I sometimes find myself at pains to point out that these paintings do not start from a photograph. People who are familiar with the "fun" apps that let you convert a photo into an oil painting or a line drawing or a watercolour often think that that is all I do. Play around with sliders. This couldn't be further from the truth.
The painting will always start out as a drawing living in my head. Often the light source and the scene itself already exists there as well. My visual memory is relatively well developed and I only need to glimpse a bird once to get a sense of its shape, bulk, line and gesture.
To start I'll sketch and doodle and push things back and forth while rummaging around in my visual memory till I get the pose, gesture, behaviour and scene the way I want it. I'll then bring in the colour palette and start working on details. The glaring mistakes or inconsistencies will often start to reveal themselves around this time as I start bumping up against the limits of my memory and knowledge of that bird species.
This is where it might become clear that for example the birds red breast starts too high up on its chest or the buff colour is leaning too much to the yellowish side or the beak is too long. Its at this point that I'll start my survey of photographs, beginning initially with Noel's or mine and failing that various online authorities.
I call it a survey since the sheer number of photographs perused does feel like a survey. At this stage I'm not looking at ways to make the painting more real. I'm looking at plumage and shape variation. Because of this its easy to resist relying on that one sample photo for the placement of that red breast mentioned earlier. Any single photograph will show a bird who is obviously a card carrying member of that species. The problem lies in whether it is a good representative of that species. Huge variations in plumage can exist and finding an average is the correct thing to do here.
Getting the painting to a point where the pose, gesture, scene and colour palette are established also frees one from what I call the false tyranny of the photograph. Its sometimes hard to resist the authority of the photo, after all its "real" right? It's very seductive to unconsciously start "copying" what you see in that shot and that approach may not be in the best interests of accuracy.
Ultimately, I want these paintings to be true originals, not copies of something else. I have done only one fully realized painting from one of my own photographs and I have another one from one of Noels photographs which is featured in the background behind the main bird. I didn't enjoy doing either as I really had no say in the pose or the colour along with a host of other considerations. Lets just say if I had to work that way I wouldn't.
So there you have it. It's a complex process from start to finish with the first step being out in the field observing. So yes, photographs are utilized but they are treated with suspicion and are relegated to simple comparison tools, only being brought in later in the process where they can do the least damage.