Sometimes artists need a reference to look at.
Real life is the best kind of reference.
If I’m painting an abstract or whimsical impression of a subject, I might night need a reference at all. However, if I am wanting to even approach realism, I need some kind of reference to look at. In an ideal world, I would have real life references of everything I wanted to paint, so that I could actually look at the real item and always draw or paint from life.
Photographs are petty good references too.
The real world though, is far from ideal, and reality doesn’t always allow me easy access to subjects such as the Eiffel Tower, or a live bald eagle, or a lion. In the case of the animals, even if I did have access to a live specimen of every species on the planet, they wouldn’t be likely to strike a pose and sit still for me while I drew or painted them. This is where a photograph can really be an asset. Photographs exist of almost every subject on the planet, and even some off the planet. Even fantastical creatures of myth and science fictions are based on real world creatures. Photographs don’t move, you can zoom in to see details, you can convert them to black and white, boost the contrast, or darken the shadows in order to see the values and shading better. Photographs can really be invaluable, and an artist doesn’t necessarily copy the whole photograph either, an artist might paint a landscape from life, but put in a deer or other animal from a photograph, only using the photograph to reference the correct proportions, makings, and colors of the animal.
Photographs are not always available for use.
The main drawback of photographs is that they are often works of art in themselves, and as such are automatically protected by copyright. You see, an artist or photographer doesn’t have to do anything to own the copyright to their work, they own that copyright automatically. In order to not own the copyright, the photographer or artist has to take action to release the copyright they automatically own. As an artist, I respect other artists and their work, and don’t wish to violate their rights to their work. I also don’t want any legal trouble that would come from using a photograph illegally. Many artists use photo references all the time and don’t worry about copyright because they figure that in making it into a painting or drawing they are transforming the original into something new, and there is no way a court would hold them guilty. Courts though have been very inconsistent with rulings regarding copyright, sometimes coming after someone for something that simply vaguely resembled another artists work, and other times allowing people to blatantly steal other people’s photos off of Instagram, apply a little editing, and call it their own artwork. Who is to say how a court would rule if someone decided to sue a painter for using their photograph? I don’t think it is worth the risk though.
Some photographers are very generous though.
Thankfully, there are some photographers out there who are generous with their photos. They actually take the steps necessary to give permission, in advance, to whoever wants to use their photographs. Sometimes they will put some conditions, such as saying that you can’t use the photo in a stand alone basis (you can just make prints on canvas or paper and sell the photo exactly as is), some say that you need to give attribution, which basically means to give them credit. There are all different levels of license and release available, from no attribution and no restrictions at all, up to only being able to use a photo for non-commercial use and only if you also share your version under the same license. Some of the licenses allow you to then change the license type on your adaptation, and others require that you share alike. For more information about the various levels of license, check out the Creative Commons Licenses. Of course the best licenses for other creatives are the ones that are completely released, without condition, otherwise known as released to the public domain. Because a painter can use them for a reference, and still claim copyright to his painting, or a book publisher can use the photo in a book and still copyright the book.
So where do you find these public domain photos?
There are several sites where you can find Public Domain photos. Wikimedia has a lot, but they also have a lot that are not public domain, so make sure to check out the licenses attached to each one. Morguefile.com is a photo sharing site where you usually are only asked to give attribution for a photo. The best site I’ve found so far though is Pixabay, with hundreds of thousands of images you can use however you want, for free. The only caution I have to give about Pixabay is that whenever you search a subject, the first row of photos will say, “Sponsored images”, those are not free, they are stock photos being advertised for sale, the free images come below the sponsored ones. When you click on a free image, it will open up and show you different free download options, from original high resolution, to website friendly, lower resolution, smaller file size, and various increments in between. Download what you need and then you can post it, publish it, transform it, paint from it, to your heart’s content.Pixabay is a great resource of free to use reference photos for artists Click To Tweet
And we aren’t talking poor quality photos that photographers just couldn’t use for anything else either. Some are great, artistic quality images. Some are drawings, some are vectors. All of the photos used in this blog post came from Pixabay.