Life drawing is the art of drawing models, often in the nude. It is a foundation for other visual arts such as illustration, portraiture, animation and sculpture. Shawn Philip Hunsdale speaks to Ottawa Beat about this involvement in the arts scene, life modelling and drawing.

Shawn’s involvement in the arts scene dates back to his university days in the early 2000’s. His experience in theater drew him to volunteer as a life model in Trois Rivières, sparking a desire to run a local life drawing club. This desire would follow him back home to Vancouver, where he finished his studies, and again to Ottawa where he currently resides. Through Atelier Denu, he shares with others the serenity of drawing and modelling the art of the human figure.

Courtesy of Inga Dalsegg

How does life drawing work?

A session lasts roughly 3 hours, with the model in the center of the studio and students or attendees placed in an arc or circle around them. Models are often in the nude, to enable students to capture the contour of the body in space. For themed sessions or junior audiences, a model may pose in costume to inspire a different presence of the subject.

A typical progression of a session will evolve from quick 2 and 5 minute ‘gesture’ poses, followed by longer poses.

What does life drawing mean to you?

“I believe that we are drawn to the human subject because it resonates with us as human creators ourselves. I would say that the concept of human connection is there for the model as well. Beyond the technical exercise of holding poses, you are there in a room of people looking to your poses as artistic inspiration.”

A drawing by Shawn Philip Hunsdale

There is intimacy between the audience and model. What else distinguishes life drawing from other forms of representational drawing?

“There’s looseness in figure drawing. It’s not the same absolute unchanging viewpoint you would get from photo-realistic practice, there’s a certain impermanence and forgiveness to spontaneous drawing.”

What do you enjoy most about life drawing and modelling?

“When I’m posing, I want to provide a series of poses that artists don’t usually get to see by making use of torsion, by bearing my weight unevenly or by making use of the ceiling if I can reach it. I create postures that I would want myself to see when drawing.”

Is there anything you dislike about it?

I think that a frustration that I have had in life drawing is that from week to week, you may not witness any progress in your abilities. It may feel that you can get stuck in a rut and you are not progressing; I think that I felt that way for a couple of years.

Having put in the time and attention, I can see an evolution when looking back through older sketchbooks. Yet, it’s not measured in weeks – it happens over months and years.

Improving my craft required not only practice, but also patience, determination and self-compassion despite slow progress.

A drawing by Shawn Philip Hunsdale

Do you have any tips you could share for people trying to improve their life drawing/ modelling skills?

“I think for most people an improvement in their life drawing skills is finding what their style. People come into the practice knowing what they like, whether that is anime or photorealism. Through practice and independent study, people will approach the ideals they arrived with.

For life models, I think it is also pertinent to learn about how to avoid hurting yourself in taking poses. How to ensure that the poses you take can be sustained, and how they can be interesting for the artists at various levels of ability.

It’s very interesting to see athletes or persons with disabilities posing, because of the departure from how many people understand their physical form.

It is an unfortunate situation that many life drawing groups privilege the youthful, female form to such an extent that it is offered almost exclusively in the context of their programming. Something that we have been working on at Atelier Denu is to have a broad range of ages, mobilities and ethnicities.”

By limiting models to youthful women, it can contribute to the already broad existing narrative around who is subject to our collective attention.

Atelier Denu is a non-profit life modelling workshop in Ottawa, training artists in figurative art and holding workshops for new models, while working with other organizations for social justice.

Fall schedule:

Every Monday from 18:30 to 21:00, September 10 to December 10. 100 Laurier Avenue East, room 320 (entrance up steps on Cumberland side). Artists and non-artists welcome; $9-12 drop-in. 

*Accessibility note: The drawing studio is up three flights of stairs.