When I signed up for "Life Drawing," I looked forward to going out around the beautiful campus of UC Santa Barbara to take in the living scenery in this beach community. The first classes entailed staying in and exploring light and shadow while drawing cubes and spheres arranged on a table central to all the students' easels. The professor often referred to "when the models are here." I was confused, curious and a tad disappointed. Were we going to draw scenes from little models of buildings maybe? Were we ever going to go outside and draw real landscapes?
Yes, I was a complete novice.
It slowly, very slowly dawned on me that the models were not going to be little buildings, but live people. Models. Ooooooh! And it slowly, very slowly dawned on me, with a growing sense of dread and panic, that the models were not going to be wearing any clothes!
I was a "slow bloomer," shall we say (people often did). Geeky, nerdy, whatever. I was the kid who risked ridicule to change into my gym clothes in the bathroom, rather than in the open girls locker room, both in public junior high and in a Catholic girls high school. You could call it natural modesty, some may call it prudery (probably those whose ridicule I was most likely to be risking would call it that). I was just young, and shy and still maintained that sense of wanting privacy from everyone while changing clothes. And I wanted the same for others. I was not even from a home where people made a big deal about the virtues of modesty and purity.
Even by college, I was still mortified at the prospect of having fully naked people stand before me to be drawn. But, what could I do?? I was enrolled in the class I needed the credits, the day of unveiling was approaching, and I did enjoy learning to draw. I realized it was an opportunity to mature in the area of professionalism. I don't mean I decided to become a professional artist. I decided that the ability to look at the human body uncovered without undue embarrassment, discomfort or titillation was a skill that should come with growing up.
Painters and sculptors throughout the centuries have honed their talents while gazing on the human figure without lust creeping in. Art connoisseurs and museum patrons by the hordes have appreciated the nude works of the masters without giggles and smirks. I do not doubt these works have elicited snickers from adolescent museum guests through the years. Generally, this is unsurprising when it occurs in children, but is considered immature and in bad form when an adult responds thus.
|Michelangelo's L'Uomo Vitruvian|
When the disrobing occurred in my class in the third week, I also learned that it is possible to sketch a body without focusing unduly on any details that did not warrant focus. I was indeed relieved that I was able to rise to the occasion. After all, life presents nakedness, and if I was going to be a grown-up, I was going to have to put on my big girl panties and get used to it.
We expect grown-ups to be able to see body parts that are usually hidden without animal passions taking over. We expect grown-ups to know there is a time and a place for exposing them. It does not benefit the medical professional or the patient if prudery or titillation enters into a doctor visit. If I should happen to be on the scene of a disaster or extreme poverty, I don't want a person's nakedness to deter me from helping, lest my "modesty" or theirs be compromised. In fact, my response of respect, rather than shock, can protect their modesty.
Likewise, of course, being seen naked is not the same as putting one's body unduly on display for the purpose of attracting interest. Unduly, because, attracting a mate does inherently involve our body. We smile, we dress ourselves in a manner we think is attractive, we stand a little closer.
And, of course, there are times when we must be comfortable being seen in a state of undress by someone we don't know intimately. When I gave birth, I uncharacteristically did not care how uncovered I was before a roomful of total strangers. It would not have been an easy job to complete if I had been very concerned! Especially with my first child when my arrival in the delivery room was recorded as being eleven minutes prior to the time of birth of my baby!
|Virgen de Belen by Marcellus Coffemans|
That semester, in addition to marginally improving my drawing skill, I learned that sometimes modesty means not flaunting what you've got and sometimes it means not making a big deal about some of the incidental nakedness in life.
Maybe that's why they called the course "Life Drawing" and not "Drawing Naked People."
|Here is a sketch from that Life Drawing class.|