How to Find Pictures to Paint for Beginners

Updated on February 16, 2018
Robie Benve profile image

Robie is an artist who believes in the power of positive thinking. She loves sharing art tips and bringing people joy through her paintings.

The Spark of an Idea

When starting a painting, the first thing you need, even before any drawing or painting supplies, is an idea of what to paint. Every artist needs inspiration, something that triggers the big idea of what the painting will represent.

It does not matter if the painting is realistic or abstract. It always comes from an idea, an image, or a feeling—some kind of spark that ignites the artist’s imagination and creativity.

Often, the trigger is a beautiful image. How do you find photos that can be used as a reference for a painting without risking copyright infringement? I'll share some basic principles to follow below.

Example of a stunning award-winning photo that has a creative commons license that allows derivative work and commercial use.  --  European Bee-eater, Ariège, France. The female (in front) awaits the offering which the male will make.
Example of a stunning award-winning photo that has a creative commons license that allows derivative work and commercial use. -- European Bee-eater, Ariège, France. The female (in front) awaits the offering which the male will make. | Source

Don't Use Copyrighted Photos for Paintings

As tempting as it is to use photos from a google search as a reference, if you find a picture on the internet, you can safely assume that it is copyrighted unless it's expressly specified otherwise. The same concept goes for calendars, magazines, books, and all publications: they are all copyrighted!

When you enter your painting in a competition or show, often times they will ask for proof that you used the photo with permission. It’s very important to be honest, especially if you end up winning.

The fact that art competitions ask for proof of permission is a strong signal that it is not correct to use copyrighted photos for your paintings.

Use Your Own Photos

When you paint a landscape on location or a still life from life, you don't really need reference photos although you can still take photos of the subject for later reference.

However, when you paint from a photo reference, the best photos are ones you take yourself. If you took the photo, it means you've been there, experienced it, and felt it. This makes the painting much more meaningful.

Also, if you are the author, you don't have to worry about copyright infringements.

In many cases, it is not possible to have your own photos, so you may need to look for photos taken by others.

Example of a painting I did from my own photo, shown in the upper right corner.  --  View of Tulum, 8"x10"
Example of a painting I did from my own photo, shown in the upper right corner. -- View of Tulum, 8"x10" | Source

Public Domain Photo License

To be totally safe, I usually look for photos that explicitly carry a public domain license.

My favorites are those that have this kind of disclaimer by the author:

"I, the copyright holder of this work, release this work into the public domain. This applies worldwide.
I grant anyone the right to use this work for any purpose, without any conditions, unless such conditions are required by law."

What Is Derivative Work?

Some photo licenses explicitly state that derivative work is not allowed. What does it mean?

  • Every time you paint from a photo reference, you are creating a derivative work of that photo.

Make sure you peruse the license agreement to see if you can paint something based on it or not.

The key phrase you're looking for in the license is "allow derivative work", which a painting would be.

Do Some Research

When in doubt about the photo license, make sure you have your back covered and do some extra research.

You don't want to use a photo and get sued at the peak of your beautiful painting's success or end up being disqualified from a competition you could have won.

If you really like a photo and want to use it, consider approaching the author directly for permission to use it as a reference. Chances are that they'll grant it to you—make sure it's in writing!

Where to Find Royalty-Free Photos

Sites
URL
Some Info
Wikimedia Commons
http://commons.wikimedia.org
Content is owned by the individual creators; most of it may be freely reused.
Free Digital Photos
http://www.freedigitalphotos.net
You can use the free photos as artistic reference, but if you plan to sell the artwork, you have to purchase the extended license.
Flickr Creative Commons
http://www.flickr.com/creativecommons/
Pay attention to the different kinds of license.
Morgue File
http://morguefile.com
Specifically created for artistic uses as a free reference photo database.
pixabay
https://pixabay.com/
All contents are released under Creative Commons CC0, safe to use without asking for permission or giving credit to the artist.

Photo-Sharing Groups

You can find several photo-sharing groups on Facebook. They're created for artists to use the photos as reference for their work. Members that share their images in the group know they'll be available to create derivative work. The artists that use the images as reference photos are willing to give credit to the owner.

Usually, these are closed groups that you need to apply to, but it's not hard to get in. You should be able to find different ones that match what you're looking for.

Beautiful Photo of Poppies

MorgueFile free photo: You are allowed to copy, distribute, transmit the work and to adapt the work. Attribution is not required. You are prohibited from using this work in a stand alone manner.
MorgueFile free photo: You are allowed to copy, distribute, transmit the work and to adapt the work. Attribution is not required. You are prohibited from using this work in a stand alone manner. | Source

A Quick Summary

  • Make sure you paint from royalty-free photos.
  • If you received the photo from someone, get a permission to paint it in writing.
  • Look for photos with a license that allows derivative work.
  • Make sure the license allows commercial use of the work in case you want to sell your painting.
  • Give attribution to the author; it's always a nice thing to do.
  • Get your back covered.
  • Happy painting!

Do You Know Any Other Good Web Resources?

Please feel free to suggest additions to the list of web resources in the comments.

Thanks!

Questions & Answers

    © 2013 Robie Benve

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      • Judy Filarecki profile image

        Judy Filarecki 2 years ago from SW Arizona and Northern New York

        pixabay.com is a great source of reference that are unrestricted.

      • Robie Benve profile image
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        Robie Benve 2 years ago from Ohio

        Hi Yvonne, it is true that a painting is not a 100% rendition of photo, but if you paint realistically, the person that took the photo can definitely recognize his or her capture, and you could get in trouble. Personally, I don't see a problem with it if you paint only for yourself and you keep the painting in your home. However, if you want to sell it or exhibit somewhere, I strongly recommend your own photo reference or royalty free images.

        Glad you found the info shared useful. Happy painting! :)

      • profile image

        Yvonne 2 years ago

        Thanks for the information, last year I took a beginners evening class in oil painting and one of the questions we asked was about copyright because most of us had taken pictures from magazines and we were told because you could never copy a picture 100% we would never need to worry about copyright! Glad i read this and thanks again.

      • kenneth avery profile image

        Kenneth Avery 3 years ago from Hamilton, Alabama

        Robie,

        Excellent work. Keep it coming.

      • Robie Benve profile image
        Author

        Robie Benve 3 years ago from Ohio

        Hi Kenneth avery, glad to hear you enjoyed my hub! Thanks a lot!

      • kenneth avery profile image

        Kenneth Avery 3 years ago from Hamilton, Alabama

        Robie,.

        Fantastic hub. Very informative and helpful. Great work.

      • Robie Benve profile image
        Author

        Robie Benve 3 years ago from Ohio

        Hi Joyfulcrown, unfortunately it is true that painting copyrighted photos can get you into trouble. I heard some awful stories, some artists got even stripped of competition awards because of that. Thanks a lot for your kind comments on my art!

      • Joyfulcrown profile image

        Joyfulcrown 3 years ago

        You knowI never thought of copyright & licensing issues on paintings. Its good to know. I also loved your painting. You are very talented.

      • Robie Benve profile image
        Author

        Robie Benve 4 years ago from Ohio

        Hi JPSO138, maybe you have a personal artistic talent that you have not recognized yet. As long as you like beautiful things, you are an artist at heart. :) Thanks for your comment

      • JPSO138 profile image

        JPSO138 4 years ago from Cebu, Philippines, International

        How I wish I have the talent of painting. But it seems that it is never in my bloodstream or perhaps in our genes. All I can do is admire and appreciate. Great hub and very useful indeed.

      • Robie Benve profile image
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        Robie Benve 4 years ago from Ohio

        Hi Ritesh, I'm glad you found it useful! Happy Painting! :)

      • profile image

        Ritesh Nishar 4 years ago

        Thanks for sharing this. I love to paint and this will be useful.

      • Robie Benve profile image
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        Robie Benve 5 years ago from Ohio

        Hi Marcy, you are right, I see many people painting from magazines and other copyrighted photos. I bet most don't know it's copyright infringement. I guess it's safe as long as you don't try to sell the painting, but I always like to be safer than sorry. (: Thanks for the compliments on my art! :)

      • Marcy Goodfleisch profile image

        Marcy Goodfleisch 5 years ago from Planet Earth

        How great that you point out the importance of copyrights on photos - it's something many people probably did not know. Your art is always so great!

      • Robie Benve profile image
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        Robie Benve 5 years ago from Ohio

        Thanks you Blossom, you are very kind. :)

      • BlossomSB profile image

        Bronwen Scott-Branagan 5 years ago from Victoria, Australia

        Some useful advice here and I love your paintings, too, they're really great. Keep writing and painting!

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