Life drawing by Greg Vodden

Life drawing in Montreal

Art school dropout finds hope again in public nudity.

Senior year in high school, I attended life drawing workshops almost religiously. A few years later, having spectacularly dropped out of art school, my attitude towards these sessions soured by association and I stopped going. The itch is real though, and after stringing the idea along for a while, I finally took the plunge and am now back on the wagon in full. Having crawled back to life drawing on hands and knees, I heartily recommend it to everyone.

If you’ve never been, it goes down pretty much as it does in the movies. There’s a model (not always nude) who might be perched on a stool or a dais in the centre of the room while about a dozen or so constipated-looking weirdos feverishly glance up and down from their boards, easels and sketchbooks every half second until a timer sounds, the model strikes a new pose and everyone has produced pretty drawings. Maybe. Hopefully. The fact is, it’s really difficult.

Starting after a 10-year hiatus with memories of how practiced I was when I quit, let me tell you: it’s frustrating starting cold turkey, producing a whole ton of whack sketches all night that barely look like humans. But that’s just part of the game and you’ve got to lean into it. Remember, the folks at these things are super kind and just thrilled to bits that anyone thinks this life drawing thing is a good idea, so don’t be shy.

I’ve recently visited a handful of sessions around town to get a feel for the scene and this is what it looks like:

Atelier Public de l’École de Design de l’UQAM

This session was the first I attended after my hiatus and I was fortunate for it because it most closely resembled the sessions I used to attend. It’s held in a full-time art studio at UQAM and is a pretty serious and straightforward affair. It’s very well attended and expertly curated by a single seriously dedicated soul, David Chait. The room is used full-time as an art studio and, happily, there are plenty of easels, chairs and tables for everyone. This group runs three sessions a week! The session Wednesday night (6–9 p.m., $5) features short poses from one to five minutes for warm-up, moving to progressively longer poses and terminating with poses of 15 minutes. The two Saturday sessions (11 a.m.–2 p.m. $5, and 2:30–5:30 p.m., $10–$15) both generally feature three poses of 45 minutes and are well suited to more labour intensive medium if that’s your bag.

Located in the UQAM design pavilion (440 Sanguinet, room DE2250). Important to note, if you plan on attending the Saturday sessions, the front doors to the pavilion are closed but there is access through the UQAM tunnel network. Fortunately, there are very detailed directions on their website.

Friday night life drawing at Syn Studio

The life drawing nights at Syn Studio, organized by Donna Shvil, have been a standard in the city for years. They are extremely well-staffed, orderly and popular. When I attended, drawing began punctually but latecomers were quietly squeezed in until the room was just about full. Syn Studio is an art school specializing in concept art and illustration for the entertainment industry and as such, the facilities aren’t lacking and there’s infrastructure enough for everyone including standing easels, tables, chairs and horses (the ubiquitous art school standard-issue wooden drawing benches.) Although usually nude, the models at Syn Studio are occasionally costumed, as was the case the night I attended when the model happened to be a professional belly dancer, decked out in full regalia. The format is standard, with short poses transitioning to long with a break in between. Also interesting to note: I found this session was more animated and social than some of the others in town, and there was a healthy amount of circulating, mingling and sharing of work during the break which I found to be a nice change of pace and always helpful for artists looking for constructive criticism.

Syn Studio is located at 460 Ste-Catherine W., room 508. Life drawing generally takes place twice a month on alternating Friday nights, at 6 p.m. The next session has yet to be announced but will most likely take place on Sept. 6. Consult the Syn Studio Meetup or Facebook page for updates. $10 

Tuesday night life drawing at Anticafé

If the heavy attendance or serious nature of some of the other classes in town has you a little skittish about the whole thing, you may find this session, run by Alex di Monaco, a kinder and gentler introduction. It’s new in town and as such, still small, with about 10 people in attendance when I visited. The atmosphere is friendly and easy-going and even the space itself is unusually comfortable. The interior is warm: stained wood, bookshelves and all that. There’s even tea and coffee on offer and a table full of anatomy and reference books for browsing, which is a wonderful idea I haven’t come across before. Again, the format is standard, with some shorter warm-up poses, a break in the middle and a few longer poses to finish. The furniture and space are a little limited, with long tables and chairs enough for 15, maybe 20, but no easels or horses so large format work is likely a bad idea. This session ran a little shorter than the others but it’s still in its early days and it seemed as though many of the particulars of this meet-up were still being worked out and subject to change.

Life drawing happens in the Anticafé Loft (264 Ste-Catherine W.) every Tuesday at 6 p.m. with newly added longer poses taking place every Sunday at 11 a.m., $15, $10 for students.

Dr. Sketchy Montreal

Dr. Sketchy Montreal is an anti-art school offering non-conventional life drawing classes with over 110 branches worldwide, locally curated by Georgiana Jane. If you’re into the idea of drawing people but not a fan of the stuffy approach, you might want to give this one a try. The models are usually costumed burlesque performers and there are contests and light-hearted competitions introduced between poses that the group is invited to take part in. My favourite included a challenge to draw without your dominant hand during some of the shorter poses, after which the model chose a winner who was gifted with a silly prize. The Montreal events are themed and the night I attended was Blade Runner flavoured. Although I was initially skeptical, it turned out to be a gas to draw a cyberpunk-themed model to the thumping Vangelis soundtrack. This particular session was held at Bar l’Hémisphère Gauche but the most recent session took place at MainLine Theatre (3997 St-Laurent) and it seems the search is ongoing for a more permanent location. Regardless, it seems the spaces are never really set up to be traditional art spaces so your best bet is to stick with materials that aren’t too cumbersome. Sessions are mostly held on weekends, at least monthly (usually Saturdays or Sundays, 2–5 p.m., $10).

Check their blogspot for details on upcoming sessions.

Monday night life drawing at Ubisoft

Another long-standing life drawing session in Montreal is held in the monumental Ubisoft building and this is another example of an extremely well-organized entity run by a single dedicated martyr to the cause of life drawing: Julian Lemaire. The space is large and spacious but furniture is limited to long tables and chairs, although there is more than enough space in the room if you were to bring your own standing easel. Much like the sessions at UQAM, the format is straight to the point. A little more time is spent warming up, opting for a lengthier shuffle of very short poses to get limber, which I personally feel is really helpful in producing quality drawings the whole session long. 

Entrance is by the rear at 5480 St-Dominique on the first floor, in Salle Ville-Marie on your left as you enter. The sessions take place every second Monday, the next session being Sept. 16 (6–9 p.m., $10.) For more details, look here.

There are certainly other groups and sessions happening intermittently in the city but hopefully this list can serve as a comprehensive enough cross-section to give a general idea. Regardless of how garbage you think you might actually be at drawing, and even if you’ve never really drawn before, I can’t recommend attending one of these sessions strongly enough, at least once in your life. 

Some general advice: take advantage of the super quick poses at the start of sessions to really get loose. Make large, dynamic, unafraid marks at the beginning and it will produce better work later in the session. Don’t erase. If you make a mistake, draw over it, otherwise you’re more than likely to make the same mistake again. Don’t rush, but work quickly and try to keep up the pace. Also, it’s always nice to help clean up workstations and stow tables and chairs when it’s all over, especially when it’s a one-person-show as is the case with a lot of these classes. Don’t ever forget to pay and, perhaps most importantly, always thank your model. Posing is a weird and difficult thing and they’re doing it for your benefit. Finally, I’d say have fun but I’m not sure it’s fun exactly that makes life drawing so compelling. So, enjoy it? And good luck. ■