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What is it like to draw a naked stranger?

Conor Gogarty tries his hand at a life drawing class.

THE thought of life drawing — the art of sketching a naked person — is something I have always found odd. How do classes deal with the matter of ignoring some of society’s most basic rules?

After all, there are few legal activities quite as taboo-shattering as paying a few quid to see a naked stranger assume highly revealing poses for two hours. But that was exactly what I did last Sunday when I attended a weekly class at the Little Man Coffee Company.

The fruits of my labours at Little Man Coffee Company

 

Though I was intrigued to see how the whole thing was handled, I was not without my concerns. Chief among them was my ineptitude as a draughtsman. I was a source of exasperation to my art teachers at school, and rejoiced on the day of my final lesson in the subject. Understandably, then, I was a little apprehensive of there being a “show your work” moment in the class.

Nevertheless, armed with a HB pencil and the afterglow of a wikiHow drawing tutorial, I made my way to the trendy little café in Cardiff city centre. I had a chat with the other artists, all of whom were very friendly. But it soon became clear that the organiser would not be turning up, and so, 15 minutes after the class was meant to start, the model, a young Polish woman called Karolina, led us all downstairs to the basement.

I got my answer as to how they would deal with the whole nudity thing almost immediately. No sooner had myself and the other six artists sat down behind a table in the small, rather chilly room, than Karolina started disrobing.

She did this as if it were the most normal thing in the world, casually throwing aside her clothes. For a few minutes she couldn’t get the room’s sliding door to close, but didn’t seem too anxious that one of the café’s customers might come down looking for the toilets and see more than they bargained for. Then, stark naked and making no attempt to hide anything, she started chatting with us about the poses she would be doing.

I was surprised at just how awkward I was finding all this. It was the lack of acknowledgement that was getting me. There was not a flicker from Karolina or the rest of the class to suggest that what was happening was absurd, and this was making me want to laugh very badly. I recently spent a laughter yoga class forcing myself to laugh; here I was forcing myself not to.

My problem only worsened when Karolina started posing. With the room in absolute silence, she started with a few “warm-up” two-minute poses, and gradually built them up. My depictions of these poses were so awful that, as I looked at them, my struggle to refrain from laughing began to feel hopeless. I had to abandon one drawing halfway through because I was so close to losing it.

About an hour into the session Karolina had a short break, and walked past me to get a dressing gown. Of course, my eyes were fixed firmly downwards on my sketchpad, but I couldn’t miss her double take as she saw my most recent drawing. I had made her look like some kind of alien with claws for hands. Cheeks burning, I waited in shame for her to move past.

I found the second hour of the class much easier to get through. My urge to laugh evaporated and I began to see the value of the activity. During the longer poses, it was possible to capture countless contours and shadows, and the process of slowly building a likeness was quite enjoyable. The frustration was that even my better drawings didn’t really look like Karolina, or any human, but I left feeling that I had got something from the class. More than anything else, though, I learned that, as a draughtsman, I am a lost cause.

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