I’m from a card-playing family, so when it comes to discussions about
artists using reference photographs, I always think in terms of
watching for a “tell.” Like in poker—where players’ subtle mannerisms
can reveal whether they are bluffing—portraits created by closely
referencing photographs have certain giveaways. The work can seem
overwhelmed with minute details or look stiff and belabored, as if the
artist went back and forth, back and forth, foregoing vision for
exactitude. Artists avoid this by maintaining a strong awareness and
control over what they incorporate from photos and how they convey
certain effects, and that leads to less-visible tells in their artwork.
A study or source photo might be used to reproduce certain details—the
moue of a mouth or a strong brow line—that indicate the personality and
presence of the sitter, but there’s enough left unsaid, artistically
speaking, so that the viewer’s own ideas and perception come into play.