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

Artist Reference Photos — Part 2

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

Where do I find good reference photos for artists?

There are many 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 an excellent source for painting landscapes of places visited and 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. Do an Internet using the term “reference photos for artists,” and you will find quite a few websites such as Pixabay, Pexels, and Public Domain Archive, to name just a few, which have photos you can use free for reference material. The photographer has granted permission to use their images on these sites as long as certain conditions are met.

In addition, there are several groups on various social media platforms that you can join which provide free reference photos and other resource materials for artists to use.

reference photos 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, 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. However, suppose you use one of those images as resource material for a painting by copying it exactly, and you do this without the copyright owner’s permission. In that case, it is considered copyright infringement, and that is illegal.

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

    • First, obtain permission from the owner of the copyright. As a cutesy, 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 may be used. Or you could look at
    • Make significant changes to the reference image to create an original work of art. The best way to use reference photos is to have multiple images to work from. You might prefer to use various elements from several different photos and combine them to create a new and interesting composition for the best results. 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.

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