As an artist, you hear a lot about this quandary. Both approaches have supporters, but like most things in a subjective field, neither proves to be a clear winner.
It irks me when people say one approach is better than the other, or that one makes you a true artist. The real truth is: you can learn a lot from either approach.
I’ve heard small groups discuss using photography a method of cheating that prevents someone from becoming an artist. Or that it makes doing art so easy that anyone who uses this process can make instant art. I wish any form of art was that easy.
We, who have tried using photographic reference, know that it does not magically create art. In fact, it’s very difficult to use photographic reference. The camera offers a snapshot of the surface, but it also adds much distortion. Only a very good painter can figure out where to match, change and redraw to get the right illusion of 3-d form on a 2-d surface. Copying exactly, if it were even possible, is only a good starting place.
I think rendering a painting from photographs helps develop the artist’s eye for color. It’s much easier to see warm and cool colors from photographs. However, artists must be careful because photos can also distort certain colors, which appear as grey and brown tones.
In truth, using photos is just a good starting point. It helps you render quick proportions that help speed up the painting process. But they only help create a rough sketch, not a masterpiece. It’s the artists’ job to do this.
Overall, I think it’s easier to draw or paint from life. Painting plein air allows you to immerse yourself in the image you’re rendering. But if you choose to paint plein air, you must understand that the light will change as the day goes on. You’ll also have to deal with the movements of the model.
My friend, Owen Findsen told me, “We must follow the rules of art; this is, until something better comes along.” Artists must be creative in all our endeavors and not box ourselves in with heretical thoughts or notions. So for those of you who have been held back by hindering rules, I implore you, break the rules, and observe Urig’s Rule #1: “You can create art from life or photos!” Then, create!