I caught up with Roy Joseph Butler of life drawing specialists Figuration for a bit of career advice.
What led you to start exploring a career as a life model?
I don’t think I ever really tried to have a career. Half-hearted attempts, at best. Instead, I tended to veer towards experiences. Newness – that’s what life modelling was for me, something I could’ve said no to but decided, on a whim, not to.
I was 20 when I got to try it, fresh off the plane from the US, and newly ensconced at Leeds Uni, for a year’s study abroad. I had a couple of life modelling experiences at the uni art society, and loved it immediately. The fear I had of exposing myself to criticism, of having my nudity available for scrutiny, was well and truly turned on its head. Not only was a I scrutinised, but the gaze was critical, and serious and purposeful. I felt so valid.
Between then and about six years ago, I managed to forget that I’d ever life modelled, and only came back to it when a friend, who teaches at the Putney School of Art and Design, mentioned needing new models there. It was at that point I seriously began thinking life modelling had legs, remembering how much I loved it, and eventually realising how much opportunity there was out there in the field. So, I went for it, and life modelling eventually became the biggest part of my life, professionally and on a personal, creative level.
Do you need any qualifications to become a life model, or is it something that you learn on the job?
You learn as you go. But what an idea! Life Modelling 101.
How did you get your first job as a life model?
I was a student – away from home, studying in the UK. There wasn’t much I was able to do for work, thanks to the Home Office. Plus, the hours that I could work were restricted. Seeing a poster requesting life models for the uni ArtSoc seemed an easy way to make money and try something new.
When I considered modelling professionally almost 14 years later, I didn’t know how to go about it. My lead at Putney was great, but contacting the school proved tricky – no on called me back for ages. Luckily, I’d done the odd photo shoot over the years, and could count on my limited prior experience to approach adult education art departments cold in order to get on their books.
I eventually found myself on the model register for Morley College, secured a long pose for a few of their sculpture classes, then was taken over to City Lit by the tutor with whom I was working. Things just sort of grew from there as I made more contacts and discovered opportunities around London and across south-east England.
Was being a life model like what you had expected?
Not at all. Before I started, I thought that people were going to judge me so harshly. It only took a few moments after taking my clothes off for me to realise how valid and liberated I felt. I went from feeling that I was going to be extremely objectified and ridiculed, to being highly subjectified and feeling right in my skin. I realised that what I thought would be others’ reservations of me were actually reservations I had of myself, and I didn’t need them.
Life modelling is also a very physical pursuit. I didn’t expect this at all when I started. I mean, there I am, being still – standing still, sitting still, kneeling, and laying still. It was a surprise to realise that in stillness, over my always-evolving repertoire of poses, I’m using an array of muscles and building up great stamina. Anyone who models full-time will tell you how exhausting a job it can be.
Modelling is also a very solitary experience, even though there are occasions where I model with others. Even so, wonderfully, there’s a close, friendly, and supportive network of creatives out there, modelling their pants off, and helping each other out with work and hints and tips to get us all through the politics of payment or navigating the minefield and working standards, or the dilemmas of optimally scheduling work, or even the hurdles of making a solitary experience a more social one.
What are some of the skills or attributes that you need in order to be a successful life model?
I think that if someone has the desire to be a part of that special dialogue that happens with the drawer, or the painter, or the sculptor, or the multi-media artist, or any other visual creative, then there’s no reason why they can’t be successful artists’ models. Most everything else can just fall into place after that, like managing long periods of stillness and developing your own repertoire of poses, for example.
But, it must be said that good hygiene, reliability, and people skills count for a lot. Getting work is that much more difficult if artists find it hard to work with you.
If someone was thinking about becoming a life model, what advice or guidance would you give them?
I started a company not long ago, Figuration, that produces digital content as well as experiences, events and workshops in the figurative arts., including life drawing. We developed the Starkers Academy for the purpose of giving anyone interested in life modelling a first experience. If they enjoy it, and want to do more, booking them for paid work through our creative community and introducing them to the wider life model community to network and grow within the profession. So, if anyone’s interested in life modelling, the first thing I tell them is to contact me at firstname.lastname@example.org so I can book them for an upcoming Academy.
Otherwise, I advise any aspiring life models to first attending a life drawing class. Even if you don’t think you can draw – and we all can! – you can check out what the model is doing, how they’re using their bodies for long poses, and how dynamic their shorter poses get, for instance. You can also then get an idea of the variety of models out there – everyone has their own way of modelling, as it’s all equally valid.
Then, approach organisers. In the UK, and especially in the large cities like London, life drawing is proliferating, and organisers are always on the look-out for new subjects. Most will certainly be seeking out experienced models, but so many others will try out new life models based on sheer enthusiasm.