The model is central to artistic creation. The artist learns to draw by drawing the model. The artist learns to discover his or herself when confronted by the model's pose. There are many other subjects to draw and paint, but in the end the artist is human and the most challenging yet most rewarding subject is simply the human form and the way light reveals its subtlety and complexity in the one stroke.
An artist, after all is a human being, and no matter how much we like to inflate our egos with the importance of our own intellect, we are designed, in the end, to relate to other humans. Our entire nurturing, sociality and sexuality is tied to our ultimate humanity. Only another human being can reach into our souls and extract both the best and the worst in us. Left to ourselves we dessicate, with another human being we grow.
This is the secret of why the model is so important to the artist. The model confronts us with the fundamentals of being a human being.
It is such a primal thing that significant deductions about the evolution of society as a whole can be made by looking at attitudes to the drawing and painting of the human form. Societies that place more value on the group than the individual tend not to value realism when dealing with the individual. Stylistic exaggerations and symbolism speak of a spiritual world, but individual character is less easy to observe. We can trace the beginnings of modern life drawing to the ancient Greeks and their idealizations, the Romans with their mixture of grandiosity and blunt realism in portraits, the gentleness of the Al Fayum period, and then, the Renaissance.
Michelangelo is representative of attitudes then. He saw man as being the beautiful body made in the image of God. Woman, for him, was a poor and corrupt copy. Renaissance life drawing is mostly about the male figure and the male attributes of strength and musculature.
Sometime between then and now the scales tipped. By the time of the Romantics love for a woman and therefore finding beauty in the female form had replaced the love of God and the ideal of the male as the expression of perfect beauty. The female form was linked to seduction, cocquettishness, the femme fatale and ultimately the Pre-Raphaelite and Victorian ideal of purity and romance.
Nowadays it is far more complex than that. There are representatives of every possible approach to life drawing working here and there. Those who express feelings, and those who deal with surface appearances. An existentialist world glories in a raw truth that values an inner world of struggles over mere beauty. Life drawing has become an exercise in psychological explorations that at times are more to do with the artist than the model.
Oddly, we carry the hangover of being more comfortable with the female nude than the male. Drawing groups that have a significant portion of male models compared to female tend to struggle to attract artists. This applies to female artists as well as male artists so the reason is not easily attributable to male lusts. I suspect that a major factor is our comparative prudery regarding genitalia. The male genitals are confronting for many, and many consider them ugly. The female genitals are discretely tucked away between the legs so issues of genital beauty do not normally arise.
This modern attitude to revealing the human form is widespread in media. Films find it easy to display female nakedness while censors have trouble with a visible penis. In a widespread societal need to find a comfort zone with the rendition of the human nude we either have a preference for the female or find other ways of removing sexual characteristics from life drawing.
Some artist's think that life drawing is about practicing how to render the body accurately. It can be like a botanist cateloging a new plant it is so emotionless. It is true that some artists have succeeded brilliantly by apparently being only analytical, although my observation of the very good ones, the Escher's, the Vermeer's, reveals an underlying firey driving passion that is very different from those who merely try to be accurate. You cannot mistake the calm of a Vermeer woman pouring milk for the coldness of the technician.
Other artist's cover their inability to draw the figure well in a philosophy of disdain. It is true that drawing the figure is not an important activity in the big scheme of life. But the same can be said of eating and breathing, and I prefer to enjoy my taste of life thank you very much. It is true that a Picasso or a Matisse can make a brilliant scribble that bears only a passing reference to the surface features of a body. But I do not mistake the choice to draw with great freedom by someone who can draw like Michelangelo with the directionless marks of someone who draws poorly because he or she can't draw any other way. Such artist's rarely can convey anything other than the accidental feeling because they do not understand the language of the soul that arises when an artist becomes fluent in drawing the figure and is able to live the connection between self and the other.
That someone can feel profound things without fluency in drawing is undeniable. What is debatable is whether of not they can easily communicate those feelings with depth and subtlety without the access to language that fluency provides. It may occur by accident sometimes, but most are condemned to artistic muteness unnecessarily so.
It is in the life room that the artist has to face truths. The truth of the differences between aspiration, inspiration, and application. The truth that lies behind the models eyes, the truth of a very human response to another human being.
Art is a very curious activity. It is one of the few things that is truly different to things that other animals do, for while a Bowerbird may decorate a nest with blue objects to attract a female, it is more akin to building and painting a grander house than to making art. Only human beings place a spiritual significance to colors and marks that goes beyond a base need to procreate. Only a human being gropes for some kind of meaning or significance of a life experience by making a picture. It may well be a poor representation of a world, but it is an attempt to understand this world by creating a new one. It is a peculiarly human to do such an illogical thing, and then to feel joy merely from the attempt.
We of course struggle with this activity because our brain evolved for other duties like avoiding wild animals, finding food and mates. So our brain is poorly suited to making art. Much of the beginners time is spent in dealing with particular problems of drawing that seem to stem from the way we are hard wired than anything else. Why do we use lines? The natural world is not outlined, yet we find line so natural. Perhaps because of the way our eyes and vision centers are hard wired. And through all the oddities of human behavior the artist slowly learns the path to understanding what he or she sees.
It is curious that the model may not be actually drawing yet instinctively relates to what it is that the artist does. Artist's models are generally poorly paid. It stems from the fact that the going rate to attend classes is low and high rates of pay for models would mean less classes. But models tend to model because they share a little of the artist's passion. Any model who only does it for the money soon loses interest and moves on, but good models tend to model for many years. They become part of the studio family and hold a special place there.
As someone who has been running drawing groups for many years, I feel a special rapport with my models, and I in turn feel a special warmth back. The importance of trust is central to this relationship. Often the models become quite close friends and I share in their joys and tragedies from their wider life.
This is due to my understanding of the importance of the model to my work and to all artists. One day I might wake up and decide that a rock or a tree is more exciting than a human life and the simple play of light on skin, but I wouldn't hold my breath waiting for it to happen.
Many artist's egos require that they consider their own artistic passion to be the most important part of a work of art. I can't agree. When I hold a piece of charcoal, or for that matter, an electronic pen on a Wacom tablet, I look at the model and know that in the end, it is all about the model. All else; my marks, my creativity, are merely my response to that which is most important, the model.