As an artist, I dread those questions because I know it will take a small disseration to explain why most artists can not just paint anything they want out of their imagination and make it come to life.
I discovered that most people truly belive that the great painters of old just painted their masterpieces off the top of their head and/or that reference materials is “cheating.” They do not understand that even the Great Masters had models and painted on locations outside.
Of course, the more an artist paints a subject, the more they can paint from memory. But usually a portrait painter can not paint a landscape without either being there or having good reference material. There are exceptions to every rule, of course. There are very creative , talented people that have no training or drawing skills, but create beautiful and emotional paintings. On the flip side, there are skilled technical painters who can paint in Photorealism.
I believe that most art should be in between somewhere. Every professional artist should be skilled in drawing, composition, value, color, and design. but also they need to put a part of themselves into the painting and create something with emotion.
What does that mean for commissioned art? Well I can paint a picture off a photograph and my paintings will look like that photograph. But we all know that photographs do not capture the likeness of a person – they are cold and distant and only show resemblances. Not to mention, there are other short comings with photo references such as distortion and loss of color.
Of course I can paint something that I do not know intimately by using a photo, but the viewer will be able to tell. Artists need to connect to what they are painting. For a portrait artist, this means that they need to spend time with the subject and paint them in their studio or have several photos to use with the right lighting and poses with tons of expressions to choose from.
For a landscape artist, this means going to the location and either painting en plein aire (outside) or taking the right photo references and making sketches or notes of colors and composition.
All we artists ask is that people understand that just because we can paint a nice picture of one thing, it does not mean that we have the ability to paint whatever we want with the same success. We do not have a magic talent, we just have developed skills in seeing things and expressing them on canvas or paper after years of practice.
So, just because somebody is “an artist,” it doesn’t mean they have this unique gift that allows them to create anything they want. And be gentle the next time you find out that an artist used a projector to blow up a photo reference. Honestly…they are not cheating.