I often get asked the question; do you draw from life too or just from photos?
Or, people assume that because I can draw life-like portraits from photos that it is an easy step to just draw from life.
The question of whether you can tell the difference between a portrait drawn from life or a photo is an interesting one, but I'm not sure myself if it matters at all. As long as the finished portrait fits its purpose and the client is happy then it is a good portrait. What makes the difference between a good portrait and a great portrait is just as difficult to answer.
Photos are a great tool for the modern portrait painter, especially in the digital age when we can send photos easily and quickly by email. They make my job easier because I can accept portrait commissions from anywhere in the world, draw the portrait, send the client a proof image by email, and if they are happy with the portrait send them the original by post. It is often just not practical to draw from life for commercial portraits, unless you are able to charge such high prices that clients are happy to travel to your studio and sit while you paint or draw. When a client orders a portrait, they quite rightly want a good result, at a fair price and delivered within a reasonable time scale.
Some will say that the discerning eye can tell the difference between a portrait from life or a portrait from a photo. Drawing from life is more challenging because you have to capture the features 'on the move' because the subject cannot physically stay perfectly still for the duration of the portrait. Drawing from life does have the advantage that you actually meet and experience the character of the person sitting on front of you while you chat to your subject while you draw. The downside of this is that by its very nature, sitting still and posing for a portrait can become quite boring and this boredom can then transfer into the facial expression of your subject (if the conversation runs dry), and then this boredom can become part of the portrait! Having a background in drawing from life makes drawing from photos much easier because you build up a knowledge of human anatomy. Da Vinci for example was said to have often drawn from his imagination because he had a great knowledge of the human form.
The advantage of taking a photo is that it captures the moment, which can be a moment of joy, sadness, or other aspect of human character that makes us all different. The skill of the artist in trying to then transfer this moment in time into a portrait painting or drawing is what makes the difference between a good portrait or a great portrait. Most of my pencil portraits take many hours work, often spread over several days in an attempt to understand the character of the subject I am drawing from the photos I have in front of me. Having several photos is an advantage because it helps give me an impression of how the person moves.
Getting that 'something special' into each portrait, whether from life or photo is what really counts for achieving a great portrait. Working from life requires a different artistic skill than when working from photos, but neither is less or more skilful than the other. When I work from photos, I often have to let a portrait stand for a day or so at the point when it is almost finished. Coming back to a portrait with fresh eyes is often the best way to being able to see what is required to put the final finishing touches to make the portrait complete.