In the market where these contemporary artists ply their trade, the age-old discipline of drawing human figures is considered a rather fuddy-duddy exercise. Although figurative painting and drawing has always maintained some presence, in recent years rumors of its demise were rampant, as video, installation, and conceptual art rose to the ascendant.
Though figuration has recently made a comeback, hand-in-hand with the burgeoning popularity of painting, the art-world laurels still tend to go to those who package their figuration with a conceptual gambit - like John Currin's devastating grotesqueries, which often skewer precisely the types of people who can afford to buy them, or Elizabeth Peyton's romantic portraits, celebrated because they're fashioned at her own pleasure rather than a patron's behest.
Oh, human beings will never get over the human figure. How absurd to imagine they would! Abstraction and conceptual art could die out, but we can never lose our love of the human body and our desire to gaze upon it.
I suppose there is some chance that photography could serve this human need so completely that artists would cede the subject to lens-wielders. But if they ever did, the next artist would come along and seize the opportunity. There are always things you can do with pencils and paint that can't be done with photography. You don't necessarily need to gaze on a live nude model to do figurative artwork, but it's an inspiring practice:
Most say the sessions have influenced their work, although not necessarily in obvious ways. Ms. Essenhigh, who was standing at an easel at the back of the room making strong, muscular pencil drawings, said that life drawing was great for "keeping your chops up." It serves "to prevent yourself from being clichéd, from your hand always going with the same thing," she explained. (Since she began attending, the figures in her paintings have gone from flat to volumetric, and her aesthetic has changed to match.)
My undergraduate degree is in Fine Arts, and I've spent many hours drawing from a live model, both in art school and in evening sessions here at UW. With a model taking a pose -- which is hard to hold for a very long time -- you feel a strong, shared concentration, and intense attention to your own drawing results.
That is, if all goes well.
It can also be tiresome to draw from the model. You may think it's always going to be interesting to look at a naked person, but many people who try to be artist's models are not very good. You need an interesting body and an ability to find a good pose and hold it. The artist can move around looking for a good angle on a pose, but with some models there are no interesting angles. Try drawing a thin man! The best models are overweight women -- like the woman in the photo at the link. One reason I stopped doing the evening drawing sessions here at UW was that nearly all the models were thin. I mean, if I want to draw landscapes, I'd go to the mountains, not the plains.