Page last updated at 10:30 GMT, Friday, 10 July 2009 11:30 UK

Stock still and stark naked

Life model Sarah Snee poses for a class
Models need to be fit to keep still for so long

By Jo-Anne Rowney
BBC News Magazine

Television viewers are getting a taste of how artists go about drawing life models with a series of classes on Channel 4. But what is it like to pose naked for art?

It's cold, all eyes are on you, and you're naked.

It sounds like a recurring nightmare, but this was an everyday occurrence for life model Sarah Snee.

Sarah Snee
The artists don't view you sexually - they see the body as a series of lines and shadows, a piece of art
Sarah Snee
Life model

From Leonardo da Vinci to Lucian Freud, artists have always taken their inspiration from the human body by turning to life drawing to understand the naked form. While the painter may get all the attention, on the other side of the canvas is the lesser-known life model.

Sarah started modelling when studying at Slade School of Fine Art, University College London. As a student strapped for cash the allure of making money modelling for art was too much to resist. But there was another motivation - self exploration.

"I was intrigued by the idea of being naked in front of strangers," says Sarah. "Especially at the age of 20 when you're still getting to know your own body and developing your own sexuality. It was a very romantic idea, a bohemian idea."

Artist's gaze

Sarah can recall the first time she modelled, as she met the eyes of the students posed to draw her, she felt self-conscious. Her mind raced with questions.

"My first time was daunting. I was wondering what people thought of my body. Was I attractive enough? Did my bum look big? The things most people would be concerned with.

Lucian Freud's Benefits Supervisor Sleeping
The art world is littered with famous nudes

"I had just got back from holiday and I felt like I'd put on lots of weight. I thought I can't do this, what had I been thinking? But then I realised what I felt was only natural. From then I relaxed and it was easier."

Despite being under the intense scrutiny of a room full of pupils, male and female, Sarah found she quickly became used to being under the artist's gaze.

"It made me feel more confident about my body. I felt liberated. I feel more self-conscious wearing a bikini on holiday with friends than I did when I was naked in front of strangers.

"For me it was a means to channel that exhibitionism. I quite liked getting naked in front of strangers. I find it quite exhilarating, you're the centre of attention and you're enabling people to be creative."

When Sarah decided to become a life model people were intrigued.

"I think some guys liked it. It was a good line to use as a student meeting people in bars. It got people interested and I definitely got a few boyfriends from it."

1st Century AD: Roman philosopher Pliny tells of Zeuxis viewing women naked and selecting five to combine to paint an ideal image
1487: Leonardo da Vinci's Vitruvian Man, depicts naked male form as proportionate
1580s: Carraci's art school in Bologna focuses on life drawing
1700s: Students in Jacques-Louis David's studio must master drawing

Some artists see drawing from observation as the pinnacle of the practice, allowing a chance to capture the essence of the form, recreating it in a way that copying a photograph just cannot compare to.

According to artist Alan Kane, life drawing has become less fashionable. Kane, the man behind the Channel 4 series, Life Class: Today's Nude, says life modelling should be viewed as "educational and non-sexualised nudity". However, life modelling has gained some dodgy associations, Sarah explains.

"People say to me isn't life modelling really weird? Isn't it a bit sexual? Of course there are men who have this idea they're all going to draw these naked women and it's going to be thrilling.

"But the artists don't view you sexually. They see the body as a series of lines and shadows, a piece of art."

Michelangelo's David
Depicting anatomy has been a valued skill for centuries

Perhaps a more pressing issue for the typical life model is the cold.

"There's a heater normally, but the worst place was the freezing Canvas Gallery in Islington [in north London]," says Sarah. "They had a gas burner and it blew towards you, it was a little scary. I was paranoid about it blowing up."

As if catching a chill wasn't enough, posing can also be physically challenging. You have to be very fit to remain motionless.

"I think I've got thread veins [small blood vessels near the surface of the skin] prematurely from modelling because you are cutting off the blood supply over long lengths of time.

"I used to get extreme pain, some poses were just agonising. Imagine sitting down and resting on your hand, twisting slightly to the right. There's pain in your wrist, pain in your buttocks and the lower back from the pressure."

There are always bad experiences, but life as a model can also be rewarding. One artist sold paintings of Sarah in a Paris show. A painting was bought by a top buyer, and is currently displayed alongside a Vermeer in the French capital.

With her image holding pride of place in Paris, Sarah feels part of her will live on beyond her years.

"It's nice to think there's a little bit of me that will survive out there somewhere. It's lovely to think my image is out there bringing people happiness."

Below is a selection of your comments.

I modelled myself some years ago, but as a man I was asked to wear a thong. I thought this was to keep my bits out of view of the female students. But no. It was to keep the bits under control. You see, posing generally leads the mind to wander and to daydream, and in that situation arousal is all too common.
Ian, Fleetwood

When I went to see my future wife's mother she took me into the sitting room and served coffee on a glass top coffee table. Under the glass was a life drawing of my future mother-in-law who used to be a model. I didn't know where to put my biscuits. At least I got to see into the future.
Paul, Hampshire

Many years ago I did three months life modelling, as well as - over ten years - collating information about the human rights records of other countries. From these two experiences, let me assure you that an ill-considered pose is an unwitting act of torture. Oh my lower leg muscles just ache at the memory.
Nic, London

We had a young model who was a bit of a poser. She lasted about three weeks. She couldn't hack the clinical detachment that you have to have for analytical drawing. I agree with Adam from Brighton, big fat women are great to draw. One lady was wonderful and in her breaks she used to tear our drawings apart. Big boobs and bellies and reach for the 4B.
Colin Bibby, Lima, Peru

I did a lot of life classes while studying art. The worst part is when the model takes a break and wanders round to have a look at people's work... you feel self-conscious of your representation of their nude body. Older, plumper people are the best to draw, they have much more interesting bodies. Curves and creases.
Adam Kidd, Brighton

Trust the media to find a young, attractive blonde to illustrate the story. When I was at art college in the early 80s most of our models were middle-aged and wrinkly, which actually makes for a much more interesting study. However there was one "extra-mature" model "Old Dave", and we were all very grateful indeed that he always kept his baggy grey Y-fronts firmly on.
Graeme, Bristol, UK

I've never modelled myself - for the good of human kind - but I did draw people, both male & female and there's something magical about the naked human body.
Martín Alejandro Carmona Selva, Barcelona, Spain

Hasn't Sarah achieved something we would all love? Immortality without suffering the ageing process. Excellent.
David, Lancashire, Burnley

It's good to see such an "alternative" job getting the recognition and respect it deserves. I've been a life model for a couple of years now and although the work is sometimes hard (I find yoga helps!) and jobs can be sporadic, I love being a part of the creative process and the students are always professional and respectful. I have a degree in History of Art and Design, but have learned so much about drawing since I began modelling that I now want to go back and do an Art Foundation course.
Claire Hill, Manchester, UK

The human form should be celebrated as an interesting form of natural engineering and an aesthetic piece of art. We are all naked underneath our clothes.
Julia Brydon, Brighton, UK

While I imagine it's quite exciting to do, I don't think I would ever become a life model myself. I think I've still got too much of that Victorian prudishness inside me.
Ed, York

I was a model throughout college for various art courses. It was mostly a very positive experience and it did pay well. The downside was that male models were paid at a significantly higher rate (apparently women are much more likely to model for classes, leaving the instructors desperate to find men willing to pose for their students). Who would've thought the glass ceiling exists in nude modelling, too?
Sara, Dallas, TX, USA

I've modelled since I was 21 and have done it through two pregnancies and into my late 30s. I love it, find the artists a fascinating bunch and now find the enforced inactivity complete bliss. Personally I'm not an exhibitionist, just happy in my own skin and enjoying doing something a bit different.
Mrs HD, Herefordshire

Why do the English have such trouble separating nudity from sexuality? There is a time for titillation and there is a time to admire the scientific wonder and artistic beauty of human anatomy.
Ross Brown, London, UK

Ross, I really don't think there's "time to admire the scientific wonder and artistic beauty of human anatomy", at least not in this time and age. If you notice, most of the renaissance models we've seen are unfit and out of shape, my guess is people bank then were able to see the beauty in the human body, but in this time and age there's simply no time for it, and those who claim to be are only interested to sit and stare at a physically attractive and fit model. Otherwise, a human body doesn't interest them; when was the last time someone was interested in painting an out-of-shape wrinkled old fat lady?
Ash, Dubai, UAE

When I was student in Aberdeen, I posed for classes at Gray's Art School. I agree it's a liberating experience and gives you time to do nothing but think. Normally the classes were art students or adults where it was a hobby. However, one night, I walked in to find that half the class were Art GCSE girls. As I got into my pose, one of them stage-whispered "Not as big as I expected."
Tony Romanis, Carlisle

I've done life drawing and I view the female models sexually. Sorry, prudes, but that is human nature and is perfectly acceptable thing to do. I have no personal issues like most repressed people in society who look down their noses on other people.
Mikey, Australia

To look at a nude as lines and shadows is to reduce it to level of a vase. A good nude picture communicates the sensuality of the model. After all that is the real beauty of a woman. People who fret about sexuality should play safe and draw fruit.
Tony Fekete, Bucharest

For the average person even in the Western world, I guess being naked in public would be very difficult and embarrassing. However I would consider it a brave and liberating experience to do so; you are overcoming all those deeply rooted inhibitions you have acquired since early childhood. There is nothing shameful about the naked human body, well proportioned or otherwise.
Rajiv, Trivandrum, India

As an artist who has taken many life drawing classes I can vouch for the fact that it is not sexual. However, it can be uncomfortable for the artist at first as well as the model. Actually, it's difficult to draw the body correctly and you really have to pay attention to the various little shapes. The one thing I did learn is that there are all sorts of bodies out there so mine isn't that horrible. I could never pose nude though.
Kathleen, Boston, USA

As an amateur artist who has been on the drawing side in life classes, I have to agree with Sarah that I entirely saw the human form as a series of curves and shadows and a real challenge to capture well. It definitely helps you see it as an absolute work of art in its own right.
Justin Kirby, Livingston, Scotland

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