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How To Use Photo References Without Violating Copyright

Updated on September 25, 2013

#19 of 100

19th of 100... getting there! Almost a fifth of the way!
19th of 100... getting there! Almost a fifth of the way!

How to Draw From Photo References

Some things are very clear cut. If you steal an image from one of my Hubs or one of my websites such as or {DeviantArt community) 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, like "drawn by robertsloan2 from deviantart" and if possible a link to where you found it or a link to the tutorial. "Drawn from a tutorial by Robert A. Sloan, posted at URL on eHow" is appropriate for a tutorial -- for your version of my How To Draw A Bird's Wing or how to do a cat's eye or something. I'd like to know if only because I love seeing if anyone's getting somewhere using my tutorials!

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. I didn't repost the photo in my Yellow Rose tutorial on my Oil Pastels site, because I didn't have the rights to the photo. I had the rights of a member of {WetCanvas) member to use the original photo as a reference for doing original art, thereafter to retain rights to my image.

So I posted my sketch, which was not a tracing, and used that as the basis for my tutorial. I also cropped the original photo and left out all of the background, replacing it with random leaves and an Impressionistic background that suited my painting better.

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 got 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.

A professional or very skilled amateur artist 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.

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, and ends when you understand the anatomy of a human face, a cat's body, a horse, 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 till your original art cannot be seen to be derived from anything.

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.

I saw a conflict on DeviantArt when an artist I knew posted a very angry rant about copyright violation because someone had traced and used the outlines of just the wings on a pegasus and done a drawing of a different horse, changed colors, changed background and everything -- but the artist was extremely offended.

Other than a contest entry, if that artist had copied from something like a North Light book's tutorial demonstration of wings and added their own horse, made those changes and so on, no one would have minded -- because like my tutorials, how to draw books do put in sketches specifically to be copied. But even if permission is given, attribution is polite -- and can cover you legally if the status of that original sketch changes.

The age of the original can matter. One solution is looking for older drawings to copy, vintage realism, everything from Leonardo da Vinci's drawings on up to 19th century engravings. You can find many of them in Dover Clip Art books and collections. They are good sources -- because many of these older artists were very good at things like horse anatomy or the faces of young girls in charming styles and they're in the public domain. You paid for the Dover book because its editor collected all of them and copied them and put the collection together.

You can 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. I trust Dover Books when they say "these Art Nouveau designs can be reproduced and used." A fly by night Internet company with lots of beautiful drawings and photos that look far more contemporary may have been doing mass copyright infringement on thousands of amateurs who posted their art online.

I've found my infamous Blue Rose colored pencils painting posted on Photobucket or Flickr three times under other people's handles with no attribution. I first posted it on DeviantART back when I first drew it, from a vintage gardening book that was out of copyright and a faded old photo of a rose. It had the shape of the type of rose I wanted. I then changed the color to blue and deepened it from a faded yellowish color that may once have been pink or peach, changed the leaves, added a bud, and drew out the stem into an original knotwork pattern with thorns on the stem done from memory. It's been oddly popular.

The composition was striking and the friend I did it for loved it. I traded it for a glass paperweight that she never liked but I still treasure. The date of my first posting was the day I got it scanned and she has the original. She is the only person that has my permission to use that Blue Rose image for a personal avatar -- that was part of my gift to her, I designed it to be the same symbol as one of her tattoos and I knew it was that personal a symbol.

So be sure you know where your images are from.

The skill of altering images does not come fast or easy.

Any of the North Light Books in the Artist's Photo Reference series such as Artist's Photo Reference: Water and Skies by Gary Greene, has an entire chapter on how to avoid violating the photographer's copyright -- and also expects you to alter the reference photos and combine them rather than just copy any of them directly. They give five or six good examples of how to alter references to do original art. I would recommend Gary Greene's volumes especially because as a photographer -- he's an artist!

His landscape photos and most of his photos have a boring focal point. He has a knack for getting a landscape that demands an animal or a couple of lovers or something else you wanted to paint against that background because it does not cohere as a picture by itself. Gary Greene's teach composition very well and are the easiest ones to use in that way.

If you pick a photo from National Geographic, it's likely to have a stunning composition as well as good focus, an interesting subject and great color. You not only don't have copyright to it, but you are also probably contacting a photographer who gets paid two or three figures for any use of any of his or her 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. 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, which is why I haven't ever included any in my tutorials. Someone took that photo. Maybe it was someone working at a museum who scanned it and sold the image to support the museum. Contacting a museum, you can sometimes get rights 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 WetCanvas 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.

That's the best source for free images. DeviantART has a club -- many clubs, but this one is of great interest to artists in the "must copy exactly or it turnsl out bad" stage of development is unrestricted-stock -- and if you download any of their reference packs, you have beautiful images you can photomanipulate, decorate your website with, draw from, create any derivative works you want. Don't claim you took the photos and you're good. The club is small and the original photographers donate their work in order to get more visibility.

EDIT: I've removed the link partly because it wasn't working and partly because references to specific links on WetCanvas and DeviantArt technically made this an overly commercial Hub - when I was trying to link to free resources. Basically go to DeviantArt and look for clubs, stock clubs and stock photographers. Check their terms. Some are extremely generous. The club is real and its photo references are fantastic. There may also be others, dA is a huge site.

Many stock photographers offer their works free on DeviantART or expect attribution or have certain restrictions. I avoid them if they say you can't sell the art, 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 -- waste of my time when the photographer may no longer be a member of dA at the time someone makes an offer. I try to stick to the Very Careful side and get permission specifically from my photographers -- and make friends with several whose works I particularly like to work from.

One is a Norwegian catographer,wazabees -- I asked permission several times for different cat and kitten photos, got to know him and he's been my friend for years. Eventually he gave permission to me to draw from any of his cat photos and so I'm working on a series of Norwegian Forest Cats and kittens based on his cats -- they are beautiful and he is an extraordinary photographer. He also bought a couple of my cat drawings and paintings. He's the photographer responsible for the still-wet newborn kitten ACEOs that I still sell prints of now and then -- he raised purebred Norwegian Forest Cats and documented them from birth to twelve weeks several times. If you want to draw his cats, query him yourself and be specific about which one and what you want to do with it. And just enjoy the images, they are beautiful cats. Query him about drawing his cats and kittens, I think he still has them posted.

Norwegian Forest Cat from Wazabees Photo

Norwegian Forest Cat from a photo by DeviantART member Wazabees, by Robert A. Sloan
Norwegian Forest Cat from a photo by DeviantART member Wazabees, by Robert A. Sloan

Example: Norwegian Forest Cat

I painted this cat with permission. Fredrik Loevik is a good friend of mine online and loves seeing my latest paintings and drawings of his cats. He loved them all and made sure every one of his kittens got a good home. His queen Mizzie has retired and been spayed, she'll live longer now that her breeding years are done and so will her consort Baltsar. This is not Baltsar. This is his son Astonish, also pure white and odd-eyed with the blue eye on the opposite side from his father's -- there's another one I want to do of the pair of them posed together, father and son.

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 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 then for realism reflected green everywhere that there were pinkish reflections on the cat's white fur from the peach colored shag carpet on the cat tree Fredrik photographed him on. 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 and because I was working freehand and intuitively, still got the likeness but 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, especially if you go from tracing to attempt freehand drawing and then attempt to improve on the images or combine lots of them.

WetCanvas has an enormous Reference Image Library which is free to use without attribution or anything special off WetCanvas itself (on the site you should link to the photo or at least mention it's from the RIL and attribute it. I always do whether that's in the rules or not). But the rule is strict -- you have to actually join the community to use the photos. I've seen some of them crop up in national level competitions provided the rules do not require that you don't use someone else's photos.

Some fine art contests require you only use your own reference photos.

Read the rules on the contests you enter and don't violate them. 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 and the ones in the Reference Image Library include those from artists who've been taking reference photos for decades.

Also you'll find free classes at every level from ultra beginner to master, to help draw from life or photos or even imagination, well. Sometimes the authors of North Light books may comment and help, especially if they're hosting a class or project. Of course the temptation once you meet one of these great teachers is to snap up all of his or her books and DVDs, something I'm currently working on, but that's cool too. There's nothing like being able to ask the author to clarify something!

So far the RIL is the biggest source of free-to-use images I've found online. There may be others. Look for communities and be sure you're talking to the real photographer 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 as the person who copied the wing did -- 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, be sure to get permission just as if you didn't know them or the dispute could turn ugly. And don't cheat on contests -- it really makes a difference if you or your spouse got that shot.

Also, 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 convenient if you want to share images of your own.

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 many good photographers are amateur and are grateful an artist is interested in working from their images. It's also good form after getting permission and attribution, even if they didn't ask you to, to link to your post with your art and let them see what you drew. 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.

Better safe than sorry. Get permission, use public domain sources and never just use photos from magazines -- even ads -- without changing it till 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 their licking their rear ends or biting each other or hissing and fighting, the lighting, the setting was all a lot of work for that photographer and finally paid off with a good payment from Hallmark and an image that lucked 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.

Not just showing off your own, which may be splendid but in realism the closer you get to the photo, the more it looks like one.

Here's another point to ponder -- 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. 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 that could only have happened in a digital photo. It was a grand piece and the photo was as good as the painting, the artist 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 get to 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. So look for free, honest sources for your works and attribute honestly -- your reputation later on may depend on it and so may a lot of things from friendships and community to legal penalties.

One last thing.

Look at the following bad sketch, a woolly rhinoceros. I'm not very experienced with doing rhinoceri, either extinct or modern. I did it from imagination, inspired by the book I'm editing and the book I'm reading to an animal that was first painted when it was alive using colors more or less like those used in famous cave paintings.

Woolly Rhinoceros Sketch -- Imagination

Woolly Rhino 1 by Robert A. Sloan, Derwent Drawing Pencils on Paper. Don't copy this, it's not even accurate.
Woolly Rhino 1 by Robert A. Sloan, Derwent Drawing Pencils on Paper. Don't copy this, it's not even accurate.

Original, and Inaccurate!

 This is what I get for all my skill at animal drawing when I haven't seen the living animal, ever, haven't seen its living relatives since I was a kid taken to zoos (didn't see one close up for years and years, might have in New Orleans or Chicago but don't remember), and did not copy either Charles R. Knight, any great animal artist, the painters of the caves ... or any good documentary with good reconstructions of them worked out by other artists.

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 till I find a good frame and use that for a reference. I don't have permission from the BBC and those frames -- those individual frames from a video -- are part of a collaborative work involving many artists. The ones that drew the rhinos including the long dead Pleistocene artists, the ones that built and moved the models, 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?"

BBC might well treat it like a museum and charge a fee and they'd take forever to answer me. 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 sometime 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, using 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.

But starting from this, it's a test of my general observation skills. It's a valuable drawing for all that it's neither salable nor accurate. I like the fur texture. I like some of the shading. I realized I partly copied the bison sketch above it and that's how I distorted it -- looking at a modern rhino from the Reference Image Library on WetCanvas, I might have got its body proportions and leg shape more like a woolly rhino.

This bad drawing is an important step on the way to my drawing good mammoths in the pose that's there in the scene in my book where the mammoth stampede goes through the camp of my protagonists -- the illustration that has to have my recognizable characters and the scene as I saw it in my head. 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 wind up learning enough that someday the images in your head that no one will ever see unless you draw them are out where anyone can see them.

Till then, look for good references that give permission explicitly and keep drawing.


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    • GetitScene profile image

      Dale Anderson 6 weeks ago from The High Seas

      This was interesting and a topic I don't think I would ever have dreamed up. Nice work.

    • bushraib profile image

      Bushra Ibrahim 7 weeks ago from Decatur IL

      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!

    • Rhyme Vine Poetry profile image

      Tamara Yancosky Moore 8 months ago from Uninhabited Regions


      Thank you for your article. How do I know which pictures I can use for my Hubpages poetry posts?

    • profile image

      Bobby 11 months ago

      Wait so... You can't own or copyright poses, but you still have to ask to use them?

    • profile image

      Cooper Harrison 14 months ago from San Francisco, CA

      So much detail here - thank you.

    • profile image

      adeveloper 2 years ago

      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.

      a developer

    • profile image

      WickedCats 3 years ago

      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.

    • profile image

      Hartwell 4 years ago

      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 and for VERY little money.

    • profile image

      Inkster 4 years ago

      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.

    • profile image

      anita 6 years ago

      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 profile image

      KDee411 6 years ago from Bay Area, California

      Wow your very good, I'll come back for more

      Voted up


    • profile image

      corporate photographer in London 6 years ago

      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.

    • profile image

      starreviewer 7 years ago from CT, USA

      Didn't know that taking a picture reference and creating your own was an infringement. thanks for sharing this information.

    • profile image

      Sophie 7 years ago

      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 profile image

      jill of alltrades 7 years ago from Philippines

      What a highly informational hub! I learned so much here.

      Thank you very much for sharing!

      God bless!

    • skillup profile image

      skillup 8 years ago

      Thank you for taking the time to write this article. It was interesting reading about your experience in using photo references.

    • profile image

      baby 8 years ago

      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???

    • fits4life profile image

      Cherri Brown-Jett 8 years ago from Richmond

      Thank you for writing this hub. My idea of copywrite infringement was all wrong. Thanks for the enlightment.


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