If you’ve never seen a grown woman impersonate a starfish in the nude, I’m sorry, but you’ve never lived.

Our model was about 30 with the small, compact build of a fitness instructor. Stony faced, she’d walked straight into the centre of the room, dropped her silky dressing gown and suddenly struck her pose, which looked uncannily like a stationary starjump. Loitering nervously by our easels, the class of about a dozen school students wasn’t quite sure where to start. Thankfully, our life drawing instructor was on hand to dispel our childish embarrassment and get things moving.

“First pose — pick up your charcoal — draw!” One of the boys gave a little cough — which the rest of us took as the starting gun — and we got sketching.

For the experienced artist, life drawing is the equivalent of a personal training session — you’re not going to learn anything new, but you’ll be fitter at the end than if you’d simply gone it alone. For beginners, it’s a chance to learn the basics and master gestural sketching, proportion and the refined art of not staring too much. And for those completely devoid of artistic skill or inclination, it’s an opportunity to sneak a peak at someone else’s wobbly bits. Some classes even offer tea and cake. It’s a no-brainer, really.

Like our lithe study, the instructor played her part to a T — she was wearing large, ornamental earrings that shifted like weathercocks about her neckline, and a long dark kaftan (presumably a Javanese memento from her last learning tour). Hell-bent on whipping her technically challenged class of kids into the Cezannes, Braques and Manets of tomorrow — all within the allotted two-hour time frame — she would stalk around the room like an aesthetically astute panther, pausing here to point out a well-defined derrière or arch an eyebrow at a weakly sketched hand.

Whereas other life-drawing classes I’d gone to had been relaxing, enjoyable and laidback affairs, this particular teacher was having none of that en plein air indolence; setting a cracking pace of a pose every two minutes, she soon had us all frantically ripping back sheets of paper and desperately trying to capture our model’s remarkable flexibility (“Seriously,” the person next to me remarked, “she looks like she’s doing a yoga class and playing Twister, all in one.”) Frenzied and frazzled, my hand was moving so quickly that at one point the little stick of willow charcoal I’d been using simply puffed into a sooty haze mid-stroke.

Interestingly, with only few sessions under my belt, I could already see patterns emerging. Hardly worth calling up Hugh MacKay over, nevertheless, the trends were hard to miss. For one, irrespective of the model’s actual build, no two drawings ever look the same. More often than not, fairly nondescript body types are puffed, pinched and manually Photoshopped to something that faintly resembles the artist themselves. Wonder why your neighbour’s sketch seems so bootylicious compared to your stick figure? Wait until they stand up in the coffee break, you’ll get your answer.

“You know,” my friend, a life-drawing devotee once told me, “it’s funny because when the model’s a woman, the men all draw her curvier, all hourglass, but the women tend to make her longer and thin.” When I asked her why that was, her answer was simple: “We see what we want to see.”

Two hours after she’d — impressively, no doubt — stripped down like a starfish, our model was finally done. She looked a little tired. But not quite as tired as the rest of us, practically hunched over our sketch pads, hands racked with cramps.

Infuriatingly, our instructor was as spritely as ever, jangly earrings chattering with enthusiasm.

“Good class! Same time tomorrow.” God help us.

Get Crikey for $1 a week.

Lockdowns are over and BBQs are back! At last, we get to talk to people in real life. But conversation topics outside COVID are so thin on the ground.

Join Crikey and we’ll give you something to talk about. Get your first 12 weeks for $12 to get stories, analysis and BBQ stoppers you won’t see anywhere else.

Peter Fray
Peter Fray
Editor-in-chief of Crikey
12 weeks for just $12.