Friday, December 16, 2016

Hiring and Working With a Nude Art Model

"Artist and Model," by Angelo Morbelli (1909)
There’s been plenty written for people interested in going into the field of art modeling, but much less written for artists interested in working with nude models. Working from a nude model is a traditional pillar of western art, but it can be an awkward situation for the inexperienced artist. And it can be a difficult experience for a model too. I have to say, I’ve heard some horror story experiences from models, and I’m hoping this article will serve to make the experience a more pleasant and fruitful one for everyone concerned.

If you’ve never worked with a nude model in any capacity before, it’s very worthwhile to spend some time at an established class or art school that utilizes nude models, if you can. Besides getting comfortable with the situation (and it’s perfectly normal to feel a bit awkward at first), you’ll be able to see how people with experience organize and run such a situation, and you may even be able ask for advice and get model referrals. If you are starting somewhere where you have no access to such a class, I hope this article will be of great help.

The media may portray the world of artists and models as something exotic and titillating, but the reality is that art modeling is a profession, like any other, and models should be treated in a mature, professional manner, and also be expected to behave in a professional manner. An art model’s skin is their working uniform, and it’s important to remember it as such. 

Unlike just about all other professions, though, an art model’s job is one in which they are inherently apt to feel more vulnerable, both emotionally and physically, and an artist/employer should keep that in mind. So be professional:

2.       1. Do not be overly familiar

2.       2. Do not make any physical contact

3.       3. Be respectful

4.       4. Be reasonable

5.       5. Pay properly, and respect the model’s legal rights

6.       6. Be aware of the time

7.       7. Don’t be a pushover

A simple rule of thumb is that the more comfortable the model is, the better a job they will do, and the better your art will turn out. 

1. Do Not be Overly Familiar
Maintain a professional demeanor. Treat the model as you would want your boss to treat you in an ideal work environment. You know that nightmare that people have of finding themselves at work naked? Imagine if it were happening to you, you’d want your boss to carry on as usual, maybe pretend not to notice, and not to make you feel any more vulnerable than you already do. Be that boss—professional and friendly.

If you happen to be an extrovert who oozes charisma and magnetism in your everyday life, it would be wise to tone it down in the studio, to avoid any risk of being misinterpreted. 

People who know me may know I’m the king of inappropriate comments, but when I’m working with models in a classroom, I turn off that part of my personality. Not only can it make the model uncomfortable, but it can make me seem less professional to everyone else in the class. 

Even if the model is a friend whom you know well, when they’re holding a pose, they’re working. You probably wouldn’t want your friends bugging you at work, either. 

If you’re working with a model privately, overly informal behavior can make them feel uncomfortable. And if you’re running a class, you may also influence the students in the class to behave in an uncomfortable or overly familiar way towards the model or each other. 

2. Do Not Make Any Physical Contact
This ought to be pretty obvious. If you work in a factory, you do not want the guy you’re working for touching you, even if you’re in overalls and a welder’s mask. It’s annoying and it can be considered harassment. So don’t touch the model. If you want them to pose in a particular way, use words to let them know. Gender doesn’t matter in this case—a female artist has no more right to touch a model of any gender than a male artist does. 

If a model is doing a long pose (day or weeks long) the pose is usually broken into 20-minute segments. During the breaks, it’s not uncommon to outline the placement of the models feet on the floor with tape so they can step back into the exact positions—but still, tape around the model, or better yet, hand them the tape and let them do it themselves. Don’t touch them.

3. Be Respectful
Be the kind of boss you would want to have. Don’t be pushy, critical or unreasonable. Remember that you have hired the model to pose for you, and most models want to do a good job for you, so making their job harder or more stressful will only make it harder for you. If you want specific poses, clearly explain what you’d like, and most models will try to oblige to the best of their ability. But if they feel they are unable to hold certain poses, give them the opportunity to tell you so. 

If you have a problem with something about the model, bring it up with them privately. Do not embarrass the model in front of the other people. Every model I know seems to have horror stories about working for artists or teachers who were just horrible people, who bullied or embarrassed them in front of the entire class, and I’ve seen a few teachers seem to get a kind of erotic thrill out of ordering the models around and making them unhappy. One model I know was loudly criticized by a teacher about the color of her fingernail polish. Another model I know was asked to bend backwards—and hold it for four hours. 

If you treat your models badly, they have no reason to come back and work with you a second time. But much worse—you can get a bad reputation, and since most models network with each other, a bad reputation is one that will haunt you and make it much harder for you to hire other models in the future. Conversely, if you have a reputation as someone models can trust and feel comfortable around, they are much more likely to want to work with you, and refer other models. And if you’re part of an institution, the model may have recourse to complain to the management about you. 

4. Be Reasonable
“Kick your leg up in the air… and hold it there for 20 minutes!”
If you want a specific pose, by all means give your models directions, but remember the models are only human. If a model feels comfortable with you, they may try to go the extra mile, sometimes even when they should know better. Don’t ask for things the model can’t comfortably do.

Also, be aware of comfort issues like room temperature. Not only is the model in an emotionally vulnerable state, they are also physically more vulnerable to the conditions around them. You may be comfortable while the model may be freezing (and remember that very thin models and older models are much more sensitive to cold). Be sure there is sufficient heat in cold weather. If it’s really cold, offer them the option of posing in clothes or semi-draped. Always give the model the option of breaking the pose early if it’s too much for them or they get a cramp. I’ve known models who will pose through muscle cramps and fevers, and I was in a class where a model passed out in the middle of a pose. There’s no need for that. 

The kind of poses a model can hold for one minute may not be possible to hold for 5-minutes, and a 5-minute pose may not be possible to hold for 15-minutes. An experienced model knows what they can and cannot do, and if you give them the opportunity they can tell you so, which will avoid disappointment for everybody. 

If you’re working with an inexperienced model, it will be a learning experience for both of you. If you have experience, your directions can be quite useful for the model. If you’re new at it, too, the most important thing is to keep your eye on the clock so that the poses and the breaks are accurately timed, and communicated clearly. 

Specifically regarding long poses, even if you have the world’s greatest art model, I can guarantee you will observe some or all of the following phenomena: Muscle relaxation—as the model settles into a long pose their muscles will slowly relax. It’s more obvious with well-defined models, but it happens to everyone. Blinking and eye-movement, fingers or toes moving, or torso turning gently—models are only human, and holding still for long periods of time is unnatural to the human body. Some people’s neurology will respond to the unnaturalness with little motions. these aren’t really within the control of most models, and they shouldn’t significantly affect your finished artwork, even if they disturb your concentration a little bit. Breathing—Do I really have to mention this? Apparently so. Some people complain about the model’s breathing! As an artist, it’s better to learn to deal with these eventualities than let them affect your concentration, and if you’re running a class pass that learning along to the other artists there. 

Also be aware that good models may have a lot of other modeling jobs in the course of a single day, and you shouldn’t be so demanding that they are too worn out, injured or sick to complete their other obligations that day. Poses that can cause your models to cramp up or become sore, or conditions that can leave them with chills or a cough should be avoided. Imagine if you book a model and they have to cancel in the last minute because the artist they posed for immediately before you left them so sore or sick they can’t do anymore. Don’t be that guy.

5. Pay Properly, Respect the Model’s Legal Rights
Set a price per hour or per session and stick to it. Be sure to make the rate clear to the model beforehand, and that they agree to it. 

Also be aware that the rate for photography modeling is higher than the rate for drawing and painting. There are different laws involved in photography modeling and the models have different rights that have to be respected. This means NO taking “reference photos” for paintings or sculpture unless you’ve discussed and negotiated it with the model before you start

Generally, when you do a drawing or painting of a person, you have rights to that piece of art as your own creation. However, when you take photographs, the model retains rights to their own image, unless they legally release those rights to you by way of a document called a model release, which you should always use when photographing a model. You should keep these release forms on file, because you’ll have to produce them if you want to have your photos sold or published, or shown in galleries.

What rate should you pay a model? It varies considerably, based on what part of the world you’re in, and what you’re asking the model to do. The best way to find the going rate is to ask local schools or artists, but remember there is always some variation, and some studios pay more than others, like any other job. Also, each model has a rate they’re willing to work for. Some may ask for more than whatever the “standard” rate is. It’s their prerogative. 

6. Be Aware of the Time
As artists, we always seem to need just one more minute to finish a drawing. But be aware that more experienced models know exactly how long they can hold a particular pose, and running overtime can result in aches and cramps and make later poses more difficult for them. 

7. Don’t Be a Pushover
So far I’ve touched on your responsibilities towards the model, but at the same time, the model has equal responsibilities to you. You have a right as an employer to expect the same kind of professionalism that you show the model. Most of the time, everything will move smoothly, but there are a few common difficulties that you might encounter.

1. Lateness
Personally, I don’t mind if someone’s a few minutes late. Travel can be unpredictable, and things happen. But if you are teaching a class scheduled for a specific time, you also have a responsibility to your attendees to start on time, and more than a few minutes of lateness can make the paying customers unhappy. 

2. Last minute cancellations
Stuff happens, maybe a model gets sick, and they have to cancel in the last minute. But this is usually a pretty rare occurrence. If a model has to cancel, they ought to give you enough advance warning that you have sufficient time to book a replacement. It’s not reasonable for a model to cancel an hour before a class, since it doesn’t give you any time to book a replacement.

3. Unprofessionalism
Inappropriate behavior, poor hygiene, disrespect, compromised mental state (ie: being high or drunk) and even flirting, are much rarer situations, but they occasionally do arise. These can require a little more delicacy to deal with. For example, I’ve had a model who behaved inappropriately as a result of receiving bad news immediately before coming to work, in which case a few moments to compose herself before we started did the trick. 

Poor hygiene is pretty unusual for art models but it sometimes happens. Usually, they’re already more self-conscious about it than you are. The very few times it’s happened, I haven’t said anything, and it hasn’t been repeated. 

Compromised mental states may include being drunk or high, but sometimes it can also be a result of illness or even prescribed medication. Don’t judge too quickly, but do get to the bottom of it and discern whether it is a problem you can work around and whether it may be a problem in the future. 

Very occasionally, you might even have a model act disrespectfully. Don’t assume any of the above problems are meant disrespectfully by themselves, but if a model is clearly demonstrating they are unhappy with the job, or you or the class, that they are testing you, or they just don’t want to be there, it can create an uncomfortable work environment.

One summer I had a lovely young blond model that all the members of my art group really enjoyed drawing. At first she was excellent, offering us a variety of interesting poses, and really inspiring the group. But she quickly caught onto how popular she was with my attendees, and she started testing the boundaries by showing up later and later each time I hired her, and becoming lazier and lazier in her poses, to the point I had to give her direction for every single pose, or she’d just lay on the floor in the same position all day. She really pushed my boundaries too far. I stopped hiring her.

Flirting. Nudity is a two-edged sword. Just as a person working nude is in an inherently more vulnerable state, their nudity can also be more intimidating if they choose to act flirtatiously. It doesn’t matter if they are flirting with the students, other models or you, and it doesn’t matter whether the model is male or female. It may be perfectly innocent, but the recipient may not feel that way, and in any case, it will make all the other people in a class feel a little awkward. Should it happen with your model, be aware that they might not be doing it consciously. But intentional or not, make clear that the behavior they’re showing may compromise the work environment. 

In all the above cases, DON’T LOSE YOUR COOL. Don’t chastise the model in front of the class, but call them aside, and discretely discuss it with them in whatever way is appropriate, and strive for a win-win conclusion. Personally,  I feel it’s better to smooth over ruffled feathers and find a solution to make everyone happy, but also, when you lose your cool, you also lose your authority, because it looks like you’ve lost your control of the situation. That’s never desirable, especially if you’re running a class. If the model continues to behave unacceptably, don’t fight with them, just don’t hire them again. 

In conclusion, I hope this has been a useful and practical guide. In addition to running figure drawing groups for over 20 years, both in schools and independently, teaching art, and producing art events and draw-a-thons, I also have a few decades of experience in managing production departments and projects for major advertising agencies. My experience is, 99% of the time, when you treat your people with confidence and communication, and work with them rather than over them, they will give you the best they have to offer.
© Jeff Sauber
Thanks to Gerry McGann for catching the typos!


  1. This comment has been removed by the author.

  2. As a professional art model, I really appreciate this post, and wish something like it were hung in every studio/classroom. Thanks very much.

  3. Hi Jeff, we work with several self employed life models and we've seen it all! We run a small life drawing party class in Liverpool called Get Nude Life Drawing ( and we were looking for opinions on how to treat staff as well as guests which usually seems to be the case.
    All the best - Matt & Graham