Education: A naked approach to art: Julia Hagedorn reports on how nude models in the classroom have led to an exhibition at the Royal Academy

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The Independent Online
Life drawing from nude models has never been a feature of school art departments, even the most enlightened. But an exhibition that has just opened at the Royal Academy in London demonstrates that far from reducing 14- to 18-year-olds to giggles and guffaws, nude models can stimulate fine draughtsmanship.

The exhibition, 'Lessons in Life', consists of a sample of drawings produced by an Academy outreach programme that has involved some 12,000 GCSE and A- level art students since 1989. The programme, sponsored by the Midland Bank, sends groups of five young artists, all Academy graduates, together with live models into secondary schools where they conduct intense five-hour workshops. The aim is to complement the work of school art departments by helping to foster in their pupils a sense of adventure and willingness to experiment in art.

Nick Runeckles, an A-level student who has a drawing in the exhibition, says: 'We used to sit there at school doing bits of old plants. This is a lot more fun and makes you feel more involved. It's more like feeding your feelings back into the drawing. You are encouraged to draw more freely, more boldly.'

Olivia Abrahams, another A-level exhibitor, agrees: 'At first I had been doing small, tight drawings, but the workshop made us all more confident and free in how we used the materials.'

The programme is a far cry from the classical tradition of nude life drawing: indeed, a video at the exhibition shows a young male nude at a workshop running among the students. The artists teaching the programme follow closely in the footsteps of a group, including Victor Pasmore, which in the Fifties broke away from the classical approach and began to view the figure not as a static object but as a complex living form.

The models are an integral and dynamic part of the workshop. Their poses are short, mainly 30 seconds, and they are on the same level as the students, who work on the floor. There are no easels to hide behind, and materials are simple - paper, charcoal and crayons.

Bombarding the pupils with ideas, activities and movement right from the start generally means that any embarrassment over nudity is soon forgotten. But despite the respectability conferred by the Royal Academy's involvement in the programme, there have been schools where the models have been asked to cover themselves.

Typically, one of the tutors, Charlotte Steel, will begin a session by asking students to react immediately on paper to a rush of words. 'A soft black smudge - nasty little vicious marks - a spider's web - a crazy scribble in one corner.' Only then does she draw the students into a circle round the model. 'Let the charcoal find its roots around the body. How can you convince me there's something more than paper in front of you? Try and get the essence of that pose. Imagine your drawing is rather like a tree. It's something that grows. Play with the drawing. Allow it freedom.'

Peter Feroze, who devised and leads the programme, explains that the continuous dialogue between tutor and pupils, model and pupils offers students a simple philosophy. 'We hope that in a subliminal way it keeps them aware of how to keep the drawing open. The most important thing is that one experience carries into the next without them feeling self-conscious.'

Paul Roberts-Holmes, another tutor, says the programme has been a stimulus for his own work. 'The pupils' energy is quite frightening and you start realising your own bigotries. It's very easy to close your own eyes, but here we are encouraging them to take unexpected leaps. Their figures grow bigger and bigger.'

The students' confidence also grows when they realise, as one says, that 'no one cares if you make a mess. You can do what you like and there is no one standing over you telling you what to do'.

Or, as another comments: 'At first I was scared that every line I drew out of place would mean it was wrong, but then I figured that each line, each mark, contributed to the end picture.'

The exhibition runs until 12 March. Further details from the Royal Academy (071-439 7438).

(Photograph omitted)