Why do artists draw nude models?

For nearly 25 years, I've been in the practice of drawing nude models. Sometimes I forget that for most people, this kind of experience is quite strange! The idea of not only seeing a stranger in the buff, but scanning their form with your eyes for several minutes or even hours, is a completely foreign concept to most and tends to spark feelings ranging from titillation to awkwardness to fear.

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But if you attend even a single life drawing session, you will see that the practice of drawing from nude models is one of the most quiet, focused, mundane activities one would choose to do on a Friday night! (Perhaps this is why life drawing groups tend to meet on a Tuesday or Sunday, haha.)

So why is this such a common practice among artists, and a standard part of art education going back hundreds of years? What do artists learn from looking at naked people that they couldn't glean from studying the clothed figure or photos?

The Nude is the Essential Human

The subject of the nude can be attractive to artists because there's something so human about the body. (I know, duh, but think about it.)

It's easy to emotionally connect or identify with nude subjects. If a nude subject is in a meek or contracted pose, they appear even more vulnerable than if covered. If the subject stands confident and strong, even without clothing, well they must be very confident and strong! The emotional statement can be amplified by nudity.

Nudes also have a way of representing humanity in general, as opposed to one specific person. Clothing and other adornments often set the time period, location, or culture of a subject while a nude can be anyone, anywhere, at any point in history. This breaks barriers that often divide people, and allows an artist to get at the subject of the human condition without involving associations that come along with clothing.

Understanding Human Anatomy

Yes, it's possible to study human anatomy from illustrations in books and photos. However, going from a flat illustration to drawing a human figure moving and twisting dynamically in space is a huge gap to bridge. Practically every anatomical atlas features the figure in a stiff pose, not sitting, walking, dancing or turning.

If you want to portray people moving naturally through space, even clothed, you need to understand how the anatomy shifts, tenses, stretches, and turns as the body moves. Understanding what's happening beneath the surface is the foundation on which realistic drapery and clothing can be laid!

If you'd like to brush-up on your anatomy skills from home, check out the Figure Drawing Academy: Essential Anatomy course.

Observing with Human Eyes

Think about this: Whenever someone talks about being freaked out by a portrait whose eyes follow them across the room, they're never talking about a photo. This comment is always made about paintings, because human eyes see in a decidedly different way than camera lenses.

Studying from photos is not worthless, as many artists claim. Still, a photo only provides you a flat representation of three-dimensional space, and it's distorted by whatever kind of lens is being used.

Observing with your human eyes and binocular vision is a vastly different experience which exposes you to endless visual information. It them becomes your job to translate that experience into 2 dimensions, rather than copying a camera's translation. This is why studying the nude model is often done from life.

The Fourth Dimension: Time

Drawings done from life aren't just 2D representations of 3D reality. Drawings from life include a 4th dimension: Time. As the model poses, they and their surroundings ultimately shift in some way. This could simply be through the act of breathing, a muscle gradually relaxing, or a facial expression changing. It can also be changes in your own perspective as your breath's rise and fall shifts your vision slightly, as your posture shifts, or as the light through a nearby window diminishes.

As time passes, you will make decisions about where to focus, what to keep, what to leave out, and what to change. In this way your drawing becomes a collection of decisions and a collection of moments. It becomes more deliberate and eternal than a quick snapshot.

Creating a Mental Database

Over many sessions with a variety of models in myriad poses, you begin to build a database and deep understanding of how the figure moves and appears in different poses. Some of these ideas you can study in a book and work out logically, but a very different understanding comes through the experience of sketching what you see, over and over again.

This kind of working knowledge is essential if you want to sketch from imagination, invent your own characters (whether they're human or not!), or veer from photo references in your art. It also makes your quick sketches appear more interesting and detailed, as you can pull from drawings of the past to make the process of drawing what you're seeing now faster.

Life Drawing Makes Your Art Better

In short, all these ideas point to the fact that practicing life drawing improves any art you make.

Even if you don't have any plans for nude figures in your work, the skills and experience you gain when working from the live model positively affects any drawings, paintings, or sculptures you make outside of this context. Noticing what things look like through your own two eyes, witnessing the way life shifts and breathes, and learning to make decisions in a limited amount of time, changes and broadens the way you work from photos and imagination.

This is why life drawing has been a foundation of art education and practice for centuries, and why it's considered the highest form of artistic practice among artists.

Join a lineage of artists who study the human form from direct observation.


Take the 6 Week Figure Drawing in Charcoal Course live in-studio with me Thursdays 6-8pm September 26th - November 7th 2024.

Drawing the figure from life has long been considered essential for artists, and the mark of the highest achievement in draftsmanship.

Everyone can benefit from life drawing because it's not just about creating a finished drawing; It's about the experience of witnessing and observing the majesty of the figure, translating what you see into line and shading, and most importantly learning how to control your focus.

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