Bare on both sides of the easel? Figure modeling at Yale

Larissa Pham, CC '14

Yale offers a variety of life drawing classes, as well as a fabulously popular biweekly “open drawing” session that’s free to the public. But you can’t draw the figure without a model… hence the mysterious life modeling gig.

My first run-in with life drawing was my freshman year. Unable to take an art class but desperately wanting to keep drawing, I found out about the open drawing sessions and went with a friend. In the studio jazz was playing, people were sketching, and the atmosphere was relaxed and welcoming. Though I’d never worked from the nude human form before, I quickly understood the importance of studying the figure, and I was grateful for the opportunity.

It’s about more than just learning how to render the human body: figure drawing teaches students how to see—how to look closely, how to understand contours and shapes and shadow. And it’s fun! There’s no pressure in figure drawing. It’s constantly a learning process.

So to the other side of the easel: what does it mean to be a model? When I started the job, I was a little nervous. What would it be like to be drawn by my classmates, bearing their scrutiny as I posed on the stage? Would I be judged? Would it be uncomfortable?

Surprisingly, it’s not strange at all. I learned from drawing that it’s all about seeing things in terms of shape and form, not content. When you draw from a subject, you don’t think about a person in terms of whether they’re ugly or beautiful or tall or short or any of that: you think about how to best convey the essence of your subject. And once I understood that, I was happy to model. 

Under the bright lights, I held poses, alternating between static and dynamic, knowing that I was helping my classmates learn how to see; the way I’ve learned and am learning. There’s something humbling to it: in modeling for someone’s art, you’re not really just you anymore. You’re becoming part of something larger than yourself.

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