A Simple Guide to Working with Models for Artists

Ingrid Christensen
Dec 10, 2018 6:14PM
Wang Qingsong
MoMA Studio, 2005

For centuries, artists have hired models in order to draw, paint, and sculpt the human form. Not even the advent of photography could replace the formative exercise of rendering a person from life. Indeed, if an artist wants to learn about the subtleties of color, tone, and anatomy, there is no substitute for such direct observation.

Taking the first steps toward finding and working with a model may be an intimidating prospect, but by learning some basic etiquette, you’ll navigate this time-honored relationship with ease.

Finding a model

To find the right model, first determine the kinds of poses you’d like to work on. For “undraped” poses (i.e. without clothing), it’s best to contact arts groups that host life-drawing classes. They’ll be able to recommend reliable models who will pose nude.

If you’d prefer a clothed, or “draped,” model, your options are vast. Anyone you meet is a potential subject; you may even want to ask friends and acquaintances. This approach takes some courage, but you may find that people are eager to be depicted in art.

Choosing a pose

It can take some time and collaboration to find a pose that is both interesting for you to draw, and comfortable for the model to hold. Even sitting in an armchair can become uncomfortable, and an elegantly crossed leg may turn numb. To avoid such problems, evaluate the pose with your model before you begin your artwork. Simple measures such as a pillow for lumbar support or a sturdy box under a raised foot can transform a strained pose into a stable one. You’ll also learn which positions can’t be made comfortable through any means—something that’s best discovered before the work is underway.

Often, you can find the best poses by setting some broad parameters for the model and letting them experiment. For example, you could ask for a seated pose on a certain chair and leave the exact positioning up to them. The model will take a pose that’s naturally comfortable for their body; if they are at ease, you are more likely to be able to make a strong work of art.

Remember that the act of sitting or standing still for a long period of time can cause a person to become cold, so be aware of the temperature of the room, and adjust it as needed.

Taking timed breaks

It’s standard to give the model a five-minute break every 20 to 30 minutes, depending on the difficulty of the pose. Ask your model to take on the task of timing, so that you can immerse yourself in your work, without the distraction of watching a clock.

Taping the pose

For poses that will be held for a long period of time, put down masking tape to help your model get back into the same position after breaks. Before the first break, place bits of tape on the furniture or floor beside key points, such as the side of the model’s arm against the chair, and the edges of their foot. The model can then use these markers to re-assume the original pose. It’s not uncommon for a group of artists to disagree about where, exactly, the model’s hands were, or how their body was turned, and the tape can help settle the matter. Models may prefer to tape themselves, so be sure to ask first.

Embracing change

Despite their best efforts, it’s inevitable that the model’s pose will change as time passes. This is normal and you should welcome it—after all, you’re depicting life, and nothing living is ever perfectly still. The model may shift a sore muscle, have thoughts that alter their facial expression, breathe, blink, or settle with fatigue. Capturing that transience in your art is both the challenge and the reward of working from life, so don’t fight it and force them back into perfect posture. Instead, embrace the change and look for the new visual interest the settled pose may reveal.

Knowing the boundaries

Models allow artists to stare at them with an intensity that might merit a slap in the world outside the studio. They hold poses for long, dreary hours, yet maintain alertness, all in the service of someone else’s art. In turn, it’s important for artists to remember that there are limits to what you can ask of models. The following rules are key to a respectful working relationship:

  • Never touch the model: Other than taping, you shouldn’t invade the model’s personal space at all. They’re in a very vulnerable position, and rearranging their hair, tweaking their clothing, or manipulating them in any way is inappropriate. Instead, describe how you’d like them to move or alter their pose, and tell them once they’ve done it.
  • Don’t take pictures: You shouldn’t photograph or video a model without permission—even if the person is fully clothed. They’re being paid for a life session, not for the future use and potential distribution of their image. Some models do allow photography, but they may charge extra for the privilege.
  • Keep spectators out of the studio: You’re responsible for helping the model maintain their dignity and privacy, so only working artists should be present when they’re posing.
  • The model has the final say on the pose: You can request a pose, but it’s the model’s right to refuse it if it’s uncomfortable (physically or emotionally).

Paying the model

Local life-drawing groups can tell you the standard hourly model rate in your area. You should prepare the correct fee in advance, so your tired model won’t have to wait while you search your wallet for money. Along with payment, make sure to give sincere thanks; the model’s presence has enriched your work in a way that no inanimate subject could.

Ingrid Christensen
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Jenna Gribbon, Luncheon on the grass, a recurring dream, 2020. Jenna Gribbon, April studio, parting glance, 2021. Jenna Gribbon, Silver Tongue, 2019