Robie is an artist who loves sharing what she has learned about art and painting in the hope that it might help other creatives.
Finding Inspiration in a Beautiful Image
When starting a painting, the first thing you need is an idea of what to paint. Every artist needs inspiration, something that triggers the vision of what the painting will represent. Once you have an idea of what the subject of your painting will be, you need a beautiful image to use as a reference. And here comes the tricky part.
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.
Never Use Copyrighted Photos for Paintings Without Permission
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, oftentimes 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 an award. 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.
Where to Find Royalty-Free Photos
Content is owned by the individual creators; most of it may be freely reused.
Free Digital Photos
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
Pay attention to the different kinds of licenses.
Specifically created for artistic uses as a free reference photo database.
All contents are released under Creative Commons CC0, safe to use without asking for permission or giving credit to the artist.
Wildlife Reference Photos
Royalty-free wildlife photos, but you have to pay a subscription fee.
You can find several photo-sharing groups on Facebook. They're created for artists to use the photos as references 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.
Public Domain Photo License
To be 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 or draw 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 create art based on it or not. A painting qualifies as derivative work, so to be able to use that image as a reference, look for in the license is that it "allows derivative work".
Never a Problem Using 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 are the author, you don't have to worry about copyright infringements. Plus, if you took the photo, it means you've been there, experienced it, and felt it. This makes the painting much more meaningful.
For many subjects, it may not be possible to have your own photos, so you may need to look for photos taken by others.
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!
Not Sure if an Image Is Copyrighted?
Try doing a Google reverse image search, very easy on a desktop computer.
- Go to images.google.com.
- Click the camera icon.
- Either paste in the URL for an image you've seen online, upload an image from your hard drive, or drag an image from another window.
It will show you the websites where that image appears. On those websites, you can find out the usage rights and contact the author if permission is needed.
Quick Summary of Photo Usage
- Make sure you paint from royalty-free photos.
- If you received the photo from someone, get 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!
More Resources for Photo Use?
Please feel free to suggest additions to the list of web resources in the comments. Thanks!
This content is accurate and true to the best of the author’s knowledge and is not meant to substitute for formal and individualized advice from a qualified professional.
Questions & Answers
Question: In the Poppies photo from MorgueFile it states-- You are prohibited from using this work in a stand alone manner. What does this legalese "using this work in a stand alone manner" mean?
Answer: It means that you can not sell, license, sublicense, rent, transfer or distribute this image exactly as it is without alteration,
- OR -
If you don't alter the image and leave it exactly as it is, then you must credit the photographer to use it. ( Suggested credit byline: Photo by at Morguefile.com )
© 2013 Robie Benve
Adam Pearson on February 17, 2019:
Definitely worth adding to your list! Thousands of images for artists to use as reference, all cheap and royalty free.
Belle on September 04, 2018:
Wow that is so cool!
Very helpful as i am doing that kind of thing at school!!
Judy Filarecki from SW Arizona and Northern New York on April 17, 2016:
pixabay.com is a great source of reference that are unrestricted.
Robie Benve (author) from Ohio on May 24, 2015:
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! :)
Yvonne on May 21, 2015:
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 from Hamilton, Alabama on January 20, 2015:
Excellent work. Keep it coming.
Robie Benve (author) from Ohio on January 20, 2015:
Hi Kenneth avery, glad to hear you enjoyed my hub! Thanks a lot!
Kenneth Avery from Hamilton, Alabama on January 14, 2015:
Fantastic hub. Very informative and helpful. Great work.
Robie Benve (author) from Ohio on January 14, 2015:
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 on January 13, 2015:
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 (author) from Ohio on November 26, 2013:
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 from Cebu, Philippines, International on November 24, 2013:
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 (author) from Ohio on October 14, 2013:
Hi Ritesh, I'm glad you found it useful! Happy Painting! :)
Ritesh Nishar on October 10, 2013:
Thanks for sharing this. I love to paint and this will be useful.
Robie Benve (author) from Ohio on April 02, 2013:
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 from Planet Earth on March 31, 2013:
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 (author) from Ohio on March 28, 2013:
Thanks you Blossom, you are very kind. :)
Bronwen Scott-Branagan from Victoria, Australia on March 27, 2013:
Some useful advice here and I love your paintings, too, they're really great. Keep writing and painting!