How to Find Pictures to Paint for Beginners
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.
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.
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
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 license.
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 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
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.
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.
© 2013 Robie Benve