I dropped my bag onto the bathroom floor and closed the door behind me. As I pulled off my jeans and stepped into a silky red halter dress I’d borrowed, I overheard the instructor telling her students, “The model is in the bathroom getting ready.” This was the first time in my life I’d ever been referred to as a model. For a moment I felt displaced. Then, I reassured myself. This wasn’t a photo shoot for the Sports Illustrated Swimsuit Edition. This was a portrait painting class. And by the end of today, each of the five students in the class would add to their collection a portrait they painted of me.
My bracelets dangled as I dabbed on some eyeliner. As I held the mascara brush up to my eyelashes, I could hear the instructor guiding her students as they mixed their paints.
I dropped my makeup back into its case and stuffed my jeans and T-shirt into my bag. I took a deep breath and opened the door.
“Oh, you look beautiful,” someone said as I walked into the studio.
“What a gorgeous dress,” someone else said. Well, I could get used to all these complements, I thought.
I accepted their words with a smile and stepped up onto the pedestal. I sat in the same position I’d seen the instructor sitting in when I walked in that morning: feet flat and together, knees off to the left, hands in my lap, head turned slightly to the right.
“Remember, you’ll be sitting this way for a few hours, so find a position that feels best for you,” she told me. I asked for a second cushion on my seat. After placing it on the chair, to the class she said, “You never want your model to be uncomfortable.” There is was again – the word model.
The instructor adjusted the light and asked her students if they felt it was positioned correctly. All eyes were on me. Being the center of attention is nothing new to me – I’ve been a teacher and a tour guide. But when they are studying you, looking at the shadows on your face, it feels a little different.
The instructor encouraged the students to move their easels to get the view they desired. Again, their eyes darted between their easels and me.
“Can I move closer? Is there enough room?” a student asked.
“Of course you can move closer. I’ve taught in rooms with thirty students surrounding a model – there’s plenty of room in here,” she said.
She then approached me with a roll of duct tape in her hand. “I’m going to put tape down to mark where the chair is and where your shoes are,” the instructor explained to me. “I guess I can’t use tape to mark your hand position,” she said.
I had already thought about that. “I’ll just remember that I’m holding these four fingers with my other hand,” I said as I showed her. “Oh, good,” she responded.
I picked something to focus on – the white label on the fire extinguisher hanging near the sink.
The instructor went over how the day would work. I would hold my position for twenty minutes and then get a five minute break. After a couple hours, I’d get a fifteen minute break. We would take our lunch, and then do the same thing that afternoon for three more hours.
As the students continued to prepare their paints and adjust their easels, the teacher said, “You know, there are people who make a career out of this – they move from art school to art school. You could make a lot of money.”
I knew, of course, that those models posed nude. I wasn’t ready for that yet. But added it to my mental list of possible future jobs to try.
At 9:40AM, the timer started. For twenty minutes I stared at the white label on the fire extinguisher. During breaks I talked with the students, all of whom had some painting experience but varying levels of portrait painting experience. I accepted compliments on my ability to assume the exact same pose every time we started a new session, and on how my hair seemed to fall into exactly the same place each time. That, I confessed, was a conscious effort on my part not to run my hand through my hair and change the part in any way.
“What did you think about while you were up there?” one of the students asked me the next day.
“Well, I was thinking about how, in eighth grade, I sat alone in the cafeteria at lunch. It was my first time going to public school and I didn’t know anyone. Nowadays, I’d just go up to a group and ask if I could join them. But back then I was very shy and scared. Soon I learned I could get a pass to the library during lunch. Eventually I changed my schedule so I didn’t even have a lunch period. And then I was thinking about how amazing it is that I’m now up here on a pedestal being referred to as a model. If you told me that back then, I never would have believed it.”
Perhaps you’re wondering how it is I ended up in this position – that of being a model for a painting class, I mean. Well, the girl who was supposed to do it moved and they needed one or two people. Since my position as host is not compensated monetarily in any way, my supervisor thought I’d be interested in this as it paid a nice little sum. So I took a day off from hunting down census records for my genealogy class, borrowed a dress from one of the work study students, and spent a day having a whole new experience in the painting studio. And you know how I love to try new things.
Modeling for a painting class was never on my list of things I wanted to do, but that’s what great about life. You’re given opportunities to do things you never even thought about. And if you’re me, you take advantage of a lot of them:) And then have another story to tell….
Here are some of the finished products.
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Were you able to keep one of these paintings?
No, they all took them home with them. I can see their grandkids sorting through their stuff long after they’re gone and saying, “Who do you think this is? Doesn’t look like anyone we know…”