Is It Really Okay For Artists To Use Reference Photos? Part 2

In Reference Photos, Part 1 we learned about the advantages of using reference photos as resource material for you compositions in painting. In this continuation of part 1, part 2 covers where to find good sources of reference images and the issues of copyright when using them.


The Study still life oil painting“The Study”
Still life by Teresa Bernard
14″ x 11″
Oils on stretched canvas

>> More info


Where do I find good reference photos?

There are a number of places where you can find great resource pictures to refer to while painting. The most obvious (and most preferred) place is by taking these photographs yourself. When you are the photographer you will never have to worry about copyright infringement. Another source is old family photo albums. Pictures of family vacations can be a great source for painting landscapes of places visited and also bring back many fond memories.

Another way to find reference pictures for your paintings or drawings is to look for them on the internet, however, you must first get the photographer’s permission to use them. If you Google the term “reference photos for artists”, you will find quite a few websites that have photos you can use for reference material. In these sites, the photographer has granted permission to use their images as long as certain conditions are met.

photo reference book for artistsPhoto reference books for artists are also available for purchase at your local art store, bookstore or even online. They contain images of landscapes, sky and water, wildlife and others. These images are all copyright free as long as you use them according to the terms specified.

What About Copyright?

Any photo or illustration you find in books, magazines, newspapers and even on the internet is protected by copyright law. If you use one of those images as resource material for a painting by copying it exactly and you do this without the permission of the copyright owner, then it is considered copyright infringement and that is illegal.

If you want use reference images in your works of art, you will need to:

  • Obtain permission from the owner of the copyright. As a curtesy, consider giving the photographer credit for the resource photo you use.
  • Use images that have become public domain. An image becomes public domain when the copyright has run out. This happens when the original creator has been dead for more than seventy years. If you Google “public domain images” you will find plenty of sources for free images that can be used. Or you could look in http://www.public-domain-image.com/
  • Make significant changes to the reference image in order to create an original work of art. The best way to use to reference photos is to have multiple images to work from. For the best results you might prefer to use various elements from several different photos and combine them to create a new and interesting composition. Feel free to take artistic license by repositioning the components in the different images to accomplish this. When combining photographs be careful that the various elements in your painting are unified by making sure your light source, color temperature, value relationships and relative scale are consistent with each other.