Good nudes: Artists never tire of figure drawing

Wednesday, Dec. 14, 2005

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Photo by Rachael Golden⁄The Gazette
After taking weekly life drawing classes for some 20 years Katherine Janus Kahn of Wheaton finds the figure a wonderful challenge.

‘‘I’m cold,” announces model Elena Elaguin to three artists who are preparing for another Wednesday morning life drawing class. Scantily clad and standing on a makeshift stage, Elaguin adds, ‘‘I’m like a delicate orchid.”

Whether she’s a frozen flower or a sturdy woman with 25 years of nude modeling experience, the model’s words put the group on red alert; they instantly stop sharpening their pencils.

‘‘Turn up the heat,” somebody commands to no one in particular, while Anamario Hernandez, whose Bethesda home-studio is the site of this weekly class, rushes to the thermostat downstairs, then back upstairs to readjust the portable heater.

Soon, the still partially clad Elaguin seems satisfied. She lifts her hands toward the ceiling and strikes an arresting pose, and the class begins.

After a few minutes of complete silence, an artist tells Elaguin, ‘‘You have Leonardo [da Vinci] hands.”

‘‘People tell me ‘You’re doing your Sistine Chapel,’” she responds.

Although group members seem relaxed and friendly, with just 60 seconds to sketch the pose before the timer rings for the next position, conversation is clipped because each stroke matters.

But for the slight scratch of a pencil, an occasional brush on paper and tinkling chimes from the garden, silence reigns. The outside world maybe a whirligig of activity, but here, time is as long as a pose. And as the digital clock lying at Elaguin’s feet clicks away the seconds, each Wednesday, for the last three years, an ever-changing group of three or four artists spends two-and-a-half hours drawing. They warm up with a half dozen or so one-minute poses, moving on to two minutes, and then to a few 20-minute sessions.

‘‘Our goal is to concentrate on line, movement and our drawing skills,” explains Wheaton resident Katherine Janus Kahn.

Both Kahn and sculptor Enrique Domenge incorporate these sessions into their mostly figurative artwork, and Hernandez creates mostly still life and landscape. Yet, the three agree that all artists should continue their art education with figure drawing since it is the most ‘‘difficult and challenging.”

Camaraderie also counts.

‘‘Artists are so isolated when they work,” Hernandez notes. In these sessions, ‘‘We learn a lot and see how others work and their techniques. And they love to chat: about the male model known for his oddly placed jewelry; or the female model working at a local art school, who dons a cropped T-shirt during breaks and wanders into other art classes.

With all the weird and wacky models they have encountered, the artists know which nudes they clamor to book.

‘‘We want models to put their body and soul into it and have a feeling for what the artist wants. We also want an interesting body,” Kahn says.

Models must have ‘‘a good attitude and love for art,” Potomac resident Domenge adds. ‘‘If the model is tense, my sculpture is tense.

‘‘We get energy from the model. It’s important to have a positive rapport with the artist.”

Elaguin has a beef with uppity artists, noting one who commented, ‘‘If she gives off negative vibes, you want to hit the woman.”

Domenge recalls learning ‘‘model etiquette” while taking a life drawing class a few years ago. The rules are simple: Don’t talk or touch the model, and if you see the model out on the street, act like you don’t know who they are.”

During short breaks, Elaguin shows the group sculpted tiles she produced in a recent art class and makes herself a cup of tea in the tiny kitchen before returning to her pedestal.

For Domenge, who retired from the World Bank and has been sculpting since 1985, the class is ‘‘relaxation, like therapy. I don’t worry about things. I can turn my mind off.”

Kahn says she ‘‘loses a sense of time.” With a studio at Rockville Arts Place and a thriving business as a children’s book illustrator, she finds these life drawing sessions rejuvenating, ‘‘You aren’t thinking of other things.”

The experience is almost like a ‘‘workout,” Domenge adds.

Unlike Kahn and Domenge, who often have philosophical discussions as they draw and paint, Hernandez is mostly quiet. Still, she says while painting a miniature nude, she thrives on this once-a-week buzz of activity.

After a few more poses and a brief rest, Elaguin announces, ‘‘I think I can give you the real thing,” and she casually disrobes completely. At first, the model wants to keep her short black socks on, but decides they might distract the artists. Soon, she is stooped on a stool as still as a statue. Such work may look easy, but maintaining a position requires patience and concentration. For this 180-minute session, she earns $40. On busy days, she might travel to three different modeling locations, but for Elaguin, the money is ‘‘peanuts.”

Elaguin entered the profession by happenstance, after years of working in international administration, trade and shipping. Between jobs, a neighbor asked if she would be interested in modeling. ‘‘The first few minutes were strange,” she recalls. ‘‘I didn’t know the people. But it was no different than when I was 15 [years old] and I put on a bikini. I felt like everyone was looking at me.”

As the session draws to an end, any kind of critique is forbidden.

‘‘We don’t want to kill each other,” Kahn proclaims.

Instead, the artists put away their materials, Elaguin gets dressed and the group sits snugly around a card table, unwrapping sandwiches and sharing chocolates.

All warm and toasty — until next Wednesday.