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  • Writer's pictureLinka Lipski

Can life drawing help in becoming more inclusive in our art practices?

Life model drawing in London, November 2009

Regularly I confront myself with the question 'am I diverse enough in my practice of art?'. In Art school, I made a friend who I nicknamed 'Bob' (Hi, Bob). I remember reflecting on how her characters just resembled her and then noticing that mine resembled me. Somehow our fictitious characters had an autobiographical air to them. Since then, I have noticed it is a common practice among artists, especially when starting out. We even tend to draw an improved version of ourselves.

The reasons why are simple: your self will always be available as a model, and unconsciously, art is often biographical. It makes sense that, as we express our inner world, it would reflect in someone that looks like our external self.

As I reflect on school and life model classes, I realise that until recently, the life models serving my drawing practice were all Caucasians female of the same built (what is considered 'fit' or 'thin'). With time, I have tried to remedy that by seeking out different body shapes and ethnicities as references. Pinterest is a wonderful tool for precisely that matter (see image below)!

sketchbook 2019 - from the 100 portraits challenge references on Pinterest

In addition to online sources of reference, finding life drawing classes is essential. One thing I particularly love about Hackney Wick life drawing classes is the diversity of the models: in gender, ethnicities and body shapes. It is an excellent practice. I often surprise myself thinking that a model will be hard or easy to draw, and it turns out completely different from my expectations.

When I see a naked life model in person, at first, I feel the model's vulnerability, and I feel a little voyeuristic too. After all, the model's naked body is exposed to the eyes and pencils of the artists. The artist who explores outlines and shapes, who studies the form and all the nuances the body has to offer. Eventually, those feelings are neutralised, and the artist stance takes precedent. Then, the body becomes all shapes, lines and colours and transforms into an 'object'.

Life drawing with Hackney Life Drawing, May 2020 - model: John

I wonder whether there is such a thing as objectification and temporary dehumanisation occurring while drawing a life model. After all, life models agree to land their bodies as a tool for the artist, not for personal voyeuristic gratification, so it could be argued that the contract is only honoured by de-humanising the body, temporarily, to practice those skills. Not necessarily consciously nor with cruel intent but rather as an adored and respected object.

Perhaps, it is not dehumanisation as such. Rather, it is an attention shift away from the model as a person to the model as an art tool. Yes, I would like to believe that there is a balance between the two. Surely there is a way to relate to the body as a tool for art while still holding all of their human truth as one draws. As an artist, one doesn't want to be cut out from our humanity since we want to capture it in our lines. We aspire to capture their essence and translate it onto the paper through the filter of our soul. It is a delicate balance. One that I hope to reach.

With life drawing classes, I also have noticed my discomfort when faced with a model I am less familiar with. It is interesting to sit with, to pay attention to the thoughts and feelings bubbling up. For instance, I fear that my drawing may offend the person or that what I chose to focus on will be judged as inappropriate.

I get to hear, in my head, all the stereotypes that society has assigned to our bodies. I also get to see past artistic representations of said bodies. I have a chance to undo those thoughts and feelings. And because the practice is so raw, drawing the body as one sees it, as it is presented to you, there are little risks of portraying them in a wrong light.

Life drawing with Hackney Life Drawing,

May 2020 - model: John

The practice of life drawing forces you to meet your self as you are. Notice whether you have flattened that stomach a little too much, whether you have omitted drawing their sex or are exaggerating a facial trait. And how the lines you draw are representations of societal biases such as, for example, one must be thin, genitals are dirty, or it's okay to mock ethnicities different to yours.

In my reflection of how inclusive my art practice is, I think I am learning to recognise that the work is deeper than that. It is not merely about seeking out diverse reference sources. It is also about feeling our inner discomfort and using the act of drawing as a tool to notice our biases and to give us a chance to undo them.

Life drawing with Hackney Life Drawing, May 2020 - model: John

Art can be inclusive so long as one intends to practice art mindfully and to be earnest with oneself.

Draw, feel, think.

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