When finding herself trapped on the Isle of Man as a result of the initial Covid lockdown, photography model Maria Crutchley managed to forge herself an entirely new career by becoming an online life model – and with her trademark smiles and creative poses gaining her international recognition, it looks as though this new vocation is here to stay! Britain Uncovered recently got in touch with Maria to find out more.
Britain Uncovered: Hi Maria! Could we please start off by asking what first interested you in life modelling, along with some of the factors that first prompted you to give it a try? We can imagine it can be quite daunting for beginners, so did it take you a little time to feel comfortable posing nude in front of others?
Maria: I was fortunate to start life drawing as a happy coincidence. For three years, I had been doing photography modelling, and on a shoot in Spain the photographer also ran an art group and needed a last minute model – so I was just in the right place at the right time. I did my first art class in a lovely little studio with a handful of artists and instantly loved it. The artists and hosts were so friendly and soon put me at ease. I had previously done a lot of art nude photography where my body was part of a scene, usually in nature, so it was unusual to be the focus; but I soon realised that artists see me as a smiley jumble of shapes.
Britain Uncovered: What were some of your initial hopes and expectations when you started life modelling, and could you share with us some of your early experiences (either good or bad)?
Maria: To be honest, I didn't really have any preconceived ideas about it other than I might get cold and a bit stiff. Also, I am a natural fidget, so my family laughed when they heard I was life modelling, but in reality it's wonderful zen time for my mind and I enjoy being still (only while working though, then I'm back to buzzing about).
When we found ourselves stuck on the Isle of Man due to Covid, I started offering free 30-minute life drawing classes on Facebook just to give something back and to occupy some of my time. I had no idea it would take off the way it did, and now there is a wonderful online community of life drawing models and artists. Although I haven't met any of them in person, there are some I have been working with for almost a year and they feel like firm friends.
Those early days were great as I created a new theme for each class – be it yoga, seated or knots – and it encouraged me to explore shapes and see what my body was capable of. I find modelling a very creative process as most classes allow me to come up with my own poses, so I am always trying to create new poses for my regulars.
Bad wise... the internet. It takes a long time to really trust that it won't fail you part-way through a class. That, and my needy bulldog who sometimes sits and cries outside my door if he misses me. I've modelled with my three dogs several times and the artists love it, but it's definitely the most unpredictable and stressful classes I do.
Britain Uncovered: What would you say you most enjoy about modelling, and in what ways has it impacted your relationship with your body?
Maria: I love the community that has built up around online life modelling. I've made some great friends and hope to travel around to meet some of them in person at some point.
I love how embracing the art community is, and it really doesn't matter what size, shape, gender or age you are. With my photography modelling, I was always told not to smile and I had to breath in to create the strong lines and definition that was popular at that time. It made me conscious of my weight and how I looked, and I oddly hate most photos of myself.
However, art is different. I can do one pose and have 40+ different interpretations of it. Some artists exaggerate features, while others have a lose abstract style; they use paints/colours and I just marvel at what little details they pick up on. I am never precious about it ‘looking like me’. My mind’s eye sees something different to what each artist sees, and I love the variety. Also, with new artists, I'd hate for them to feel self-conscious about their drawings. I can't draw for toffee, so just appreciate they are enjoying creating. Each drawing makes me smile, so I am far kinder to myself.
Britain Uncovered: You do an excellent job of coming up with different themes and poses to keep things fresh for the artists involved! What have been some of your favourite and most creative sessions to date, and how difficult is it to keep things fresh, both for the artists sketching you and for you as the model?
Maria: Modelling online has really pushed into themes, and anything can inspire a session – from a book, to a film, a quote, dance, clothes, character, painting, angles, mirrors etc. – you name it, it's likely been explored.
I have done so many different themes it's really hard to choose a favourite, but I must say the more unusual, slow movement Japanese dance inspired sessions with Croquis Corner in full white body paint that I did for a charity drawing marathon was hugely rewarding and so expressive. It was something new for both the artists and I, and the artwork created was a joy!
Character-wise, doing something my regulars don't expect like becoming a mushroom (pouring soil onto my studio floor and making a giant mushroom hat, then pulling some mushroom shapes while my dog acted as truffle hunter) was bizarre but brilliant. The hat is a surreal prop that has proved so popular with multiple uses for groups worldwide. I also played Pennywise from Stephen King’s ‘It’ and had to swap my trademark happy smile for a more sinister one. I do go a bit over-the-top to create props and little details for the artists to really get the vibe, but boy is it worth it.
As a backbone to my modelling, I always come back to mirrors and yoga for endless inspiration, as these create such wonderful shapes and challenges.
Britain Uncovered: What are some of the biggest challenges with this type of work, and are there ever days where you’re struggling to find the motivation or creativity?
Maria: Challenge wise, I would say competition is fierce and groups are inundated with new and existing models. There are a huge number of amazingly talented models and artists and everyone is clamouring for a piece of the action. On the plus side, this ensures you bring your A game, and it keeps me pushing forward with new ideas, equipment and poses, so I don't take anything for granted.
As we leave Covid lockdowns, a number of the online groups are returning to 'in person' classes, so I will be sad to lose those New York, Melbourne, Toronto classes –working in the various timezones has almost been like going away on holiday!
If I have had a busy week, my body is sometimes tired, especially as I teach Pilates too. On those days I have to tweak my poses to be less dynamic, but as soon as the class begins the energy floods back. You just connect with the artists and bring your best.
Britain Uncovered: Whether it be for life modelling classes or the arts in general, how important is nude art in helping people to have a more body positive outlook and feel more confident and relaxed in their own skin? Do classes like this also help to desexualise the human body, and is this something you’re hoping to achieve?
Maria: When people find out what I do, they often exclaim that they could never do it. I confess, the first minute or two must be nerve-wracking for beginners, but you soon lose that fear and feel empowered by it.
I have never felt more comfortable and confident with my body than since I began life modelling. People aren't looking for your flaws, they are just drawing you the best way they can, with their own expression and creativity. Yes, some drawings are better than others – artists have good and bad days and a lot of new artists have been giggling at their fails – but I share in that laughter. I don't mind if you draw me as a gargoyle, give me giant thighs, a tiny head or make my hands look like stars (pro tip – draw hands as if wearing mittens and feet as if wearing bed socks; it simplifies them).
Sexualising the body is so commonplace in our society and you would think it would be rife in life drawing too, but it’s quite the opposite in my experience. I have worked with artists who have said they forget I'm naked! I'm just a series of shapes, and it's like doing a jigsaw trying to work out how to put it all together.
Interestingly, it is only fairly recently the more erotic side to life drawing is becoming popular with themed classes on fetish, couples and teasing poses. However, it's important to remember that it's always the models’ choice, and we each choose how much we want to reveal through our poses. So rather than necessarily avoiding sexualising altogether, I'd say it’s about focusing on where the power and choice lie. There is nothing wrong with feeling sexy, and choosing to pose that way or indeed draw that if it’s consensual.
The vast majority of classes make no highlight of sexualising the body. It's just stated, nude class with props, or themed class with costume. Artists and models ultimately choose the classes that interest them.
Britain Uncovered: We particularly liked the creativity behind your recent ‘Copy Cats’ pose, and it was so well received that you actually reprised the idea for a following session! What can you tell us about this pose, and are there any concepts you’d still like to try out that you’ve perhaps not had the chance to yet?
Maria: Ah that was a great session, which I did with American life model @allan_3978 – something only possible thanks to Zoom! We improvised the poses, each taking it in turns to pose and copy. As we had such different body shapes and gender, we also played with stereotypes and in the first class did some typically masculine and feminine poses just to juxta and show that anything goes.
In the second class we did the same, but were led more by our favourite poses as it was Allan's last online class. I do love this concept and many models haved asked to do a similar session with me, so I'm thinking of doing mirrored poses so that artists can draw us as bookends on the same paper if they want to.
As the weather warms up, I am looking forward to creating art videos of poses out in nature again. The Isle of Man is blessed with beautiful scenery and private locations which would gift the artist a stunning setting for their drawings.
Britain Uncovered: As somebody who seems to enjoy collaborating with other artists, how have the lockdowns been for you both personally and professionally? Did you miss the community aspect and in-person interactions, or did the Zoom sessions and suchlike help to compensate?
Maria: I'm definitely an extrovert, and we were visiting my family when the Isle of Man closed its borders due to Covid-19. We decided to stay, but it’s meant not seeing UK family and friends for almost two years now.
I am so thankful this happened in a time of Zoom, as I've been able to keep in touch virtually, and the artists and group organisers have become my friends and opened up a whole new career for me. The island was also very fortunate to have less restrictions due to low Covid cases, so we have had relative freedom compared to the rest of the UK and Europe.
I haven't done any photography modelling since March 2020, bar one remote online session, but it just didn't work as well as in person. I much prefer online life modelling.
It also gave me time to train as a Pilates teacher which I love, so I am choosing to focus on the positives. That said, my friends will be getting huge hugs as soon as we are able to.
Britain Uncovered: Looking to the future, do you see yourself continuing with the life modelling for years to come, and if so, in what ways would you like to progress and develop as a model?
Maria: Absolutely – one of my fellow life models is in her 90s! That's a huge inspiration! Every class is different, and my brain is always whirring with new ideas. I recently invested in a new lighting set-up so have had fun playing with shadows, contrast and even multi-coloured poses. It's fun thinking up new challenges.
When able, I'd definitely like to do a modelling tour and model in person for the many groups I have worked with online. I also love the work of Brixton Life Drawing group who model in beautiful historic buildings [including a recent session at the National History Museum in London], so I am looking to developing that idea here.
Who know what the future has in store long-term, but I am always open to opportunities.
Britain Uncovered: Finally, what advice would you offer to someone who might be interested in becoming a life model, and what are some of the most valuable lessons you've learned during your time doing this?
Maria: If you are even a little but tempted, go for it! It's such a rewarding experience.
In-person classes are restarting, so it's a great time to contact drawing groups local to you. The hosts will often give guidance on poses and class structure which takes the pressure off your first class. If you prefer the idea of online, there are hundreds of groups each with their own different spin. When contacting, be sure to mention your studio set-up (no clutter is best), lighting and any ideas you have. For themed sessions, I always practice my poses to ensure I fill the screen, and give nice shapes that I can hold for the alloted time!
These are the most valuable lessons:
1. Be yourself – I'm smiley, which is very unusual in life models as it’s so hard to draw, but it's become my trademark. Plus, it’s oddly harder for me not to smile, so it makes my job easier if I do.
2. Be professional – make sure you have good internet, lighting, settings and quick correspondence. It’s a business for you, and both the group host and yourself should want to deliver your best.
3. Keep going - competition is fierce and you likely won't hear from the majority of groups you apply to as they get 20+ model requests a week, but just keep going. Your break will come and if you do your best, chances are you will get a repeat booking and other doors will open.
4. Let your love show – artists can tell in an instant which models love their job and which are going through the motions. If you love what you do, express it!