While I agree that painting from life if the best way to paint and that many important things can only be learned from working from a model in front of you, I just have to disagree that anything else is a waste of time.
You see I did not start my painting career until I was pregnant with my third child. In fact I had only done a handful of paintings before that time and had never had the opportunity to paint from a model. I had been focusing on my Architecture career and only painted as a delightful diversion while working on my Architecture major.
With two kids at home and very soon after another on the way, and my Husband's crazy work schedule it was impossible to go to model session to practice my painting. I painted at night once every one else was in bed. I painted with crappy lights and from photographs. I painted in the only quiet moments available.
And that is what is most important to improving your painting, JUST PAINT. Paint whenever you can even if the situation is not ideal. Because believe me in my life the situation is never ideal. I paint when I am exhausted and there are piles of laundry and dishes to be done. I paint when I have to chase kids back to their beds multiple times. I paint in the weekend moments I can capture. And while I still have a lot to learn that I am sure would benefit from being in front of a model, I have come a long way baby!
I also take every opportunity to paint from life in my head. I may not have moments with my easel and my paints where I can observe the way light plays over a face but I can certainly study it and think about how I would paint it.
These days I am constantly painting, but often it is all in my head. I think about what colors I would use to capture my co worker's hair or the way to glaze a mist over the hills on my way to work in the morning. I plan my paintings for hours while commuting back and forth.
I am still getting to the canvas at nights but not quite as often, it is a hard transition to go back to work after staying at home with my kiddos for 5 years. I am also studying for my Architecture license exam, coping with my husband's new crazy work schedule, and loving on my three precious kids. I am enjoying everything individually but the balancing act is a struggle.
In it all I find I can truly feel satisfied when I find time to JUST PAINT.
Detail of a commission in progress. (photo was taken at night with the crappy lights)