Learn to draw from life – on TV
Nudes at midday; John Berger and Maggi Hambling teaching lifedrawing at lunchtime? On television? Rebecca Rose sets herself the challenge of an interactive TV experience with a difference

I hope no one is at home trying to multitask and do the washing up. Because it won't work!" When someone on the television tells you what to do in such forthright terms, and when that someone is the artist Maggi Hambling - a commanding figure you would not want to disappoint - you are more likely to put down your cup of tea and get back to what you should be doing: in this case, drawing what is on your TV screen.

Hambling features in a new UK television series, Life Class: Today's Nude, which is designed to give everyone a chance to have a go at drawing a naked person. Over five days, a different artist leads a halfhour class in which the viewer is invited to participate. That is to say, a real living breathing naked person will sit for you to draw on Channel 4.

Life Class is groundbreaking television - not just because of the nudity (interestingly there are no UK laws against nudity on TV at any time of day, as long as it isn't in a sexual context), but also because of the interactive nature of the programme.

The brainchild of contemporary artist Alan Kane, in collaboration with the arts commissioning organisations Artangel and Jerwood, the series is intended to democratise culture and create, as Kane puts it, an "interesting new space" for TV. And not just TV: from Monday, an associated series of drop-in classes will take place across London and the rest of the UK.

Though often associated with stuffy sixth-form art-rooms and adult-education evening classes, life drawing remains, nevertheless, the most fundamental challenge for artists. As a life drawing dilettante, I was excited to be given the chance to view - or rather take part in - these programmes in advance. I've attended classes sporadically since those stuffy sixth-form art-room days, when, aged 17, I would hope for a hunky Michelangelesque model and feel cheated when confronted with a saggy woman or a gauche man. But when one draws from life, a wonderful alchemy occurs that makes the droopy breasts of a 70-year-old seem like the most beautiful in the world, and the gauche male is transformed into a most expressive creature. There is no better way to appreciate variety and imperfection, even if it requires considerable effort.

And hauling oneself to a life class after a busy working day is certainly an effort. I've attended classes around London on and off for 10 years. I invariably show up harried and late, gobbling down a sandwich, and quickly finding a spot for my easel in the crowded room. This has often meant spending three hours drawing the back of a model's head. A discipline in itself, as the teacher can be counted on to say.

Sitting at home, with my paper and pencils at the ready and without the typical, "Sorry, could you just move your easel a foot to the right?" comments, feels instantly more conducive to creativity. It is also nice to be free from fellow artists peering disapprovingly while you rub out your drawing for the fourth time. Equally, I realise, if I invited a friend, we could chat as much as we liked without being shushed.

The first half hour programme is with Maggi Hambling, who teaches a life class at London's Morley College. Hambling introduces the series with a succession of short poses - a discipline I've always rather resented but one that is admittedly effective in loosening you up and helping you to get your eye in. Her professional sitter is Matthew - definitely the sort of model we would have liked at school. Although I have placed my chair as close to the screen as is comfortable, my TV is not a home cinema and Matthew seems miles away.

But his pose is helpfully framed by the screen, so there is no need for those "how much of the background should we include?" questions. Not that there is anyone to ask, of course.

Hambling suggests a technique I have not come across before: keep your eye on the model when you put your marks down, and do not look at the paper. At first this is tricky but I am quite pleased with my results - my wild drawings look as if they were done by someone else. I want to show Hambling, though I imagine her feedback might be rather withering, if her wry comments are anything to go by: "As you may have noticed, when people are alive, they move; when they're dead, they tend not to." Occasionally, the camera switches to Hambling's own handiwork. It is humbling, but also inspiring, to compare my fledgling efforts with her vigorous style. "Of course it's impossible," she says, as if she can hear my groans on the other side of the TV, "that is why one does it!" The half hour goes by in a flash. I'm tempted to rewind and watch again. In a real class, the teacher would hover behind you and point out that you have given your model a giant ear or help you draw a foreshortened leg. The main drawback of TV lessons is that there's no one to critique your efforts. That said, it is a relief to forgo the excruciating 10-minute get-together at the end of class, when everyone hangs up their work for appraisal.

Contemporary artist Gary Hume's lesson is more laid-back. His model is a fashion model, who resembles Kelly Brook, and Hume seems boyishly awkward about her perfect dimensions. I have certainly never seen a life-model like her - probably because she gets paid more to keep her clothes on. "You've got to get over your sexual feelings towards her," Hume advises.

He is a less assured teacher, mainly because he seems to be struggling with his own drawing: "I'm getting it totally wrong!" he exclaims. I can't quite decide whether this is annoying or reassuring - at least I haven't paid for the session. He is right about one thing, though, you can only learn from what goes wrong. The trouble is that it takes a certain amount of experience to know where and when things have gone wrong. For the beginner, home alone, it may not be so evident.

The next session takes the viewer inside the drawing studios of the Royal Academy of Arts. Humphrey Ocean, who is taking the class, speaks in an agreeable art-teacher- ish waffle. "Once you loosen up you can start to enjoy the fact you're drawing a navel, a breast. You're drawing a soft thing . . . " His model, an attractive woman of a certain age with wild curly grey hair, posed as a latter-day Olympia, keeps extremely still. She has the kind of body and face that you could draw again and again. Ocean's advice is simple but sound: "Don't rush to make it something her mum would recognise" is probably one of the most instructive comments in the whole series.

The last of the classes I'm able to watch is taught by the writer and artist John Berger - himself no stranger to innovative television about art. His 1972 series Ways of Seeing is still a reference point for art history students today. His model is an equally inspirational character - the dancer Maria Munoz, whom Berger has watched for hours and hours, he tells us.

Berger says that drawing is a collaborative act - it's not just about the artist's output, but also up to the sitter to generate an openness. "It's a kind of radiation.
Drawing is a question of being open and receptive." Berger is the master of arty multitasking - it is amazing to watch him draw while he succinctly explains the fundamentals of life drawing, with its "strange coming together of what is intimate and human". I am so inspired by Berger's voice-over that I find it very hard to do justice to Munoz's strong, graceful body in my hurried sketch. But Berger sets a helpfully slow pace, encouraging us to see the body "in terms of bridges". He ends with the armpit - where, as he sweetly puts it, "the body keeps its secrets".

I found that the overall effect of watching Life Class was that I wanted to carry on drawing. I certainly didn't feel like switching back to "normal" TV. "Draw every day," says Hambling. "Everyone can find half an hour to draw." This is the strongest message I am taking away from the series.

It only has to be half an hour. For the time-poor generation, with flea-like attention spans, half an hour a day at home feels far more manageable than a threehour drawing class on the other side of London once a week. But as all these artists remind me, there's no substitute for real life drawing and that will never change - in spite of naked people on TV.

'Life Class: Today's Nude', Channel 4, July 6-10, 12.30pm. For information on drop-in life classes (June 22-July 4), see www.artangel.org.uk