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Emerson student Jody Steel draws on thigh, gains fame

Jody Steel is a doodler.  And her work, done almost exclusively while listening in class at Emerson College, has included such performers as, from top, Joseph Gordon-Levitt, Thom Yorke, and Bryan Cranston.

Jody Steel

Jody Steel is a doodler. And her work has been done almost exclusively while listening in class at Emerson College.

Students, ignore everything your parents, teachers, and professors have told you and listen carefully: Doodling in class can make you a star.

At least, that is what it has done for Emerson student Jody Steel, whose remarkable drawings, usually on her right thigh, have won her buzz, hundreds of thousands of views online, and job offers.

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Since starting at Emerson College in 2011, the Florida native has been using her leg as a canvas on which to produce portraits of Bryan Cranston as Walter White in “Breaking Bad,” Radiohead singer Thom Yorke, and “Don Jon” actor Joseph Gordon-Levitt. Celebrity crushes, favorite television shows, and an occasional cat have found their way onto her leg as she carefully draws with a Pilot Precise V5 pen during class lectures.

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The delicate shadings of her work bring to mind a series of pop-culture chiaroscuro sketches. They are documented on her iPhone and then lost to the ages with the help of soap and water.

Steel posted her leg art to the website imgur.com, where it has been viewed more than half a million times. The number of views skyrocketed when the drawings were linked to Tumblr, Reddit, and 9Gag. Google search “Walter White leg drawing,” and Steel’s drawing is the top result.

“Completely unexpected,” Steel said of the attention. “Obviously you always hope your art will be seen, but I wasn’t expecting it to go so big and international.”

As her doodled masterpieces went viral, they became international curiosities. The story was picked up by websites in France and Britain and in newspapers across Europe. Now a website in Brazil is touting her talents. She has posted many of these stories to her Facebook fan page.

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She completes the sketches, which include “Nightmare on Elm Street” slasher Freddy Krueger, cast members from “Game of Thrones,” even depictions of the muscles and tendons inside her leg, in the time it takes to sit through a class.

(Clearly, giving a professor your full attention is overrated. Steel, a visual media, arts, film production major, says she is a straight-A student.)

She has also received more than creepy, anonymous Internet comments about her legs out of all of this. But job offers have started rolling in from as far away as Hong Kong.

“People from all around the world are asking me to either do company designs or logos,” she said. “I don’t know how much I’m allowed to disclose about that. I’ve been signing nondisclosure agreements for some of the bigger companies.”

One of the first jobs that came as a result of the leg doodlings was from a professor who did not mind that Steel was splitting her attention between drawing and listening. Professor Cynthia Miller, who was teaching a class called “Making Monsters” in the fall of 2011, was so impressed with Steel’s work that she asked her to illustrate her book “Steaming into a Victorian Future: A Steampunk Anthology.”

“Jody was a terrific student, contrary to the stories that have sprung up about her doodling out of boredom,” Miller said. “She was always multitasking. She was attentive and right in the thick of things in class discussion, but with the creative part of her brain always working at the same time. I think she processed material better, actually, when she was drawing.”

Although she is interested in a job in film design and production, rather than art, Steel said drawing has always been second nature to her. As the awkward kid in middle school and high school, she would draw during class, striking up friendships when other students asked her about the art. At Emerson, she is known as the thigh artist, or simply as an artist, and has worked on student films.

The thigh drawings were the result of not having paper available, she said. Given the limitations of her medium, she can be critical of her work. She wishes she had added more detail to the cat or worked harder on Aaron Taylor-Johnson’s face now that they have been so widely seen.

“I know I can do better on every piece that I draw,” she said. “I look at it, and I’m critical of the line work and the shading and the proportions. But they are what they are.”

Steel recently got her first tattoo and realized that intricate detail is not always a good thing.

“I had a yin and yang koi fish tattooed on my side,” she said. “It was from one of my drawings. so there was a lot of detail — and also a lot of pain.”

Christopher Muther can be reached at muther@globe.com. Follow him on Twitter @Chris_Muther.

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