Shoot the model


Dear Artist,

Toulouse-Lautrec remarked, “A professional model is like a stuffed owl. These girls are alive.” He was referring to the women in the brothel. He had a point. A pose, while worthwhile for its own sake, is also static.


“After the Bath, Woman Drying her Nape”
pastel on paper, 1898
by Edgar Degas (1834-1917)

I often wonder what Michelangelo would have done with an instrument that froze his models in mid-action and left him to work them up at his leisure. As every artist who has used the method knows, photography’s a loyal slave and a tyrannical master. Here are a few ideas to prevent her from getting the better of you:

Take her seriously. These days, painters of many styles are also excellent photographers. They take pains to condense into the shoot all the potentials they might need. The first thing I do is take control of the light. Dark shadows from bright sunlight are to be avoided. Augmented open shade or indoors with floods permits modelling. Using blue (daylight) bulbs together with normal warmer lights gives subject focus and drama.Chuck the flash. Also, don’t let color confuse things — color is generally arbitrary for everything except skin tones. Shoot a roll or two in black and white. I have a little request of models that works wonders: “Please just be putty for me.” That way I can move in at will, adjusting hands, fingers, chins. Also, get them comfortable so they move around, feel free and loosen up. This way you can shoot fast, and get them in repose and at extensions. Use two cameras or one with a zoom — from about 35mm to 70mm.


pastel on paper, 1880-82
by Edgar Degas

A model shoot is a precious event. You can dine out for months on an afternoon’s work. Years later, proper photos become valuable resources which permit golden contemplation and the further injection of imagination that a life-studio cannot always fully support.

Best regards,





Portrait of Miss Cassatt,
“Seated, Holding Cards”
pastel on paper, 1876–8
by Edgar Degas

PS: “Every time I await a model, even when I am most pressed for time, I am overjoyed when the time comes and I tremble when I hear the key turn in the door.” (Eugene Delacroix)

Esoterica: A celebrated artist-model conspiracy was that of Andrew Wyeth and Helga Testorf, his neighbor in Chadds Ford. They met in secret over a span of seventeen years. Wyeth explored an enigmatic vision that raised the resulting works above photographic naturalism.

This letter was originally published as “Shoot the model” on November 28, 2000.



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