There is a certain kind of magic that happens when a work is drawn or painted from life. I'm not sure if I ever could fully put it into words, but I'll try and write a little about it here. It's not always possible to work from life, but as digital photography advances, then I feel artists rely too heavily on them.
Photography is an excellent tool in certain ways. And I think it's a great tool for capturing animals especially. But I feel strongly that great paintings are not just copies of photographs.
I've also been trying to figure out what changes when I work from life versus when I work from photographs. One of the major differences is that photos overwhelm the eye and have way too much information in them. The eye perceives much less detail in the real world even though it may seem that the real world has much more information than a photo. Although life is constantly shifting between colors, values and focuses, a photo freezes a single moment and can easily trick the artist into painting too much detail.
I love sketching from life and often times these sketches are my biggest inspiration when I begin a final painting. I also use photos as compositional references and for placement, but I really avoid taking my color and detail from photos. It's also way too easy to get bogged down in all the detail of a photo so I also highly recommend squinting while you work from photos (squinting while you work from life is also a good tip).
I've included some sketches I did tonight from a seafood restaurant. The lobsters caught my eye so I did a few little sketches of them from life. If I were to do a painting of those lobsters I would use these sketches along with some color studies and photos to create a finished painting. Of course, each artist has their own methods and can find their own balance between sources. That's the fun part of building a personal artistic process!