It’s as if we’re about to kiss, this other girl, and I. But she just keeps looking, deep, into my eyes.
No – at my eyes. Not into.
‘Into her personal space,’ Bill instructs.
I look past her, out the window, to the white-grey cloud cover of a Flemish sky. It is June. We are in Bruges. I can feel her breath. The vast studio is cool and dark, with windows part-boarded to create a classical light.
‘Look at how thick her eyelids are,’ Bill says. ‘Most people only paint them as lines. Look at the shadow cast by her lower lid, her lower lashes.’ A pause. ‘To really begin to see,’ he continues, ‘you must slow down. Just breathe.’ His already deep voice deepens. ‘Slow … down…’
My own pulse calms. I don’t move.
In the first few moments, this proximity is wired: electric, nervous. Now, the feeling has changed frequency, has become a studied quiet. Just what Bill wants. And the young woman, Sarah, is no longer looking at me, but seeing me. Under her trained painter’s eye, I’m beginning to break apart into shape, shadow, texture, colour.
‘The more you look at someone,’ Bill says, ‘the more beautiful you realise they are.’
The room is silent. Muted light slants through the window. Dust, from easels recently arranged, floats in the light. If I glanced into Sarah’s eyes, the spell would break. I am meant to be here, but not here. I am meant to be available, but not available. I am meant to give myself wholly, yet remain at a remove.
Twenty minutes after our encounter, Sarah has left for the market, and we do it all again. This time, three more students – by chance, all women – stand hand’s-length from me, and after their giggles and flutters cease, they too concentrate on the details of my face.
‘Look at the darkest spots, just at her nostrils; at the corners of her mouth.’
Bill carefully holds out a white-ended cane, gesturing at my cheekbones, the bridge of my nose. He reaches out to push my hair back and one of the students excitedly comments on the shape of my left ear.
‘She has a textbook ear,’ Bill says. ‘If I was trying to explain to a student how to paint the perfect ear, it would be this.’
His fingertips, pushing back my hair, are cool. Everything is cool: the light, the room, my skin and its tones. I am not myself; I am more myself. I don’t know if I like being ‘textbook’.
‘Porcelain,’ someone says.
What do they see?
In Bruges, Bill Whitaker, 70-year-old master oil painter from Utah, and teacher for this month-long class, repeatedly tells me what a wonderful thing I’m doing for the artists. What an excellent service I’m providing. Working from life is a crucial part of a painter’s classical training. Not a painter myself, becoming a model allows me to enter a world I wouldn’t otherwise experience. It opens a door into thinking about art.
My usual modelling gigs are in London, for afternoon classes, art schools, and individual painters. One regular class is comprised of a handful of retired, quiet people who like to offer me tea and biscuits in the break. Some of them are beginners, while others are skilled – a few had art training decades ago.
One lady once studied at the Chelsea School of Art, and comes up close to greet me when I arrive, murmuring, ‘beautiful, just beautiful.’ She seems venerable and frail. There is a tinge of the Grimm’s fairy tale about her. I’m glad she wants to paint me, yet there’s something absorbent about our encounter: as if she’s breathing me in – inspiring me. If I could, I would paint this lady – her orderly white grin, dark eyes, and white hair, her floral-print dress, blue apron, and orthopaedic shoes – leaning close, peering at me through thick, wire-framed spectacles.
With many students, the experience is simple. These classes are a hobby they’ve come to, finally having the time to give it a try. I tell them about my upcoming trip to Bruges.
‘For a whole month?’ a blue-rinsed lady pipes up. ‘So you’re going to be a professional model, then?’
I’m taken aback. What am I doing in this studio in Greenwich, posing nude for the afternoon while she and her peers draw and paint me, if not being a professional model? Am I somehow unprofessional? A heartbeat later, I realise that she doesn’t consider herself a ‘professional’ artist: for her, this is a relaxing, possibly challenging, afternoon class. In her mind, I am going to be posing for artists in a way I’m not doing here. In my mind, the levels of distinction are quite different.
* * *
How did I begin? In my last year of undergraduate study, a number of friends were life models for art classes at my all-women’s college. One friend taped up drawings of herself on her bedroom wall. When a handful of us were strewn around the lounge, drinking wine, the subject came up.
The most petite girl in our group, a gifted illustrator and painter, considered modelling to be a natural part of her work. After all, she needed people to pose in order for her to draw the human figure, and knew she should reciprocate. One dancer, charismatic, thin, and beautiful, did it for the money – modelling paid better than most student jobs, and models always left with cash in hand. A third friend, a strong, graceful dancer, considered it a way to celebrate her body. She found it empowering – she was the one who had proudly taped the pictures on her wall. The art history major among us wouldn’t consider posing; didn’t feel comfortable with the idea that her roommate might turn up one day on the modelling platform. She admitted embarrassment at the idea of having to study her friend’s nude figure for a drawing class. Our philosopher didn’t know if she’d have the confidence to disrobe in front of a room full of people. And the poet in the group – me – was curious to give it a try.
Put simply, it sounded interesting. I had Romantic ideas about modelling, inspired, predictably, by the Pre-Raphaelites. It may have begun with reading Tennyson’s poem ‘The Lady of Shalott’. I had a poster of Waterhouse’s painting on my dormitory wall. That pining lady with flowing hair, in her white dress, floating towards her doom among the river reeds, epitomised a young woman’s fascination with, take your pick – love, romance, yearning, mortality. Considering the poem now, Lady Elaine seems an ur-model: encased in her tower, framed by her loom, unable to move – cursed, in fact: forbidden to do anything but sit in front of a mirror. I considered Millais’ Ophelia, equally doomed, equally floating. With time, I would develop a passion for Virginia Woolf and themes around water.
I wanted to claim sisterhood with those famous muses. The voluptuous myths surrounding both the characters and the models enchanted me. It likely influenced my desire to move to England before I’d ever travelled there. Looking back on these inspirations, I see they are predictable. But then, that is the cultural influence, the reach, from England, to a girl studying a literature degree in Virginia. I would later argue with a British friend about his contempt for the Pre-Raphaelites – ‘They’re not real women – they’re saccharine fantasies by male artists who refused to engage with the world!’
But isn’t that the fantasy? To be made unreal?
One day shortly after the conversation with my college friends, one of them phoned in a panic – ‘I’m supposed to model this afternoon, but I need someone to fill in for me! Can you do it?’
There wasn’t time to second-guess. Yes or no?
That afternoon, I found my way to the art studio. I’d looked up some tips about modelling, and brought along a robe and slippers. The teacher was a friendly man, probably in his sixties, who had been running classes of female students with female models for much of my lifetime.
‘A good start is to just lie on your back with your legs up the wall,’ he said. ‘Always an interesting pose.’
He told me that people usually know they can model, or know they can’t. But ‘sometimes, when the moment comes to drop the robe, they freeze’.
If you get as far as the ‘robe-drop moment’ and freeze, I wondered, do you know yourself very well?
I dropped the robe, laid down on the platform, and stretched my legs up the wall.
by Kelley Swain, from The Naked Muse (£8.99, £3.99 Kindle)
Illustration by Nicola Pappalettera
Be part of our story. Join the Valley Press newsletter.