I am always honored to create custom pet portraits for my patrons and the way I do it is often directly from photo references. There's a ton of debate over the use of photo references and I believe it's a balance to find what works for you as an artist. To me, photography is a tool that artists should use but not rely on (as they have for well over 100 years now). The other factor is that it's important to always paint from life as much as possible to bolster your photo references.
The other thing to remember is that a painting is not a photograph and shouldn't be compared as art forms. There are a lot of photo-realistic paintings, which to me are technically very impressive, but often have a lack of heart in them. I never want to compete with a photo in terms of accuracy (because I'll always lose haha) but I do believe I can get more feeling and heart in my paintings.
There are many techniques, processes and pathways to create a painting and however you get there is a special journey and you should use whatever tools you have access to, but having a nice photo reference doesn't mean you'll end up with a nice painting..
Something I've been meaning to do for a while is unplug and just focus on my art and myself for a whole week. I'll have my phone on and I'll check my email once a day, but no other internet at all, no instagram either. I have some goals of drawing more, reading more, writing some poetry and just doing some soul searching. I'll report back in a week to see how I feel....
A recent realization of mine: having a lot of time to work on a painting is not always a positive quality. In fact, I think it can cause a lack of spontaneity, boldness, freshness and strength in my final work. I know this is very subjective, which is why I'm speaking for myself. Having a quicker pace and leaving things a bit messy always provides me with more satisfaction for my final product.
I think this is also why I have such a difficult time when I'm working from photo references. It's so tempting to get lulled into all the detail and to begin making smaller, picky marks. Here's a list of words that I want to associate with my work: bold, large, strong, free, loose, thicker paint, life, large brushes, not labored and broad.
I wanted to share some recent insight I had about having different approaches to making art. I always catch myself wanting to have a clear, linear style way of painting, but the truth is that it's good to have various ways of working. For my pet portraits I work in a certain way, usually slower and in a few distinct layers. But I also love working completely alla prima and finishing a painting in one sitting.
This is also true for the way I use source material. Using my laptop and photos to paint pet portraits is super convenient, but you have to be careful because it can get flat really quickly and the colors can appear different. I mainly love working en plein air, but that has its own disadvantages; the light is always changing and it's a race against the clock sometimes. But the advantage to working outside or from life in general is clear in the final work.
Basically, there's no right way or wrong way or "cheating" or anything. It all becomes your own work when you put your signature on the piece. Learn to love the variety that painting provides. It's all your own as long as you create it!