Betsy and David Bangley are talented and experienced figure models located in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania. Betsy studied Drawing at the University of Toledo in Ohio; years later she decided to become one of the models she admired during her studies and began working at the Pittsburgh Center for the Arts. Soon, she became known as “Pittsburgh’s smiling model”. Later, she trained her husband to model too. Now she is a seasoned figure modeling instructor and mentor.
This married figure model-team work in universities, colleges, galleries and art centers throughout the Pittsburgh area. Recently, they created an interesting project for figure drawing meetups, Pittsburgh Figure Drawing, where they create events and gather models and artists for unique life drawing sessions. Betsy and David also own a farm out in the countryside that grants not only privacy and comfort for outdoor sessions but also great opportunities to recreate scenes in a great variety of locations. They have even used a tractor to pull a trailer full of chairs and drawing boards along!
In this Q&A art models Betsy and David Bangley share with PoseSpace how they became figure models, how they felt the first time they posed nude, interesting and funny anecdotes, as well as valuable advice and tips to anyone who wants to become an art model:
Betsy, you studied drawing at the University of Toledo in Ohio. How has modeling helped you improve your drawing skills?
Betsy: When I model, I listen to the instruction going on in university and community drawing classes. I get the best drawing instruction in the country for free! Beyond instruction, I get inspired. Seeing the participants’ work, feeling their excitement and sensing their struggles challenges me to get out my own pencils and charcoals and draw other models.
I also train other people who want to model by inviting them to join me at the open studio sessions David & I present. I take the first few gesture poses and then offer the new model a turn posing. I draw the other model, and share my work with them. Invariably, they’re excited to see themselves rendered in this ancient art form.
Would you recommend artists to model?
Betsy: I would recommend for artists to model. At the least, it gives you a sense of empathy for the work the model is doing. You understand the physical challenge better, but also, I think many artists are curious about what it must be like to be a model. When you draw, when you follow the contours of a model’s body, you sense to some degree what it feels like to be that other person, to be the model. Your mirror neurons fire as if you were holding the model’s pose even though you’re standing in front of an easel drawing. Actually holding a seated pose —even while clothed—for 25 minutes will tell you volumes about the experience of the model, and after all, isn’t that partly why we draw each other—to be in contact with our shared human experience?
David, Betsy trained you to model, how was this experience? Who had the idea?
David: Betsy had been modeling for a couple of years and found it to be a positive experience. I had been improving my diet and exercise routine. When I felt strong enough to endure a 3 or 4 hour class I asked to get involved. I think it’s important to state that you don’t need to be a bodybuilder to model, but you do need to have strength and endurance to do a good job. I have done 25 minute standing poses where it would have been more comfortable just to run a 5K for that length of time and be in motion.
I asked Betsy to prepare me by simulating the classroom environment and drawing my practice sessions. Seeing the drawings was very helpful, since it was the first chance to see how the pose was being interpreted. I had never thought about how my form presented itself to an observer in terms of line, shadow, and balance. These were all new skills I had to learn. It’s just not something ordinary people spend time thinking about.
Betsy was easy to work with, but I was concerned about how slowly the time clock moved, and how strong gravity was. There were lots of poses that I couldn’t hold steady as long as I imagined I could.
Betsy continues to train new models, and has it down to a science now. I’m proud to have been her first trainee.
You’ve been a production manager, a flight instructor, the co-owner of a farm and now a figure model. What valuable lessons has modeling taught you that your previous careers didn’t?
David: I worked in show business, but in technical roles. I didn’t do much performing. Modeling requires me to go into character like an actor. I recognized this slowly, but now getting into character is a key part of my preparation. I realize looking back on life that I was already doing that when I drove to the airport to teach flying. I “became” the flight instructor character to get the focus I needed, a revelation that came years later thanks to becoming a performance artist.
I also use the character of “figure model” to create a relaxed and confident atmosphere around the model stand. Some male models are blind to this and make women uncomfortable by sending a creepy vibe off the stand, even if it is unintentional and due to a lack of training and awareness. It does make it difficult for males to get hired at schools. We are not there to show off or find dates. Professionalism brings the bookings.
How did you feel the first time you posed nude? Can you tell us more about that moment?
Betsy: The first time I posed, I was clothed, and I recall the most difficult part of the experience was opening myself up to truly being seen —not as much in a physical sense, as in being seen as a person, having my eyes studied, my facial expression captured. It felt as if my thoughts were on view. By the time I first posed nude, I had gotten used to being seen and studied, and I was very comfortable with being seen nude. My concerns were more about the nuts and bolts of modeling. I wanted to provide a beautiful pose that I could hold for the four hour session. I was learning about how often I needed to take breaks, so I just sat still for as long as I could —about 45 minutes. I remember I didn’t know what to do with my thoughts, so I mentally calculated the Fibonacci sequence to 10,946 to fill the time. Nowadays, I know so much more about what I can comfortably hold. I know the importance of taking breaks every 25 minutes, and I relish the quiet time to meditate, to solve puzzles mentally and to listen to the class goings on.
David: We are both blessed with body confidence, so being nude around other people is not a challenge. Figure modeling for my first real art class was a big milestone for me. I’d wanted to try it since I learned that artists used models when I was in elementary school. That’s a long held life goal! As a kid I literally wanted to be an astronaut and a figure model. Why not aim for the most interesting jobs in the world?
How does it make you feel to see artwork inspired by you? Is there one in particular that you always remember or that had an impact on you?
Betsy: It’s tremendously gratifying to see artwork inspired by my modeling work. For a time, I was the only female model at an area art center. I delighted in seeing students develop their skills through an 8-week figure drawing course. When they had breakthroughs and were able to capture my form or a likeness of my face, I celebrated right along with them. It felt good to be part of their progress.
When I first began modeling, I thought that I would just be a stand-in for a bowl of fruit or still life. Just something to draw. Now, I realize that when I am expressive, strong and creative in executing my job, the artists pick up on my joy in my work, and they are inspired. My work animates their work. I love seeing artists in a flow state, enjoying what they are doing. I love hearing charcoal scratching paper furiously. I love the collaborative nature of modeling!
Artists have given me drawings and paintings of myself, and I feel tremendously privileged to receive a beautiful portrait of myself. Seeing yourself through the lens of another human’s perception gives you a new perspective on yourself. You see yourself redefined in fresh light. It feels like a very slowly rendered compliment.
David: I’m fascinated by the artist’s ability to interpret me into something new. A camera takes a picture of me, while I’m just an inspiration to the artist. How do you draw confidence? How do you draw life experience? I’ve been portrayed as younger, bolder, stronger than I really am. This means that the performative aspect of my work is being picked up by the artist.
My favorite painting was made during a Saturday afternoon class where Betsy stopped by to visit. The idea was to create a montage of figures, and Betsy modeled as a meditating character while my figure is seen in busy body gestures all around her. The poses were all done solo, with the artists combining them as they painted. The students, instructor, and models collaborated so well during that project – it was a magic few hours.
Do you ever get bored while modeling? What do you think of while you hold your poses?
Betsy: I never get bored. There are times when my foot has gone to sleep, or a muscle is threatening to cramp, that I am anxious for the timer to sound, but I am never bored. I fill my time meditating, planning my week’s activities, or just listening to the drama around me. Sometimes I sense an artist’s struggle, sometimes I listen for wise instruction from a professor, sometimes I sense the class going along in a state of flow. It’s all interesting. When I got started as a model, David and I were running a small produce farm, and I would spend my modeling time rotating crops in my mind. Having time to be still is a boon whether I use it as spiritual time, listening & learning time, or problem-solving time.
David: I’ve never been bored. In a short pose I’m working ahead in my mind to the flow to the next pose in sequence. This is rapidly changing as arms and legs get tired and need to be rested as the poses change. Right leg at its limit? The next pose better utilize the left leg. But I also have to rotate on the stand and provide a visual flow. Some classes have sequences of 30-40 gesture poses in a row, a challenge I enjoy.
In long poses it’s an endurance contest. I am the general manager of an entire body. During the 25 minutes I’m motionless between breaks I monitor the locations of limbs I can’t see, down to individual fingers that need to stay put. Some parts may want to cramp, which can be avoided if I carefully change pressure distribution or flex just a little differently. I make slow, careful changes. Some limbs will fall asleep or hurt, and I am in charge of making a safety determination about breaking the pose early or not. I must actively monitor my facial expression so I don’t “zone out.” I monitor blood pressure so I don’t “black out.” There’s a lot of executive activity going on. Over the last few years I’ve developed an amazing sense of time, often knowing within 20 seconds out of 25 minutes when the timer is going to sound. I get this intuition that a minute is left, and count down from 60 seconds.
How did you come up with the idea of the Figure Drawing meetups? Can you tell us more about this project?
David: We don’t have a permanent studio in the city, and were seeking a “portable” studio so that artists can find us where we are working around town. The email list was getting cumbersome and was not interactive. The meetup has provided a mechanism to sign up for an event where we have limited space, and makes it easy to give directions to the venue. We also learned that some artists don’t feel confident walking in to the established galleries where the really experienced artists are doing commercial grade work. We wanted to provide a low key alternative for the beginners around the area. We are teachers at heart, and want the emphasis to be on providing an opportunity to experiment and learn.
Do you have any interesting/funny/scary anecdotes you could share with us?
Betsy: I have never felt scared while modeling. I quickly realized when I began modeling that the naked woman in the room holds all the power. The artists were tremendously considerate of me, asking if I was warm enough, if I had enough padding to cushion me, if I needed a break, and would I like a cookie!
As to funny and interesting anecdotes, I once was modeling nude on the stand for a figure drawing class, holding a 2-minute gesture pose, listening to charcoal sticks hurriedly scratching against newsprint when the door to the studio burst open and a police officer walked in. I held my pose until the instructor asked me to put my robe on and take a break. Apparently, a silent alarm in the old building had been inadvertently tripped, bringing one of our boys in blue to the rescue!
I have had air conditioner repairmen, prospective students on tours, and even wayward party-goers bust into the studio where I was modeling nude. I was happy to hold my pose as still as a statue while the instructor took care of the interruption. The party-goers were perhaps the funniest, as they were coming from an outdoor wedding at the park next door, and were looking for a restroom. A nude woman and a room full of artists was not at all what they expected!
David: We have to be careful with space heaters in the winter, and every model is at risk of fainting, but I wouldn’t describe those risks as scary. It does get interesting and funny at times. Because of our culture’s general unease about human bodies first year students often fumble their drawing boards to the floor making a tremendous clatter in an otherwise quiet studio. Sometimes you’ll hear two or three of these crashes in the same class. Betsy and I just take it as a compliment.
Has your perception of the human body or your own body changed after modeling for artists?
Betsy: When I started modeling, I felt confident about being seen nude, though I still had parts of my body I didn’t love. Watching artists draw and paint all of me, representing me as thinner or younger or realistically, and studying my own reactions to their work was instructive to me. I recall seeing a drawing that I felt made my tummy look fat. Then I studied it again, and realized the artist had represented me realistically, and that the womanly curves in my abdomen were acceptable, beautiful even. Seeing the beauty of the drawing as a whole allowed my perception of my body to shift.
I saw the graceful curves of my hips and butt in a drawing by another artist, and realized that I had aspects of beauty. More recently, I was surprised to hear some women artists express delight as they painted my midsection, “Betsy’s got such good abs!”
I came to accept myself, even if there are parts of me I want to change, I accept that all of me is good and worthy.
David: The takeaway for me is that both female and male bodies are beautiful subjects. Our current culture is biased towards the female body as a standard of beauty, but if you’ve ever been to a dance performance you’d know that we’re missing something. I’ve learned that bodies are universally beautiful things and I don’t need mass media to interpret that for me.
What do you think of PoseSpace?
Betsy: I appreciate the work of the photographers and models whose photos are up on your site. I went right to your site when I began modeling to find elegant and artful poses, and I return to gain fresh inspiration. I also recommend your site to beginning models who are looking for pose ideas.
David: The Art Institute of Pittsburgh had all the Live Model Books in the library, and I would have been an idiot not to study the poses. So I did! I also followed the website, with particular interest in the couple poses when Betsy and I started working together. We needed some sort of baseline to figure out how we could model together and not make it too erotic for a classroom. Posespace got there first and was a valuable study tool for us. It’s common to hear our instructors telling the students about posespace.com. It’s a well known resource.
How do you view the current state of art modeling?
Betsy: I am concerned that new models miss the benefit of learning from experienced models. I had a friend who shared important advice and instruction with me when I began modeling. Without her I would have been lost. However, I still had to figure out a lot of details like where to find pose ideas, how long to hold poses, the importance of holding an eye-point to keep from bobbing my head, and how to find poses that wouldn’t pinch nerves or over stress muscles. And, I discovered the importance of walking to stay fit and doing yoga to stay flexible. I share all of these things with my modeling students, and am glad to be able to share the benefit of my experience with them.
David: We are both proponents of training instead of “diving into the deep end” which has been the standard for new models. A little bit of training makes a class run better for all stakeholders. We have developed a process that starts with classroom simulation, followed by a first real assignment working with a mentor model. The mentor does the first short poses, followed by the trainee. Then the mentor does the first long pose, again followed by the trainee. This makes the first solo assignment easy.
At PoseSpace we frequently receive messages from people who want to become art models but are scared or don’t know how to start this career. What would you recommend to them?
Betsy: The first thing I recommend is for a potential model to go to an open studio session in person and watch a model work with an eye to doing it themselves. They may be able to talk with the model during breaks to get their insights. There is nothing better than talking with a working art model.
Here are the basics I tell all my modeling students: First, be safe. Take breaks every 25 minutes for at least 5 minutes. If you ever feel the least bit faint, sit down quickly and safely. Don’t worry about alerting the artists or instructor before breaking your pose, just land safely, and put your head down to return blood supply to your brain. Even fit, young art models faint due to low blood pressure, and the artists will thank you for preventing an injury by breaking your pose.
As to choosing poses, models hold two types of poses: short gestures of from 1 to 5 minutes or so, and longer poses of up to several hours. The gesture poses are meant to present stilled motion —dancing, playing a sport, or having an argument. The longer poses are meant to be something you can hold and get back into. In both cases, you are always searching for the most dynamic and expressive pose you can hold for the prescribed period of time. You find out what you can hold through experience!
It always helps to put a twist in your pose. Twisting adds complexity and creates beautiful lines. You might want to try some poses out yourself, and have a friend or partner take a photo with your phone so you can see what the pose looks like.
Probably the most important thing in modeling is to show up for every booking. If you accept a modelling job and then find you can’t work that date — you change your mind, you get sick, or your car breaks down — it’s critical that you alert the person who hired you. When the model doesn’t show up for the session, the artists who have prepared, gotten excited about getting to draw, and taken the time to show up and pay for the session, are left with nothing. It’s a terrible feeling. You are like a surgeon. Without you, nothing happens.
David: Best advice is to go talk to a figure model about it. Failing in that, talk to the coordinator of an open studio session. Don’t expect to model right away, ask to observe a drawing session and demonstrate that you are reliable and willing to learn. Many of the men who contact me want to jump right in and get naked, but won’t show up for training. That’s an instant way to disqualify yourself.
Do you see yourself as an art model for the rest of your life?
Betsy: I plan to model for as long as I can comfortably work. I have met an 80 year old model and admired his work, but I also know that due to the physical nature of the job, I will probably bow out before I reach that milestone.
David: Nope! It requires strength and endurance that I won’t have forever. I’m lucky everyday that I wake up healthy enough to do this.
Figure Drawing Meetup: https://www.meetup.com/Pittsburgh-Figure-Drawing/
Betsy’s Art Blog: https://betsyblissart.blogspot.com/