Pliny the Elder tells of Zeuxis (Greek painter, 5BC) who was keen to paint an ideal image of the human form. To get to his idea of an ‘ideal’ subject Zeuxis convened a sort of Life Model X-Factor. Whereby he appraised the young women of Agrigentum, a city on the south coast of Sicily. Naked they stood before Zeuxis. In the end he selected five whose features he would combine in order to paint an ideal image. This is one of the earliest mentions of life or figure drawing. By C13th the practice was established.
Figure drawing is arguably the most difficult subject an artist encounters. My endeavours, I first went to classes in 1986, in this are a testament to this. I resumed sessions, locally, last week. And feel the better for it.
Life drawing is very much part of the curriculum in art schools. Some staff at some schools, infatuated with present-day ‘conceptual’ art, try all sorts of gimmicks to avoid students following established approaches to life drawing; for example the person drawing places a piece of chalk between her or his big and second toe, and then with eyes shut (no peeking) they draw the model posed in front of the class.
However it is an absorbing exercise, using charcoal, ink or paint one develops an eye for shape and the interplay of light. The equivalent I always thing of a pianist practising scales.