Alida Pepper was staring down depression. Stuck in her apartment in San Francisco, she worried that all the plans she’d made were about to unravel. For months, Pepper, a full-time life drawing model, had been working extra hours to save for an upcoming surgery and had been putting additional cash aside to take time off to recover. Now, a forced break from work was threatening to undo everything. She wasn’t alone, of course. This was March 2020, the dawn of the Covid-19 pandemic, and everyone was struggling. But Pepper was in a very particular bind: How to continue in a profession dependent on being seen and drawn in close quarters.
During the second week of the lockdown, she found something that felt like a solution. An artist herself, Pepper sketched fellow model Aaron Bogan as he experimented with modeling on Instagram Live. Inspired, she tested different software—Zoom, Blue Jeans, Instagram—with her community to see whether it was possible for her to work the way Bogan had. Virtual life drawing, it seemed, could be the solution Pepper needed.
The standard template for life drawing hasn’t changed much in centuries: a musty studio, a model on a dais holding a pose while a circle of artists works at easels. But with Covid-19 lockdowns in effect, studios stood empty and models stayed home, their employment options evaporating. Then, everything changed. Suddenly, life drawing was reborn—filling up video-chat grids the way it had once populated studios. Artists began sketching from home, inspired by models posing live on their computer screens. The methods used weren’t exactly new—video conferencing existed before the pandemic, after all—but the changes they brought to life drawing went far beyond what anyone expected. “Online life drawing was a game changer,” says Diane Olivier, who taught life drawing at City College of San Francisco from 1991 through 2020. It allowed students to keep learning and drawing, and it kept models employed.
Virtual life drawing does have its challenges. Connectivity and viewing-screen sizes can be issues. No camera can replicate the full range of tone and detail the naked eye can see. And there’s the undeniable fact that the artists are looking at a two-dimensional image, not a person in the flesh. But even as artists and models turned bugs into features, they discovered ways virtual environments could enable things they couldn’t do before. Life drawing groups sprang up everywhere. People who’d never practiced the art form before started picking up pencils. Folks who’d never modeled, or been able to, found a place on a new pedestal.
The biggest barrier that virtual life drawing knocked down? Access. Suddenly, people who didn’t live near studios or who had disabilities that made it hard to leave home could draw from anywhere with an internet connection. “Models can now choose their own setting,” says Isobel Cameron, who along with her sister Emily runs the UK-based group Fat Life Drawing. “We’ve had a model who loved being in the water and posed in the bathtub with a camera set up overhead. And another who posed in the forest.”
Going virtual also created an audience for faces and bodies outside the narrow, classical norms of beauty and binary gender, giving marginalized people a platform to be seen and drawn. “I am a model who is openly trans,” says Pepper. “Drawing as it is taught classically has very feminine female bodies and very masculine male bodies, and people can’t really process how anyone can be between those two or go from one to the other. Then they hire me and realize I’m pretty much like any other model.”
Pepper has been modeling for a long time, but for others who had never posed before, the pandemic opened a door. “I have a non-normative body,” says Cristian Quinteros Soto, an artist and body-positivity advocate based in Sweden. “If artists don’t draw it, how will they learn to portray it and design for it?”
Sketcherei is a Berlin-based life drawing group with a focus on quick, performance-based poses run by Liana Gilmanova and Alexandra Rudneva. During the pandemic, they enabled virtual modeling for members of the Berlin Strippers Collective, many of whom were struggling to make a living during the pandemic. The group calls itself a “womxn-run, sex-positive group,” says Gilmanova. “We’re not trying to be edgy at all. We are just normalizing what is normal for us.”
In traditional life drawing, there’s no way for a model to know how they look from each artist’s viewpoint. Virtually, a model can strike a pose and see exactly what every artist sees by looking at the camera’s viewfinder. “In online drawing I get to choose the gaze,” Quinteros Soto says. “It takes the model to an equal step with the artist.” The tight rectangular format of a camera poses a challenge, but models adapt quickly. “You have to twist and have a lot more spinal flexion in your poses so they don’t look flat,” Pepper says. “It’s challenging on the body.”
Life drawing organizers can now set up multiple cameras to capture angles they could never dream of in a traditional session. Àgata Alcañiz runs the group Life Drawing+. In her comic-book-inspired sessions she uses unusual camera angles and harnesses distortion to create a heightened sense of visual drama.
Artists looking to draw virtually are also finding models in other professions. Musicians, dancers, yoga, and shibari practitioners now regularly find themselves as subjects for people who enjoy the challenge of drawing them.
The monotony of modeling and drawing from the confines of home has led to some style shifts, too. Inspired by their favorite artists and eras, models re-create famous artworks and spotlight different artists. They might channel Gustav Klimt in one session and Louise Bourgeois in another. Artists can attend a session inspired by the roaring ’20s one day and draw a model posing in ’80s-themed costumes another.
There are drawbacks, though, with online learning. What used to be an organic feedback process can now only happen after the fact. “Sitting next to other people drawing is beneficial beyond comprehension. When you are at home, you work in a vacuum. That’s a big loss,” says Olivier. “I’ve often told my students I am but one of the teachers in the room.”
Eighteen months ago, Pepper feared for her career. And when life drawing first went online she worried that a flood of new models would create pressure to work for less pay. That hasn’t proven true, but there are new concerns. Online security is a big one—the ability to take screenshots and share images of models posing nude compromises what should be a safe space. But virtual life drawing is also providing a source of income, and coupled with in-person drawing it has the potential to help models sustain themselves even better than before.
“I don’t see Zoom drawing going away,” says Olivier. “I can find a session to draw on any day of the week, almost anytime of the day. The offerings online are unlimited and so easy to access.”
In early August I joined a session hosted by Sketcherei at a burlesque performance in Berlin. There is a mix of artists drawing in person and people like me joining via Zoom. At the end of a particularly challenging set of poses, the live audience breaks into clapping and cheering. Even from far away California, the sound is surprisingly moving.
The WIRED Resilience Residency is made possible by Microsoft. WIRED content is editorially independent and produced by our journalists. Learn more about this program.
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