entire body is being studied, and while I will focus my eyes on a certain point in the room, I usually feel free to look about at times (without moving my head, of course). When modeling for a portrait class, I’m aware that the focus of every artist in the room is my head; therefore, I try to keep my eyes on one fixed point and not move them. This takes a lot more concentration, especially when my contact lenses start to feel like they are sticking to my eyeballs.

    People who have never modeled (or just don’t take their modeling job seriously) might think that, since artists are only studying the head, the model ought to be free to move his or her arms and legs throughout the pose. That’s true to some extent, but I try to keep any movement to a minimum. Moving a leg can affect the position of the head, and if the head moves, the pose (not to mention the lights and shadows) is changed. So I treat each pose as a full body pose, even if the artists are just studying one part of my body.

    Since I treat each pose as a full pose, clothing can sometimes affect my comfort. When modeling nude for a figure class, my physical comfort is determined solely by muscle fatigue and blood circulation. When modeling clothed, the neckline of my shirt, the waistline of my pants, the tightness of my socks or undergarments, etc. can all be contributors to the comfort level of a pose.

    Last night’s class was a relatively short one, only two hours, with just an hour and a half of posing/drawing time, and yet, I left feeling more tired than I do after a three hour figure session.

    • artmodel says:

      Great post, Dan, thanks for sharing!

      The keeping the eyes on a fixed point is the most difficult part for me. I find my spot at the start of the pose and think I’m holding it well, and then the minute my gaze veers off is exactly when an artist catches me doing it!

      As for the clothing issue, I almost always wear stretchy leggings of some sort when I sit for portrait. They are much more comfortable than jeans or slacks.

      Great to hear from you, and keep up the modeling!


  3. Really interesting reflections on the differences between figure and portrait work, from the model’s perspective. Dan’s experience seems very close to yours, and I’ll bet a lot of models would agree with all of this.

    I was struck that you mentioned feeling more objectified modeling for portrait. With figure drawing, especially relatively short poses, the artist is trying to capture immaterial things – gesture and movement and bodily expression, not every physical detail. That should be the approach to portrait work as well, but a lot of artists try to get just what a camera would, even though if they’re going to compete with a camera, the camera will win – hands down, every time.

    When I’m doing portraits in my studio, I like to carry on a conversation with the sitter – aside from those moments when I need to say “OK, shut up now, I’m working on your mouth.”

    • artmodel says:


      Great comments, thank you! I had never really thought of artists approaching portrait the same way they would approach the figure. Perhaps they should. Interesting! As to my objectification remark I can be even more specific. It has much to do with the language used in class when describing the facial structure. I suppose it doesn’t differ much fundamentally from the language used for figure, but for some reason it registers in a more detached way. Figure forms are discussed more as parts relating to the whole – gesture lines, weight shifts, etc. Facial features, from my experience, are analyzed as individual parts, on a static head.


  4. Andrew says:

    I prefer figure modeling as well. Posing for a head drawing/painting class (or portrait class) is boring because there’s not much creativity involved. You can turn your head slightly in one direction or the other, but that’s about it. Although, that is not such a trivial decision. Choosing something interesting to look at can make the pose much more bearable. If there’s a window, I’d like to look at the trees. The worst is to stare at a blank wall — my vision gets blurry after a while. I do think even in a head drawing class, it is necessary to move your eyes once in a while to avoid looking like a zombie or a serial killer.

    The positive aspect of posing for head drawing classes is that it is easy on the body. A full day of dynamic short poses can be exhausting. Long poses can be grueling and painful. So a head drawing class is fine to mix things up, but if that’s all there was, I would have quit modeling a long time ago.

    I’ve heard Bill’s comment echoed by others. Artists are appreciative when you sit still and take modeling seriously.

    • artmodel says:


      I’m so glad you invoked the word “boring” because I was trying not to use it. But it’s the truth! I must confess, I often get very bored during portrait. And for two of the classes I’m currently posing for, my staring point is at a blank wall. Ugh! Like you said, a window would be nice.

      Thanks so much for your comments on this topic.


  5. Ken says:

    I have only portrait modeled for one semester, years ago when I first started modeling. It is OK, but, frankly, no where near as enjoyable as figure modeling. Go figure (pun intended) – my email address is malefiguredrawingmodel@hushmail.com. That really says it all. While I can certainly sit still, it is dull work.

    What I enjoy the most is gestures, because the work is so much more intense, creative and challenging. I once had an instructor ask for a dozen or so 15 second gestures. Now that was a challenge! I spent more time getting into new positions than I spent in the gesture itself.

    Also, the great thing about gestures is that if I get into a position that is unbearable, I’m out of it and into the next pose before I have to check in to the emergency room.

    One time I was grateful to switch to portrait modeling was in, literally, a construction site, in the winter, with minimal heat. The open session coordinator said, “Oh my God, Ken’s shivering. Let’s do the final pose as a portrait.” And then she proceeded to do a wonderful side-view portrait of me that I use as my Linked In image (with due credit to the quite talented artist, Tracey Padron).

    • artmodel says:


      I’m with you 100% about preferring figure modeling to portrait sitting. It’s really no contest as far as I’m concerned. But I have, over my many years of modeling, developed an appreciation for portraiture. There is an element of intimacy that comes when a portrait assignment is done over many sessions, and that’s kind of nice. It’s the close, continued study of your face and features. And I too have done those 15/25/30 second poses. It’s a little crazy! But adds another level to our modeling repertoires 🙂

      Thanks for your comments!


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