But why should making figure studies be a guilty pleasure? Drawing from a nude model is a well-established and time-honored tradition that forms part of the education and training of any artist. There are plenty of artists out there who do a lot of figurative work, including nudes. Why, you might ask, would I describe them as a guilty pleasure?
As an art student, I was always a bit uncomfortable with the nude figure drawing – not because I had a problem with nudity. I didn’t. My difficulty with figure drawing came from the enthusiastic feminist education I was getting back then at Scripps College. I was
bothered by the objectification of women and the history of figure drawing as a gendered practice: upper class gentlemen drawing women of ill-repute. Every which way I turned it over in my head turned me onto another contradiction. Once, only men were permitted to draw from a nude model. Women had to resort to plaster casts of classical Greek and Roman sculptures, although to be
fair, pretty much anyone who practiced drawing worked from plaster casts at some point. Here I was, a woman, not of the privileged class, getting to draw from both male and female models. In that sense, I was a punk who infiltrated the ballroom and danced fabulously. And yet that issue of objectification bothered me still. If a bunch of nude drawings of women was objectifying and harmful, then was I just supposed to draw men? But not allowing myself to draw my own gender seemed so wrong! It would alienate me from myself. Clearly, I had to do it to get the skills and get the college grades. I did it without passion or enthusiasm. Once figure drawing was no longer required for a class, I always painted and drew my people with their clothes on. I wished they had spent more time training me how to draw clothes on those bodies.
As convoluted as those issues are, it gets worse when considering that I am part Cherokee and my real art is usually about place, specifically urban Indian experiences of place. If you’re Native American and you’re an artist, people expect your work to look a certain way, or at least address Native culture in some fashion. Realism is usually frowned upon. There is some “Indianness” present in my work in terms of content, but not really present visually. With some pressure to make art that is identifiable as “Indian” in some sense, could you imagine anything less acceptable for an Indian artist to do than make fairly realistic nude figure studies of non-Natives? Sure, Fritz Scholder rebelled and did nudes for a few years. Nobody was really that interested in them though, and he went back to making Indian paintings.
Every message that I ever got about doing figure studies said that I needed to do them in order to learn, but I darn well better not actually show them to anyone. Fast-forward to now, when I find myself teaching both studio art skills and art history/theory to college students… it is often challenging to get young art students to really learn art history and theory. They somehow think that they will be less creative if they study other people’s ideas. I actually remember feeling a bit of that myself at that age – that feeling of disappointment when you have an idea and it turns out that some other artist already did it, and he or she did it better. I got over that hurdle in my teaching by drawing alongside my students in figure drawing sessions. You see, the kind of class I teach usually combines a major studio component with an academic component. It is not two separate classes, but the same bunch of students for all of it. Once I started figure drawing right along with the students, they started to take what I had to teach them about art history more seriously. I guess being able to draw gave me street credibility, transforming me from a scholar to a do-er. I have done a lot of figure drawing over the past year. I actually enjoy it. However, I still don’t consider the figure studies my real work. There is technical skill involved, but the drawings aren’t terribly meaningful. They are enjoyable though, like a romance novel, or a trashy shoot-em-up science fiction novel. There is no irony in these drawings. All they are is 30-60 minutes with good paper, good chalk pastels, and a patient, bored person under a heat lamp in a building with a leaky roof and a sink that clogs regularly. Rain pours over the glass skylights. I hear someone shuffling in frustration at his or her easel. I set down my pastel and go over to help with getting the proportions straightened out. Art is a process. It means trying something over and over. When you get it wrong, you try again. When you get it right, you still try it again. And maybe that’s what I like about doing figure studies.
I’d love to hear thoughts from other artists and art educators about your guilty little art secrets…
 If you are interested in the history of the practice of figure drawing, here are some sources you might find useful
John Turpin, “The School of Figure Drawing of the Dublin Society in the 18th Century,” Dublin Historical Record ,vol. 40, no. 2 (1987):42-46.
E. McSherry Fowble, “Without a Blush: The Movement toward Acceptance of the Nude as an Art Form in America, 1800-1825,” Winterthur Portfolio, vol. 9 (1974):103-121.
James K. McNutt, “Plaster Casts after Antique Sculpture: Their Role in the Elevation of Public Taste and in American Art Instruction,” Studies in Art Education, vol. 31, no. 3 (1990):158-167.
Enid Zimmerman, “Art Education for Women in England from 1890-1910 as Reflected in the Victorian Periodical Press and Current Feminist Histories of Art Education, Studies in Art Eduation, vol. 32, no. 2 (1991):105-116.