Letter to a young model

Nude modeling (young woman), charcoal drawing by William Eaton

Sketch of young woman's face and bust, by William EatonDear readers: Once again an eccentric “Image of the Week” text. This is a version of an e-mail I sent to a model, 22 years old, I believe, who has several times modeled excellently for me and a small group of artists who come to my home to draw. Like many models and many people, young hardly less than old, she has her moments of insecurity, of wondering—even though I keep hiring her—is she, in fact, good at this job or up to my (presumed to be high) standards. The images accompanying this post are from drawings I have made of this model and other young female models like her. The first paragraph refers to the fact that I have been exploring various, a little less conventional approaches, to include having the model be moving in ordinary (non-dancer-ly) ways or reading out loud to the artists.

Dear, dear A,

My sense is that yesterday evening’s modeling session was a significant turning point for our little drawing group, both on account of the movements you were exploring and for your posing while reading out loud. In both cases, it seems to me—leaning as we go and here using one of your descriptions—we are getting away from model as “statue” (or even “dancer”) and moving toward model as human being.

This relates, too, to your wondering if we thought you were a good model (!). First, I hope you are beginning to see that I consider models very important. It’s a collaborative process—one human drawing another—and modeling is a kind of performance art, all the more delicate not only for the nudity but also for the relative stillness, the intimacy of a studio (or living room) . . . as compared, say, to a ballet dancer doing leaps or twirls across a big stage.

Nude model chillaxing, drawing by William EatonWhat makes a good model a good model? (And understanding that we all—models and artists—have our good, or more energetic, days, and our lesser ones.) To me this is a complex and difficult question, and not all artists like the same models. It can be a matter of a psychological or intellectual connection between the model and the artist. It can be a matter of speaking in some special way to larger circumstances, the way certain fashion models seem “right” for a particular decade. It can be a matter of the poses you take. There are models we like for the complexity or originality of their poses (like your standing, yet L-shaped pose toward the end of yesterday evening’s session), and I remember, too, an Art Students League model who stood simply, slump-ily, “naturally” on a small stage, and that was perfect! (It was, in some way, a “her” that spoke—and perhaps just that evening—to a “me.”)

Insofar as I am often, though not always, doing portraits of a sort, I am concerned, of course, to get down on paper some kind of physical likeness—your lips, eyes, etc. But I am also concerned to reach toward the mood of your pose or of you that day, or the mood of that particular modeling session. And these moods can easily be as much a product—or projection—of what’s in my head or heart, as of what’s in yours. But this also leads toward another sense I’ve had: that what’s in the model’s head—thoughts or books read or artwork seen or feelings or life experiences half-digested—can be as important as physical appearance. We have one model, in her 50s, I would guess, who I like particularly because her head seems quite full of “stuff.” What this stuff is . . . ? I can only guess. But my sense is that it’s interesting, and that there’s a lot of it.

Portrait of a woman, by William EatonAfter drawing you the first time (at the National Arts Club) I sought to hire you because I thought there was a rich connection between your modeling and my drawing. I have continued to think this since you have started coming to the living-room sessions, and you are a favorite of other attendees as well. You also have fit well with the group, and with our mixing of drawing, food and conversation.

In closing, I note, too, that it can be much easier to draw a model one does not like than a model one does. Caring less about the results, the artist is more relaxed. With a good-looking or creative or thoughtful model, or pose; or with a person I know well—I may so wish that my drawing rise to the level of this person and of what I know about them, . . . Tension and desire may lead my drawing to fall short. This notwithstanding, I always prefer to draw a model I like and whose modeling I admire and appreciate. As I am drawing you I feel happily the power of liking, of admiration and appreciation!

May all these words prove of some value. Responses are always welcome!

Best, William


Closing note to readers of this post

There’s more on “portraits of a sort” in last week’s Image of the Week post.

And yes, the title for this week’s post was snatched from the English title of a famous work by Rainer Maria Rilke, Briefe an einen jungen Dichter (Letters to a Young Poet). To adapt (and truncate) some of Rilke’s comments on marriage (and not on models and artists!) from his August 17, 1901 letter to the writer Emanuel von Bodman (an English translation may be found here):

A good model-artist relationship is one in which each partner appoints the other to be the guardian of her or his solitude, and thus they show each other the greatest possible trust. A merging of two people is an impossibility, and where it seems to exist, it is a hemming-in. But once the realization is accepted that even between the closest people infinite distances exist, a marvelous working side-by-side can grow up for them, if they succeed in loving the expanse between them, which gives them the possibility of always seeing each other as a whole and before an immense sky.

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