Naked and Unafraid: The Art of Figure Modeling
We hear from nude models on the ins-and-outs of their on-campus job.
Envision this, you are perched in the middle of a classroom. Fully nude. Your Dartmouth peers are staring at your unimposed body, making observations and scribbling sketches. Maybe this sounds like a nightmare. Maybe it sounds like an ego trip. For a select group of Dartmouth student figure models, it is merely an on-campus job. Welcome to the art of figure modeling, where you get paid twenty dollars an hour to lend your body as the subject of peer artwork.
As far as the logistics of the gig go, Afton Morton ’24, who began figure modeling this term, described the process as both “clinical” and “professional.” Figure models enter the visual arts center, change into a robe, enter a classroom, and remove the robe to pose. The posing occurs in intervals of twenty to forty minutes, with breaks as needed. Models are instructed to do one reclined pose and one seated, with the job wrapping up in just under two hours. The hiring process is relatively simple. It requires emailing the art department and inquiring into availability, no audition necessary.
In Morton’s experience, the art department goes out of their way to ensure that each model feels comfortable and safe.
“The actual process is very clinical. People really just look at you as a subject for their art. It is very professional. It is very neutral,” Morton said.
Mallory Barnes ’22, a student in SART 15, “Drawing I,” reflected on this aura of professionalism.
“Everyone treated it very professionally and it wasn’t awkward,” Barnes said. “People were not laughing or anything like that.”
The first time Jonathan Cartwright ’24 was booked to model, he recalls feeling so nervous he could barely focus on his schoolwork beforehand. However, once Cartwright started posing the nervousness subsided.
“I was really nervous beforehand, but the fact that all I had to do was sit and stare off at a point on the wall made me forget that I was even doing it,” Cartwright said. “I just got lost in my thoughts and then it wasn’t nerve racking anymore.”
Studio art professor Gerald Auten ascribes invisibility as the key to success in figure modeling.
“You have to somehow be invisible. With a really great model it’s almost like you are drawing a bottle. They don’t talk to the students and they don't move around and look at everybody. That takes real skill,” Auten said.
Although there is minimal interaction between the figure model and the artist, the relationship between the two is vital. Professor Auten said he believes that the role of the figure model, while often written off as easy, is as important as the role of the artist.
“It’s a collaboration, and you see it when it happens. It’s kind of magical,” Auten said.
Whether the model chooses to look at each artist’s depiction of their body is up to them. For Morton and Cartwright, viewing student artwork is their favorite part of the job.
The variety and individuality of student artwork fascinates Cartwright.
“Sometimes it feels to me like I’m looking in a mirror, which is really surreal. Other times it’s more of an interpretation of what I look like,” Cartwright said. He said his experience as a figure model has given him a heightened appreciation for art.
As a result of looking at student art, Morton said she sees her body through a much different, healthier perspective.
“A lot of times when we look at our bodies we view them under this extremely harsh, critical lens, especially in pictures or the mirror,” Morton said. “But when you are looking at somebody’s art you can’t look at it in such a harsh way. The art itself is beautiful, so when the art is your body that appreciation extends.”
Morton even went so far to say that modeling has made her “romanticize” her body in a way she hadn’t before.
Trey Cormier ’23, on the other hand, chooses not to look at the student artwork. For him, figure modeling is merely a low commitment source of income. Cormier was unfazed by the vulnerability of the job, going as far as to describe the gig as “funny.”
For Cartwright, the valiant nature of figure modeling has inspired him to harness confidence in other areas of his life.
“Afterwards I was like ‘oh, I did that.’ It makes me feel like I could do something else that is really nerve racking,” Cartwright said.
Similarly, Morton described how the exercise in vulnerability has made her “a lot more comfortable being uncomfortable.”
“If I can get up there and strip for complete strangers I can’t really say I’m afraid to participate in class,” Morton said.
While some choose to view figure modeling as a practice in self-confidence, others see it as just another campus commitment.
“People think it is a lot more erotic than it is. It really just is a job,” Morton said.