Updated: Jul 6
“We draw life, life draws us” is a thought-inducing quote.
When we draw, a window opens for us to take note of a moment in an organic form of art, where we exercise control over how every stroke of ink leaves a mark. Life drawing is traditionally conducted with a nude model. The understanding is simple: Beauty is found along the lines of muscles in their purest, most honest forms and how lighting could play magic on the way the human body looks. Life drawing strives to capture the spontaneous, natural shifts in the physical arrangements of our bodies, as Socrates quotes: "It is a shame for a man to grow old without seeing the beauty and strength of which his body is capable."
However, in a conservative society that dishonours nudity, life drawing is a challenge to be understood. In the name of art, life drawing celebrates body positivity and the creative expression around it. The community designs its environment to withhold an immense level of respect towards body image and share an appreciation for the human body itself. There would be no judgement or criticism but just a celebration of human strength and art. This allows space and outlet for people who seek liberation in being nude and want a moment in their life to be recorded with art.
And as we observe and draw the ever changing living sculptures of other humans, do we guide our drawing actions with our creativity or do we let life guide us with awe? I am curious how life drawing can teach us about ourselves.
The Experience The pitter-patter of the evening rain and peak hour traffic brought us to a winding road and eventually old shop lots now refurbished to host artsy avenues. A small crowd of art workshops, galleries, hipster cafes, a vinyl store and library hid within the jungle of concrete. The life drawing workshop venue was not a huge space, and we found ourselves surrounded by books the moment we set foot in it. What a vibe, honestly.
A few participants had arrived earlier than us and were setting up their painting equipment. Through our conversations, we discovered they come from different walks of life- distinct industries and backgrounds, as if any regular person on the street could be there. Regulars seeked a private space to relax with something taking their attention away from work after a long, tedious day of meetings and paperwork. Newcomers wanted to try new experiences, being intrigued by the idea of life drawing. Similarly, they were fueled by the curiosity in how life can be captured in the scribbling of pens, charcoal or graphite on a canvas, and how the human body can transcend the beauty of muscle lines, strength and shadows and radiate confidence even. On a technical level, life drawing removes the hassle of drawing clothes- the folds of fabric, mechanics of belts and spectacles get in the way of the fluid lines of the body. It also brilliantly provides what is necessary to capture dynamic and lively aspects of the subject, unlike the use of photographic references which often leads to ‘flat’ perspectives and inaccuracies in distance gauge. On the other hand, some craved to challenge themselves and rediscover their passion in drawing. Picking up their pens and brushes, they went back to an old skill to leave a mark with aesthetics from the heart which they once knew so well. When asked if the nudity in life drawing is a factor shunning people away, it seemed the participants are rather open-minded about it. "What's the big deal?", someone shared. Life drawing is commonly found overseas in equally private spaces, with much respect cultivated in their respectively controlled environments. A participant shared that his experiences in Amsterdam and England, where life drawing is far more accepted and frequent, had zero judgement within their bubbles. However, understanding the sensitive nature of our society, it's no surprise events as such are kept behind closed doors even more cautiously. Some reasons deterring people here from accepting life drawing could be the lack of respect they have for the naked human body, its traditional association with indecency and the minute appreciation towards art. In fact, there exists a hint of fear among the participants of certain scenarios concerning invasion of their own privacy. Those who do not understand life drawing the same way as this community can easily cast overwhelming responses and judgement. Sure enough, there are people who shy away from the association of nudity with art in both the West and Malaysia, but the school of participants who attend such workshops here has vowed to be respectful and private. It’s about remaining an open heart in the bubble they have created for one another. It’s mutualism at its best.
The environment was calm and professional even when the model showed up, and so I just went with the flow. The model followed the instructor’s guidance and started posing for all the participants to draw. We practised with short drawing sessions of 30s, 2 mins and 5 mins, before venturing into longer sessions that lasted for 10 mins, 20 mins and 30 mins. Specific instructions were given, without taking away much creative freedom from the model. The model posed with confidence without flinching with shyness, and through his eyes I saw nothing but pride and a gentle soul. I wondered how he felt. Our model was inspired by a Youtube video discussing naturism. That curiosity eventually got channelled into his courage to take a first step in exploring his connection with the world, while being naked- the rawest, most honest yet vulnerable physical form possible. Having then tried naturist events overseas, he felt resonated with his fellow nudists who shelved their prudence and embraced all their physical flaws, giving themselves and others respect. He felt no embarrassment in his body, stood proud and shed the layer of shield others find essential. Thus, becoming a life drawing model was not much of a challenge for him mentally- it was a bucket list cross-off instead. It seems body positivity and appreciation do come from your inner self, and they radiate a confidence that shun any criticism others might throw at you. This made me think, do body discrimination and your insecurities in body image come from yourself more, or from others?
Did our model think more could be done to encourage an openness towards nudity in Malaysia? He disagreed, adding that the community is not ready at the moment. Nudism ventures in the country are often extremely private and they largely leverage on the mutual trust in privacy, even from close friends and families. It is a challenge for nudists in finding outlets to express themselves within a taboo society, where clothelessness conveniently translates to indecency in a prudish language. Their exposed secrets could attract harsh judgement from others, and so they fight to protect their community- a space where trust is beyond essential. In my opinion, there is impeccable beauty in their enthusiasm and monumental courage in their pursuit of passion.
The Lessons The workshop was an eye-opening session for me. Not only did I rediscover my old passion and skills in drawing, I learned a thing or two about our society. My drawings were certainly not professionally done but they seem to reflect my own style. It was a good session as I found myself concentrating my attention for short periods of time, without thinking about other work at all. It was slightly draining at the end of the session, as I was not used to drawing for 2.5 hours straight, even with a break halfway through. But when we gathered everyone's drawings at the end of the session to exchange feedback, I was in absolute awe of the gorgeous artwork other participants had created in such brief time pockets they were provided with. Even our model was fascinated to see himself interpreted in a variety of artistic styles. And I believe that only positively enhanced the appreciation he has towards his body.
After all, life drawing has a niche community. Both the artists and models are open-minded, friendly and have an artistic approach to the concept of nudity. They look at it with respect and focus on the art, and the body is appreciated, regardless of colour, shape and size. After walking through the doors, art is the only currency.
Would you be interested to do life drawing, or challenge yourself and be a model? At the end of the day, life drawing is learning about yourself and relaxing yourself when you only have one thing to focus on, both artist and model alike. What novelty and luxury it is to have such an opportunity in our society. As artists, we draw what is presented to us, capturing a moment in time, and so in that moment, only art exists. The body is art. It's a canvas of signs time has left on us; it's the courage of being honest, vulnerable and confident to yourself and others. We are art itself. And so, life does draw us.
By Euan Thum, Journalist, Charisma Movement 22/23.