Forget the traditional notion of students staring earnestly at a goose-pimpled man in a state of undress: at the Brighton Life Drawing Sessions you’re more likely to be gazing on Lewis Carroll’s Alice, a Gorgon or a Shakespearean faerie queen.

Since its beginnings in 2008 (“six people in a corner of my studio with a model we found on Gumtree”, according to founder Jake Spicer), the theatrical art classes have found an enthusiastic audience and grow continually in size and scope. Last month saw participants take over a circus tent at the inaugural Playgroup Festival for three days of carnival-themed sketching, and decorate an Alfriston country garden with ivy, antique curios and fresh fruit while models posed as Puck and Titania in their own Midsummer Night’s Dream.

Recent weeks have seen Spicer hard at work building a Gorgon’s head for an event in which Medusa and Perseus will battle in tableaux in a Greek Myths themed session.

A respected artist in his own right (he has exhibited at Brighton’s Taylor Made gallery, Pelham House in Lewes and Henfield Gardens and Arts) the Brighton Life Drawing Sessions sprang from Spicer’s heartfelt belief in the importance of drawing – “We’re bombarded with images and not to have developed a visual vocabulary is like being spoken to all the time and not understanding the language” – and a chance conversation with a life model who explained that she came up with her poses through imagining a theme.

“I thought if having that single idea could inspire someone, maybe having props and a whole environment built around a theme would be exciting.”

Not purely about drawing, the sessions aim to inspire anyone with a creative streak, from the set design students who are given the funds and support to see their ideas through to those more interested in capturing likenesses of their fellow sketchers than the models.

“I’m wary of events that are built on novelty,” Spicer says.

“I want the theme to help get more out of the models and to inspire the people who are drawing. Everyone has a different motive for wanting to draw and this offers a lot of different ways to approach it.”

The mailing list for the sessions now numbers more than 1,000 names, with some participants coming from London and Surrey. “Most people who come are probably in their mid 20s to early 30s but our oldest student is 80 and we’ve a 13-year-old too. Drawing is a great leveller – everyone is working towards the same thing. It’s not about saying one person is better than another, it’s about everyone making a journey as a group.”

They don’t make any profit, Spicer explains (props such as life-sized puppet theatres and giant playing cards don’t come cheap), but he does break even – “and that’s the idea, because then we can keep it affordable.

“I hate those elitist drawing sessions. Just because it’s an interesting and engaging event doesn’t mean it should cost a fortune.”

Their Greek Myths-themed event marked the end of the monthly summer sessions (less elaborate classes continue to take place every week). Spicer will now be turning his attention to an ambitious project he has planned for October’s White Night festival in Brighton, involving 50 volunteers and a set of what look like Victorian bathing machines, to take life drawing to the streets.

After their oversubscribed late-night class at Komedia last year, Spicer is working with Brighton-based arts collective Circus Kinetica to help more people enjoy life drawing. He intends to roll out mobile wooden booths across the city, with doors that open on three sides to reveal a fully-lit (and, it should be made clear, costumed) model ready to draw in the sketchbooks his team will be handing out.

He likens the scheme to the fantastical travelling theatrical troupe portrayed in Terry Gilliam’s The Imaginarium of Doctor Parnassus. “The guy I trained under said you have to have a sense of the theatrical to enthuse people,” he says of his grandiose visions. “If you don’t have a certain charisma and can’t craft a show around what you’re doing, it won’t engage anyone. I remember going to see a show by Punchdrunk [the celebrated British company known for their immersive theatrical experiences] and it blew my mind. That’s my ultimate aspiration with the life drawing sessions – to make something really big that takes over a massive space and to draw everything in it.

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