Now for the nudes: thousands turn to online life drawing

Sarah Johnson
·5-min read

Sam Cowley, 41, had just come out of rehab for alcohol addiction when lockdown was imposed in March. He was sitting alone in a room in a dry house in Essex, contemplating how he’d lost his wife, children, job and house, when he came across a life-drawing class online. He decided to give it a go and hasn’t looked back.

“I did my first class and I felt a warmth and excitement. For an addict, being on your own is a hard thing. I did that session and felt so inspired. I started to feel a sense of purpose and belonging. I’m passionate about life drawing now,” he says.

Cowley is among a growing number of people who have taken up life drawing since the pandemic began. He credits it with saving his life. “If I hadn’t found life drawing and that community, I don’t know what would have happened because a vulnerable addict on his own, isolated, is a dangerous place to be.”

Online life-drawing classes across the UK have seen a surge in interest since the first lockdown in March. Individual sessions can attract hundreds, sometimes thousands, of people, and moving everything online has made life drawing more accessible to a diverse crowd.

The Royal Academy of Arts has certainly noticed this when posting videos from inside its life-drawing room, as well as clips from its Life Drawing Live event in 2019 with model Andrew Crayford. The videos have had more than 100,000 views.

Cowley attends sessions run by Brixton Life Drawing, set up in December 2019 by textile designers Anya Gomulski and Bex Dagless. Each session, held in a London venue, attracted around 50 people before the pandemic took hold. When Gomulski and Dagless were furloughed in the first lockdown, they moved their classes on to Zoom.

Now, about 1,500 people of all ages take part each week. People pay what they can. The pair give 20% of the profits to a different charity each month and pay models full salaries.

Gomulski says: “Life drawing has become so much more popular. People are looking to try new things, they’re stuck at home, they’re bored and they’re open to it. I see so many groups establishing and running sell-out events. There’s definitely something going on, and I think it’s a nice way to feel creative and a part of something, when there’s not a lot happening.”

Stuart Semple, a British artist, was aware that people’s mental health might suffer when the first lockdown was imposed and so he decided to livestream free life-drawing classes on Facebook once a week. It wasn’t long before up to 5,000 people were joining in each session. They have now ended but are due to start again soon.

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Models, whom he paid with his own money, were clothed, to abide by Facebook community guidelines, and posed in their homes in locations including New York, Spain, Italy and London. Participants posted their work on Instagram using the hashtag #semplelifeclasslive.

“People came every week and looked forward to it,” he says. “There was a spirit of supporting one another. We had veterans of life drawing and people saying they’d never drawn before and had just waded into this Facebook Live and were loving it. They came back the next week and there was a real progression in their work.”

In Glasgow, Topaz Pauls had been running life-drawing classes for three years before the pandemic. Online classes have seen her numbers go up and a diversification of her audience.

It’s not just the art of life drawing that is bringing in and keeping a new crowd engaged, however. Pauls has noticed that people stick around to talk and share their artwork. “That’s my favourite bit. Everyone is alone together,” she says. “There’s also greater accessibility. You can squirrel yourself away and be in the living room, or wherever, with a glass of wine.”

Jamie Jefferson takes part in an online life drawing class called All The Young Nudes run by Joanna Susskind and her husband Ben Whitney.
Jamie Jefferson takes part in an online life-drawing class called All The Young Nudes run by Joanna Susskind and her husband, Ben Whitney. Photograph: Russell Cheyne/Reuters

The opportunity to try something new and different from home appealed to Cassie Dale, 38, a teacher and mother of three young children in Brighton. In May, she joined up to life-drawing classes online and is now hooked.

“I was a bit nervous,” she remembers. “I poured myself a gin and tonic, took my time, had a bit of a giggle, and really enjoyed it. It was a nice way to decompress after listening to the daily death toll and trying to home-school and work. I do it as often as I can, and now that I’ve got the confidence to not get embarrassed when I see a naked person, I’m quite excited to do it for real.” She has since got her husband and sister involved in the classes, run by Draw in Brighton.

Back in Essex, Cowley has moved into his own flat, which he has decorated with pictures he drew in life-drawing classes. His world has transformed from a year ago; he speaks to his children regularly and has a job. He has also modelled naked for a life-drawing class on Zoom in front of 200 people. He says: “It was a great feeling, really freeing. Art is a spiritual blessing. Get involved, enjoy it and make your heart sing.”