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Life drawing, art, nudity and culture

Life drawing, art, nudity and culture
Drawing / Inspiration / Life Drawing / Thoughts

Life drawing, art, nudity and culture

I was born and raised in France and have been living in North America for the last 20 years. At first, I could see many obvious cultural differences, in particular with the relation towards food (quantities are smaller in Europe) or with politeness (Canadians are definitely more polite than French people 🙂 )but as time goes by, I am now starting to pick up on more subtle differences and some of them are totally puzzling to me. Like that weird obsession with nipples and that general discomfort with nudity.

I like figure drawing and co-organize a class here in North Vancouver, so I have many drawings and paintings with naked figures. It never crossed my mind that drawing or not the nipples would make a difference in the way people react to my drawings, but I see from experience that it does. Which is weird because I now catch myself wondering if I should draw or not the nipples on my drawings!

Since when are nipples are so offensive? Men have nipples too and it is quite common to see a man without a shirt on, or maybe it is also more common in Europe, I am not sure.

This issue arises many times in the digital world as well, because it is somewhat a reflection of our culture:

Why the crazy nipplegate came to be such a huge thing?

Why are nipples such a big deal for Facebook censorship ?

Why does a tattoo artist that restores nipples after breast cancer gets banned from Facebook?

Why in a culture where women’s body are overused and objectified to help sell pretty much anything, the sight of a nursing mother can be so upsetting?

As an European, this is puzzling to me.

I also see in North America that there is often a confusion between nudity and sexuality. I was recently reading about a life drawing exhibition upsetting parents at a music festival on the Sunshine coast and was wondering why it was so important that children would not see life drawings.

Just to be clear, I consider myself somewhat traditional and prude. I think there is a time and place where nudity can be appropriate and I don’t approve of having to see too much when it is not my choice, in a public place for example.

But then, I find looking at a nude drawing to be entirely a different experience than looking at a real person. The nudity is somewhat abstracted, there is a distance and I can look at it, seeing the beauty in all shapes and ages of bodies. I can also see the timeless condition of what it means to be human, I can see the beauty of a complex and mysterious machine. I don’t see offense.

I also consider myself to be somewhat feminist and get irritated by nude drawings or paintings made through a lens of male desire. I am annoyed by the representation of women as a sexual object, typically with their lips half-parted, looking longingly or intensely at the viewer. Well I am sure you have a clear picture of the male gaze art I am talking about. This kind of art makes me way more uncomfortable than any nude drawing where I can see nipples or a penis for that matter.

This has gotten so bad that at my last public event, I did not even get my male nude linoprint out of storage because I am getting worried about how people will react.

I like this particular print because it makes me think of the figures on a Greek vase. I see it as classical looking but maybe not?

I am at the point where it crossed my mind that I could make up clothes to cover my life drawings in my linoprints ! but then I come back to my senses and see that it would be compromising too much.

What do you think? Have you ever worked with figure drawing as an artist? Are you comfortable with the idea that nudity is natural and not necessarily sexual?

4.6/5 - (15 votes)

Comments (32)

  1. mar

    Thank you for this article! I have drawn the figure from my late teens to now, in my 70s. Various classes, group sessions with artist colleagues, as well as among friends, including my husband, provided opportunities for drawing and painting or sculpting the human figure. I grew up in and around cities in Switzerland and experienced art in its many manifestations early on. I never thought much about it, seeing it as a most natural representation of the beauty and grace of the human body. That is – until I moved to a small New England town and I noticed obvious embarrassment and discomfort in some folks, young and old, when visiting my home where numerous nudes and other representational art are displayed on my walls and shelves, including some painted/sculpted by my artist sons. Is it lack of exposure or repressed sexuality to be offended by these art works? I don’t have an answer to this question, other than a suspicion that repressive society tends to create confusion and draw an artificial line where the body and sexuality are concerned. I have never even thought of covering up an art work depicting the human figure to save someone from squirming 🙂

    1. Thank you for your comment, I think your perspective to relate repressive society and confusion between nudity (body in its natural state) and sexuality is very insightful.

  2. I don’t think you can open this question without delving deeper into the question of discomfort and sexuality and eroticism. Art isn’t intended to be “comfortable.” (And we will all disagree over whether something is ART). Take for example Egon Schiele–he is much loved by some people–yet he was arrested for pedophilia in Vienna. His art is very sexual and quite explicit in its sexuality. It also may have the “male gaze.” Personally, I adore it. I also find Robert Mapplethorpe’s photographs of penises both sexually arousing AND great works of art. There is a photographer called Alvin Baltrop–no doubt far too explicit for most readers here. Yet I find some of his most “pornographic” pictures to be not just amateur, but actually art of the highest order.

    We all have different personal boundaries. It’s important to respect them, but also acknowledge that we ARE different.

  3. Raymond Mayer

    Hi, I lived and studied art in Montreal Quebec, I was raised that nudity was normal. In college, life drawing occurred twice a week for three hours at a time. Over the last forty years, I’ve been a part of many art clubs and groups where we’ve held drawing sessions. The drawing sessions were normally held in community centers, very limiting. However, we arrange life drawings to be done in a group member’s private studio. Last year, (just before Covid) a restaurant/gallery owner open up one of his display rooms for life drawing, he books the models, gives us one glass of wine, and charges twenty dollars for three hours of drawing.
    We have all at times exhibited art containing nudity and I’ve never heard of any problems with works.
    There are lines between fine art, and erotic art/art pornography, and normal human nudity but that line is skewed by the so-called morals police who think their speaking for everybody. Facebook, Instagram, are being pushed by church groups, and others into what they believe’s notty, the same way my wife does, she was raised that way! Too damn conservative!
    I’ll never stop life drawing and selling it!

  4. Thank You for your response. You have encouraged me to create what I see and feel.

  5. At a recent figure drawing event, an aspect of nudity I had not encountered before challenged my approach in representing the model as I see them. In a reclining pose with her back to me she was positioned such that her complete vulva was visible and the center of my composition. I was stopped mentally for a moment because although I knew that God created no bad parts for us, it felt like I could not continue because others would think I was bad for including all of her. In all other drawings male or female I could just make controversial areas diffuse or loosely defined. Because it was a class exercise, I just included to her waist. Now I regret that I didn’t boldly proceed. It was part of her designed by God, making her unique and wonderful; I will not let fear influence my drawings again no matter the sex. Am I wrong from society’s perspective to draw what I see and feel?

    1. I totally understand how you felt because I have been in the same situation. Although I am a woman I though that I was much more at ease or familiar with depicting the male anatomy than the female anatomy. So my reasoning was :Maybe I internalized that male anatomy can be shown and I still feel embarrassed about showing too much of the female anatomy in a drawing, this should not be the case as you say “God made us the way we are”, I would say something like “This is nature and nothing to be ashamed or embarrassed about”, but same kind of idea 🙂

  6. pip

    Sadly, I think what has happened for western non-European countries is the result of two powerful forces: puritanical religious beliefs that swallow wholesale a lot of antifemale sentiment directly from the bible, it seems. Catholicism managed to mitigate this antifemale problem somewhat by making Mary the centrepeice of their religion, on almost an equal footing with Jesus. And so all good Catholics are familiar with the nursing mother image through centuries of European art. America on the other hand, has no such art tradition and until recent times most ordinary people had no access to classical art in the way Europeans take for granted. So there’s a lack of education there. And then you have the disproportionate power of advertising in English speaking societies, where shopping is its own religion and its handmaiden advertising has traditionally been run by men, therefore advertising has had a free hand in sexualising virtually all of imagery of women. This out of balance situation causes confusion about what is real and beautiful, and what is a problem.

    1. Interesting points. Pip. Thanks for sharing 🙂

  7. Suzi Biro

    This is a good article and I agree with you in full. You laid it out so clearly.

  8. Xanthippia

    You are not alone, and the problem you describe, to nipple or not to nipple, has plagued painters and sculptors for centuries. Auguste Rodin and Pierre Granet, to name two, created lush, wonderful statues — Rodin’s “Cybele,” in particular, and it is shocking to note that this larger than life body is lacking the distinguishing features of femaleness. You can see it here:

    Go back further, and the Egyptians during pharaonic times did the same thing. Here’s a good example, of a funerary statue of the goddess Nepthys:

    1. Very interesting, Thanks for sharing Xanthippia 🙂

  9. Mary in Minnesota

    I am so in agreement with your point of view and opinions regarding nude paintings. I really don’t know why people must be so fussy! 🙂 To be honest, if I had the skills to draw and paint the body, male or female , I surely would. And if I could, that would put me over the Moon!!!

    1. Sandrine Pelissier

      Thanks May 🙂 !!

  10. Adrienne

    I started figure drawing and enjoyed the symmetrical line that the body provides and see it more as a fluid shape form and in line with flora and the beauty of the amazing natural perfectness of any shape it provides. I have painted landscape etc with groups and often landscape painters express their uncomfortableness with figure drawing – perhaps it is the individual way we see the world – natural or not natural?? Should a cow be clothed before we draw it?

  11. Leanne Carkeet

    It is a queer sort of problem . you might be interested in
    this article. its not just you who receives negative feedback… even Rubens has!

    1. Thanks for sharing Leanne! I can’t get my head around the fact that they consider holocaust denial posts free speech and would censor Rubens paintings.

  12. Helo Baturite

    Yes, many people confuse nudes, with eroticism
    The art will be grateful if you do not give up just because some people have not matured yet.

  13. petervq

    If people were left to their own lives, without the ceaseless political-agenda-driven indoctrination and propaganda about postmodern political-correctness and pseudo social-‘justice’ and more agenda-driven made-up reality-denying narratives about sex and gender and ‘micro-aggressions’ and the need for safe spaces and victims and offences everywhere we turn these days…
    if people were left to be just natural human beings going about their natural human lives, living and exchanging and learning from and pursuing their individual goals in cooperation with each other in civil society, I have no doubt, nipple-obsessions and any such arbitrary constructs would just be considered somewhat funny and simply a-little-bit-weird eccentric individualisms –
    After all, it’s not like we have not had times in the past during which people did not have any issue with nipple-art and such…
    Keep drawing nipples, Sandrine – when you want to; they are part of the reality of our human existence…
    and keep drawing them not when you don’t want to; they are not a necessity to the reality of every single piece of human-form- art…
    And, above all, let the pseudo-feminists with their oh-so-über-moral and self-righteous social-engineering-manipulations not undermine your creative spirit –
    with all good wishes for plenty creative spirits and freedoms and successes 🙂

  14. Elsa Sposaro

    La ignorancia es peligrosa.No podemos los artistas permitir que nos prohíban incluir el desnudo femenino o masculino, con pezones y con pene. Curiosamente la desnudez de la mujer es utilizada y cosificada y vivimos en una sociedad fálica y machista en un mundo donde los hombres se tapan el pene. Hipocresía.

  15. Erin

    I have ADORED your basic figure drawings from the get go. They’ve inspired me to try figure drawings, multiple times. I OFTEN come here for inspiration or tutorials, ALL your work is WONDERFUL. I’m the new Art superintendent for our county’s 4H; my ear has already been bent a couple times by parents upset. A club trip to the local art gallery found 1 semi nude painting( kids aged 9-13). The kids, even the 3 boys, acted VERY appropriately, no snickers. They were ALL more mature than the adults chaperoning. All I could do was apologize. Fortunately, the kids are taught art appreciation thru 4H, I invited the parents to come to stay for the meetings instead of dropping the kids off and leaving. I learned more about art from going with my kid. Keep doing you. Haters gonna hate. Your fans are true!

    1. Thanks Erin for your great feed back ! Figurative work is what I like to do best but it is tiring to have to fight negative reactions.
      I can see how it must be very challenging when working in the school system with kids and parents, and you are right, I don’t think the kids mind as much as the parents, especially if the art is somewhat abstracted. I can see how a large realistic painting of a nude would be too much, but even very abstracted art sometimes cause issues, like Picasso nudes!!

  16. Diane H

    Hi Sandrine, I liked your article, and felt myself nodding my head in agreement at each of your points. It is so sad to realize there are so many who do not appreciate the beauty of the human body, in all it’s glory, at any age. The controversy over nipples is ridiculous. I can imagine a time in the future when women’s breasts will evolve with stars, or black marker where the nipples should be. Art has always been controversial, as have nudes in art. Do what makes you happy.

    1. Thanks Diane for your comment ! I feel better knowing I have the support of other women 😉

      1. Mary in Minnesota

        Totally 100% love your art. Don’t stop. Ignore the negative. Love your own art.

  17. DrNLB

    Hi Sandrine, I like your post. I have never drawn figures but appreciate art of figure drawing. Although I am from conservative India, there are so many artists drawing nudes without them looking like porn, if you get my drift. Please continue your nudes…I particularly liked the male nude…reminded me of David.

    1. Thanks DrNLB, yes I think what bothers me is when nude art is sexualized and pretends to be traditional art as it should be more considered like soft porn. That kind of art is often made by male artists and female models by the way..
      I am glad you liked the male nude 🙂

  18. Edith Warner

    What a good article Sandrine. I too do not understand the lack of comfort with the nude figure, male or female. I would love to see my art group show more human figure works but it seems our artists are too concerned about the public opinion. I hope you keep showing your life drawing works, I think they’re wonderful. Edith

    1. Thanks Edith !
      Yes, I can see how the pressure of the public opinion makes it intimidating to present figurative works.

  19. Arda Griffioen

    Sandrine, that is exactly how I have experienced nudity. I have moved (to Saskatchewan) almost 20 years ago from The Netherlands and it always shocks me to see mom’s feeding their baby’s under a blanket. It makes no sense. As if you have to be ashamed of feeding your own child.
    Please don’t change your art because of it. Be yourself. I love your Art !

    1. yes, feeding a baby is the most natural thing. I guess it depends on the mother, if she feels more confortable using a blanket in public that is fine too. When it becomes too much for me is when people complain that they can see a mother breastfeeding her children.

    2. beatricepacheco

      ardagriffioen easy

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