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March 2010 Email this to a friend
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Picture perfect

By David Nellis

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The basement room was already warm when I arrived and now, two and a half hours later, it's warmer still. The cement floor and exposed pipes lend a down-and-dirty element to the proceedings.
I'm sitting among a group of about 20 gay men of widely different ages; a few are in their late 20s or early 30s, while the majority seem to be in their 40s, 50s and beyond. We are seated in rows of chairs arranged in a semicircle, facing a makeshift dais against the center of the back wall. The dais is made up of two black plywood boxes draped with a length of well-worn canvas.
Entering from the left side of the room are two men, naked except for towels around their waists. Each is imposing in a different way. One is tall, with fair skin and close-cropped hair, all-American looking. The other is shorter and has Middle-Eastern features, not the least of which is a fantastically aerodynamic nose. They are both well muscled, of course, and each has multiple tattoos. They drop their towels and stand in the center of the room, displaying semi-erect and predictably large penises.
A voice from the back row drawls, "Oh, if my mother could see me now!"
I think to myself that it wouldn't be a room full of gay men without someone mentioning his mother. But the mood is not broken, and the two men mount the platform, giving everyone in the room an unobstructed view.
This is the Leslie/Lohman Erotic Drawing Studio, one of several gay drawing workshops offered each week in New York City. This one happens to be in SoHo, where many of the city's galleries are still located.
A facilitator approaches the naked men and directs the taller of the two to stand facing the artists with his back against the wall. He has the shorter man kneel, facing the taller man, and instructs him to lean forward and nuzzle the taller man's groin, just next to his increasingly rigid tumescence. The kneeler takes his own hard-on in his hand and slowly strokes himself while tenderly licking the taller man's balls, eventually succumbing and taking the head of his cock in his mouth.
The facilitator addresses the room, "All right everyone, you have 20 minutes."

The evening didn't start off at such a fever pitch of erotic interaction between the models. Each 20-minute posing session, with different models wearing less and less clothing, has marked a progression towards what will be (quite literally, as it turns out) the climactic pose of the evening. I don't know what to do with my hands.
A man in the front row is perched on a stool with his legs crossed, glasses balanced on the tip of his nose like old-fashioned pince-nez. He leans forward intently, examining the tableau vivant with an almost professorial demeanor. He briefly touches his lips with his tongue, balances a sketchpad on his knee and begins to draw, his pencil scratching quickly across the paper. All around me men are completely focused, eyes raised towards the models at one moment and cast down to their work at the next.
I'm reminded of rule number three from the Leslie/Lohman website, which states: "If an artist finds the model so alluring that he cannot concentrate on drawing, he may not simply sit and gape. He MUST at least PRETEND to draw." I dutifully grab my pen and let it drift across the page of my notebook, fooling no one.
Then I recall rule number four, which declaims, "The artist must clean up after himself" and adds, for clarity's sake, "i.e., if you have left pencil shavings on the floor, please sweep them up." I wonder whether "pencil shavings" is a metaphor. But in observing the artists at work, I get my answer. These guys are serious about their art.
Organizers of these workshops make it clear that they are not classes, as no instruction is given. And they are not meant for rubberneckers and gawkers. Some experience in life drawing is expected. Doodling on my pad, I can't help but wish I could draw.
The gallery hosts one evening session each week, on alternating Wednesdays and Thursdays. I imagine coming here and being treated to an erotic display of this caliber on a regular basis. But the indignity of pretending to draw week after week while ogling the models is too much, even for me.

As an outsider, I'm struck by two things. There's a fascinating difference between the erotic tension between the models and the intense concentration that permeates the rest of the room. If anyone is aroused (besides the models and, well, me), it's not obvious.
The other thing that strikes me is the diversity in the room. Not just the differing ages and ethnicities, which are evident, but in the approach to the subject matter. There are as many styles in this room as there are artists, and the work is of high quality.
To the right of me I notice a compact man whose muscles are as tight as his T-shirt. I am interested in the thick and spare line drawings he's been doing throughout the evening, which make me think of Jean Cocteau's sailors in his book Le Livre Blanc.
This is Christopher, a man with reddish brown hair and an intense manner who's been attending the workshop for two years. He tells me he likes to concentrate on the details, so he often uses gray paper and combines dark and white pencil to achieve the lights and darks.
I ask him if he finds the events arousing, and he smiles.
"I love to draw the figure, especially men," he says. "I love the musculature, and being a gay man, I love to look at a hot guy with a great body. I wouldn't say I'm aroused: For the most part I just love to draw the male form. As a matter of fact, I feel a little strange when it becomes too sexual. I would much rather participate than watch!"
One row behind him sits Larry, a lean, bespectacled African American man in his 40s whose blue pencil sketches caught my eye. He tells me that he's been attending the workshop for six years.
"I usually use colored pencil," he says. "I like them because you can work quickly and get different levels of detail. I can get really sketchy pieces or really tightly finished stuff."
He echoes Christopher's sentiments about the erotic aspect of the evening.
"Often the models look so great you just want to capture the image," he says. "And that's all you have time to think about. It's about the composition, the light, the cool colors the lights make on the model's skin, "How do I get that lip right?' and things like that. And there's almost always an "I wish he'd keep his hands -- or some body part -- still' moment."
A long-haired Japanese man in the row in front of me is not drawing but rather using a brush to layer on acrylic paint in vibrant and unlikely colors. I've noticed that he zeroes in on detail -- his first painting, for example, was an attempt to capture the shorter model's remarkable nose.
"With each new pose, I take a minute to evaluate what I see and visualize what I want to capture for that piece," says the man, whose name is Shungaboy. "It is not always the full pose, sometimes it is just the face or a close-up."
Shungaboy says he picks colors in the same way.
"I also determine what general color palette I want to use," he says. "A certain model may feel blue or green or pink to me, then I'll dive in. I use vibrant colors that pop -- pink, lime green, red, orange, yellow, purple. I don't try to make skin tones, but I do work with the musculature and shadow."
The taller of the two models emits a moan of pleasure, and my attention snaps back to the stage. The kneeling man is stroking him to climax, and he ejaculates, shooting several impressive ropes of semen that arch into the air and fall onto the canvas beneath him. The kneeling model is now stroking himself, moving towards his own release.
"Two minutes!" shouts the facilitator, which seems unkind to me, or at the very least dispassionate.
True, he's given the artists a two-minute warning during each posing session, but I'm pretty sure he's dashed all hope of the kneeling man reaching climax. And that's what has happened; the kneeling model's erection begins to subside. A sheepish expression plays across his face, and the session comes to a close. The facilitator leads the room in a round of hearty applause for the models, who gather their towels and retreat from the platform to the privacy of an annex.
Pencils down, everybody!

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