I've been creating and teaching art for several years and love helping new artists grow and find their own voice.
This article will help you navigate the often tricky world of knowing how to use photographic references for your art pieces (such as painting or drawing) without violating copyright.
In This Article
- The stages of an artist's growth.
- Where to find great photo references.
- A primer on what constitutes copyright infringement.
- An breakdown of how I referenced a cat photo but made the resulting painting my own.
- Tips and tricks for the developing artist.
The Stages of an Artist's Growth
Here's a quick summary of the general stages of a person's growth when they're trying to become a great artist:
Beginner: Developing Your Basic Skills
When you're learning to draw, there is a stage where you're just not capable of violating anyone's copyright, as long as you're doing it freehand. You can't get the likeness, your drawing has some serious distortions, and any experienced artist is probably moved to teach you the skills you haven't developed yet.
Very often, beginner drawings are the stylized symbols of what they see in the photo reference. If you saw a stick man with curly springs for hair, you would not think it violated the copyright of the movie studio that took a good photo of Captain Jack Sparrow.
Intermediate: Navigating Your Evolving Skills and Abilities
The skill of altering images does not come fast or easy. There's a difficult, painful stage in learning to draw realistically that begins with accurate tracing and can be done even by very new beginners. It generally ends when you eventually understand the anatomy of a human face, a cat's body, a horse, or a landscape well enough to merrily change the angle of the sunlight, the color of the shadows, the creatures around the focal point, the composition, and everything else until your original art cannot be seen as derivative.
This is actually the heart of copyright violation—when you're piggybacking someone else's greater skill and taking credit for something you can't do well yet.
Advanced: Knowing How to Make It Your Own
A professional or very skilled amateur artist, however, will do the sorts of things I suggest in this article:
- Combine several references.
- Change the composition.
- Flip it and mirror reverse it.
- Change the expression.
- Change the lighting.
- Make up part of it.
That takes a lot of skill. But in the end, you have an artwork that even the photographer would have trouble recognizing. And you are not actually ripping off Hallmark for that cute kitten leaning on a puppy if you put in a puppy from a different card and then pose them on your couch or the lap of your baby instead of the background on the Hallmark card.
"This is actually the heart of copyright violation—when you're piggybacking someone else's greater skill and taking credit for something you can't do well yet."
Where to Find Great Photo References
If you pick a photo from a source like National Geographic, it's likely to have stunning composition, good focus, an interesting subject, and great color. But not only do you not initially have the rights to use it, but you are also probably contacting a photographer who gets paid two or three figures for any use of their images. And if you do, you'll get quoted a price out of the range of most beginning artists—perhaps also with restrictions like "don't sell the resulting art."
You'll do far better to seek Creative Commons photos from their originators and ask nicely, or just follow the instructions for how to attribute the derivative works you created from them.
Here are some suggestions of where to look for great photo references when you're learning how to draw:
If an artist copies from something like a North Light Books' tutorial demonstration of wings, adds their own horse, and makes other changes, no one would mind. Because like my tutorials, how-to-draw books put in sketches specifically to be copied. Even if permission is given though, attribution is polite—and it can cover you legally if the status of that original sketch changes.
Older Source Material
The age of the original can matter. One solution is looking for older drawings to copy. Vintage realism is a good example, or everything from Leonardo da Vinci's drawings on up to 19th century engravings. Many of these older artists were very good at things like horse anatomy or the faces of young girls in charming styles, and these artists' work is now in the public domain.
You can also purchase clip art to use. This is legal and excellent. Copying clip art is fine—that's what it's for—but be sure you know where you got it. The best clip art sources are reputable large publishers doing collections that have been doing business for some time. (The only reason you have to pay for the clip art books published by Dover is because its editor collected all of them and copied them and put the collection together.) A fly-by-night Internet company with lots of beautiful drawings and photos that look far more contemporary, however, may have been doing mass copyright infringement on thousands of amateurs who posted their art online.
Many of Wikipedia's photos have Creative Commons attributions. Click on it to see what's allowed or not and get the spelling right for the attribution. This includes photos of works out of copyright such as Leonardo da Vinci's sketches.
Contacting a museum, you can sometimes get rights to reference various works, but fees vary from nominal to extreme depending on whether and how you want to publish it. Or you can visit a museum yourself, copy what drawings they have on display while there under whatever rules the museum has for copying their exhibits. That does not violate copyright as long as the works are older than 75 years past the artist's death.
Join art communities like DeviantArt and look for good photo blogs. Make friends with talented amateurs. Then ask nicely when you find an image you want to use. Be sure to offer attribution and a link to their original image when you post it to the community. And if you want to sell the art, tell them. This is one of the best sources for free images.
DeviantArt has many clubs, one of the most useful of which is called "Unrestricted Stock." It is of great interest to artists in the "must copy exactly or it turns out bad" stage of development. If you download any of their reference packs, you have beautiful images you can photomanipulate, decorate your website with, draw from, and create any derivative works you want. As long as you don't claim you took the photo, you're good. The club is small, and the original photographers donate their work in order to get more visibility.
I avoid using any photos where the artist says you can't sell the art, however, because I never know when or if I'll sell any drawing or painting I did (including what's in the middle of a sketchbook). Taking the risk to make something from this kind of source material can be a waste of my time, since the photographer may no longer be a member of DeviantArt at the time someone makes an offer. I try to stick to the "very careful" side of things and get permission specifically from my photographers—and make friends with several whose works I particularly like to work from.
WetCanvas is another online art community and has an enormous Reference Image Library, which is free to use without attribution or anything special. So far, the RIL is the biggest source of free-to-use images I've found online. If you reference something from the site, however, you should link to the photo or at least mention it's from the RIL and attribute it. I always do this, whether that's in the rules or not. But the primary rule is strict—you have to actually join the community to use the photos.
At What Point Does It Count as Copyright Infringement?
Look at the bad sketch of a woolly rhinoceros near the bottom of the article. I'm not very experienced with doing rhinoceroses, either extinct or modern. I did it from imagination, inspired by the book I'm editing and the book I'm reading. This is what I get for all my skill at animal drawing when I haven't ever seen the living animal and haven't seen its living relatives since I was a kid taken to zoos. I didn't even copy the famous Charles R. Knight, any great animal artists, or the painters of the caves.
I own a copy of Walking With Beasts. It's very tempting to just pop it in, run the episode that has woolly rhinos in it, pause on scenes with the animals until I find a good frame, and use that for a reference. I don't have permission from the BBC, and those individual frames from a video are part of a collaborative work involving many artists—the ones that drew the rhino, including the long-dead Pleistocene artists, the ones that built and moved the models, and the ones that did the CGI work. There's no one to attribute, and no personal friend to ask, "Hey, can I use a frame out of your movie?"
But I might not get caught since it is only one frame out of a moving picture—except to the model builder maybe, or the cameraman, or one of the editors who recognizes that frame and remembers choosing to keep it instead of the ones that wound up on the cutting room floor.
I might some time run the video, look at the movie, not stop it, and try to draw while it's moving. This is so close to drawing animals from life that I probably wouldn't get it accurate enough to be recognizable—but I'd get too close if I freeze-framed. That's at my present level of skill.
If I drew a dozen modern rhinos, copied the Charles R. Knight illustration from his Animal Drawing: Anatomy and Action for Artists, altered it, used it as a reference in the way intended, I might get to the point where my woolly rhinos started looking as good as the cats I do from imagination. I might get to the point where I could put one into a pose I've got no references for, and it'd be recognizable by species. That'll be fun and I might do it someday.
Referencing My Work
Some things are very clear cut. If you steal an image from one of my articles or one of my websites, for instance, and you repost the photo or scan—either claiming you took the photo or drew the art or both—then you definitely violated my copyright.
On some images, especially photos and the sketches in tutorials, I have given explicit permission for other artists to draw from my images. But I usually want credit—such as "drawn by robertsloan2 from DeviantArt"—and if possible a link to where you found it or a link to the tutorial. I'd like to know if only because I love seeing how my tutorials might be helping people grow as an artist!
I often give specific permissions like that, such as: "You can download my sketch and color it either using these colors or any X shades from light to dark that you fancy." Especially in tutorials, that's important. The lesson is about coloring and shading, not about how to trace a rose exactly from a photo reference or sketch it from a photo reference.
How I Painted the Norwegian Forest Cat
One of my friends is a Norwegian photographer, Fredrik Loevik, who goes by the DeviantArt screen name of Wazabees. I asked permission several times for different cat and kitten photos, got to know him, and he's been my friend for years. He loved all of his cats and made sure every one of his kittens got a good home—and he loves seeing my latest paintings and drawings of his cats. I created the above painting with his permission based on one of his cats, Astonish.
Even though I could have painted Astonish exactly as he was photographed, I have been getting in the habit of changing references so much and have done cats so often that I seriously altered the image. I changed the composition by cropping. I changed the color of the background to green. And since Fredrik photographed Astonish on a peach-colored cat tree, I reflected green everywhere that there were pinkish reflections on the cat's white fur (for the sake of realism). I had a theme in mind: show a Norwegian Forest cat in a forest. So I created a stump from memory of many chopped-off trees and posed him on it.
I also aged him a little. Though I was working freehand and intuitively, I still got the likeness, but I shifted his facial expression and mood a little. I find it hard now to copy a reference exactly. I can get the likeness, but my own eye has improved to the point where what I want to say with my painting isn't what the photographer wanted to say with the photo.
That skill level comes to everyone in time if you keep at it—but tracing and exact copying help bring it about. This is especially true if you go from tracing to attempting freehand drawing and then attempt to improve on the images or combine lots of them.
Great Techniques and Advice to Help You Grow as an Artist
Here are just a handful of tips and techniques—as well as best practices—to help you grow as an artist:
Take Your Own Photos
You can get a digital camera and take your own photos. This will give you infinite unending "film," and with practice you will get good photos. Not only that, but it'll help you learn composition too. That is the safest way to work from photos. But if you're a new artist and not a photographer, your photos may have as many flaws as your drawings. (This is where using photos in the Reference Image Library comes in really handy, since many of them are from artists who've been taking reference photos for decades.)
Seek Guidance From Teachers and Professionals
You'll find free classes at every level, from ultra-beginner to master, to help artists draw from life or photos or even from their imaginations. Sometimes the authors of North Light books may comment and help, especially if they're hosting a class or project. There's nothing like being able to ask the author to clarify something!
Make Sure to Confirm Who the Original Creator of the Reference Is
Always be sure you're talking to the real photographer of a reference image, rather than a ripoff artist. If you use a photo given to you by a plagiarist, then you could also be liable. Most of the time the penalties are more social—you can get banned from the community—but you can also be hit with heavy fines and jail time if you're not careful.
So stick to the ones you trust, whom you know are the originators of the images you use. Family members may provide good photos, but be sure to get permission just as if you didn't know them. The dispute could turn ugly.
Pay attention to the specific terms and note them for every image you use. One photographer mentioned on her blog: "Feel free to use my photos to draw from. I appreciate attribution but please do NOT mention my real name or my handle in any eBay listings for your art created from my photos."
Much as attribution is my habit, I will not ever mention where I got the reference if I sell something I did from one of hers on eBay. I don't know and don't want to know why she doesn't want her name mentioned on eBay. It's none of my business. But it's her right—that's what copyright means—to decide things like that and be that specific.
Creative Commons licensing has several variations. Wikipedia and Lulu and many art communities also suggest you list images with varieties of Creative Commons permissions—allowing you to separate the specific permissions you give and those you don't on a template of good legal language for sharing images and works. These are great because you don't need to contact the owner, and they're convenient if you want to share images of your own.
Be an Active Participant in the Community
It's also good form in a community where people are sharing like the RIL to reciprocate with some of your best photos and give something back. It's not required and you may not even own a better camera than a webcam, but it is nice.
Many good photographers are amateur and are just grateful that an artist is interested in working from their images. It's also good form after getting permission and attribution to link to your post with your art and let them see what you drew, even if they didn't ask you to. That's one of the ways to build a good, lasting creative collaboration like my Norwegian Forest cats series with Fredrik Loevik. I haven't come close to painting all of his kittens yet. But when I do, I know I'll be a far better painter than I am now and almost feel as if I knew those cats in person from all the times we've talked.
Change It Enough to Make It Original
Better safe than sorry. Get permission, use public domain sources, and never just use photos from magazines—even ads—without changing it enough so that it's definitely its own original work and not easy to tell what went into it. If you get to where it's impossible to tell, then all the references open up and you're just getting ideas from a reference without actually copying anything. It does not violate copyright to check a photo of a bird of paradise to see what its markings are and then paint a bird you put into the pose you saw out on your tree. Or check the stripes on one tiger and put them on your tabby for fun. That's the sort of thing so original no one could really even figure out whose tiger photo you got the stripes from, and it would never be mistaken for the original.
That is a big part of not copying the cute kitten-and-puppy pose from a Hallmark card. The combined elements of the image—the animals, the effort getting them into that pose without them licking their rear ends or fighting, the lighting, the setting—were a lot of work for that photographer and finally paid off with a good payment from Hallmark and an image that lucked out and got famous. And if you copy that exactly in graphite, the grabbiness of the photo and the results of graphite realism will mean you're riding the photographer's work.
Be Careful of Photo Distortion
Here's another point to ponder and one that I only understood recently. Photos distort. Cylinders with liquid in them, like a row of glasses of water, will wind up curving with a slight fisheye effect and not be true to form. One photorealist copied his reference (his own great photo) so carefully that a photography expert looked at the mural-sized painting and found a .JPEG artifact—some colors that came in because it pixelated and could only have happened in a digital photo. It was a grand piece, and the photo was as good as the painting. The artist was a true original.
But your eye and hand are capable of far more than a camera can accomplish. A camera is limited by reality. You're not. You can turn the foal into a baby unicorn or put wings on its dam for a Pegasus. You can do better as you become a better and more accurate observer. You can make a sad child smile or turn a kitten into a tigress. That's worth working toward, because no one can give you a good photo reference of a dragon.
The "copying" stage of portraiture and realism is important as a learning tool most of all, and I have nothing against artists selling journeyman work. But that's what it is. It's not yet masterful until you grow beyond it. It's worth something, but not gallery prices—yet.
Mix It Up by Drawing From Memory
This bad drawing is an important step on the way to my drawing good mammoths. Every time I do one of these, I look at it and analyze what went wrong.
So if you're practicing by tracing and copying photos, give yourself permission to do some of them from memory without looking at the reference. You won't violate copyright and will eventually build up your skills to the point that someday you'll be able to convey the images in your head and portray them on a canvas so that anyone can see them.
Until then, look for good references that give permission explicitly and keep drawing.
Susanna on August 08, 2020:
If I take my own photos of animals at a zoo or a safari or a farm, can I then draw the animals as they are on the photo or do I need to change them?
Dale Anderson from The High Seas on May 02, 2018:
This was interesting and a topic I don't think I would ever have dreamed up. Nice work.
bushraib on April 26, 2018:
As an artist myself, I often use reference pictures. I managed to find certain sites that will give u a free trial for whatever period of time, in which you can download a certain amount of pictures of your choice to use as a reference. Those are completely royalty free and awesome for using, I believe Lachri Fine Art suggests one. Also, sometimes I will just use Google Images, and I change the photo enough in my artwork that it does not have an issue with the copyrights. Good article!
Tamara Yancosky from Uninhabited Regions on October 05, 2017:
Thank you for your article. How do I know which pictures I can use for my Hubpages poetry posts?
Bobby on July 14, 2017:
Wait so... You can't own or copyright poses, but you still have to ask to use them?
Cooper Harrison from San Francisco, CA on April 21, 2017:
So much detail here - thank you.
adeveloper on February 11, 2016:
If I make a photo about my poo and put it on the web and you create a sketch about it and put it on your site you have just violated my copyrights. How disgusting you are you see. And how I hate every participant of the art creation chain you wrote.
WickedCats on September 16, 2014:
At the moment, I do drawings from photos I find on the net. What I do is a line drawing, with a pen. Then, inside that drawing, I add other designs. Would my using, just the line image be infringing on the copyright? In theory then, by taking your suggestions, if I wanted to do a line drawing of a dog, I would reference several pictures of dogs, and use a little from each photo, this creating my own image.
Hartwell on December 10, 2013:
There are plenty of places on the web to get references that are copyright free, so you don't have to worry about stuff like this. Landscape photos are the easiest to get, and are available on free sites.
Good figure reference and photos of people are less common on free sites (because of model release), but you can get quality images from places like http://www.posevault.com and http://www.istockphoto.com for VERY little money.
Inkster on November 11, 2013:
i'm doing a small newsletter just for my eight grandkids, and using photos of each one. There is one professional and I'm concerned whether just attribution is enough. Do I need the photog's permission? I've worked with copyright concerns for years in my own work, but am stymied about this. Any feedback useful.
anita on April 08, 2012:
hi I am in ireland and am thinkin of setting up my own card business, thing is i am finding it hard to contact the original owners of a few photos id like to use on my cards. My captions on the cards would be the selling point rather than the image. I have tried the free image sites but the pictures are crap. would you have any idea of what I could do please.
KDee411 from Bay Area, California on February 18, 2012:
Wow your very good, I'll come back for more
corporate photographer in London on August 01, 2011:
I'm always finding my stuff on other's sites. I've found a good way is to put a strange tag on each image, a weired word or a series of letters, then you can set up a google aleart and anytime google finds something with that img tag you get a email.
starreviewer from CT, USA on September 02, 2010:
Didn't know that taking a picture reference and creating your own was an infringement. thanks for sharing this information.
Sophie on August 19, 2010:
Thank You soo much!! this info has been really helpful.
I was wondering if I could somehow contact you or send you an e-mail??
jill of alltrades from Philippines on July 27, 2010:
What a highly informational hub! I learned so much here.
Thank you very much for sharing!
skillup on June 08, 2010:
Thank you for taking the time to write this article. It was interesting reading about your experience in using photo references.
baby on March 16, 2010:
so how about taking an image (jpeg) from the internet and live tracing it in illustrator and the combining elements of it into your own design? is this copyright violation???
Cherri Brown-Jett from Richmond on March 04, 2010:
Thank you for writing this hub. My idea of copywrite infringement was all wrong. Thanks for the enlightment.