Reference photographs for Artists and taking care over copyright.

A few days ago a user in a Facebook group I follow asked other members if they had reference photographs that she could use in her artworks. Many members kindly uploaded their own photos for her to use, therefore giving their permission to reproduce them. However, one member surprisingly advised her to "just look through Google images", which I would strongly recommend you not to do.

Whenever a photographer, either amateur or professional takes a photograph, the copyright is theirs. The copyright remains theirs, unless they specifically and clearly state otherwise. Whether or not the photographer uploads their photo to a public site such as Instagram or Facebook etc. is irrelevant, the copyright belongs to them. Incidentally, this is the same for your artworks, the Artist automatically maintains copyright even if a painting is sold, unless otherwise stated.

You may think that it is "not such a big deal", if you are "only using them to practice" (quotes I hear often), however you should be aware that you are still in breach of the law. Try putting yourself in the shoes of the photographer who has to make a living from their images. Also, you may find that you later want to exhibit or sell the artwork you have created, which would be profiting from the photographers work.

I firmly believe that our best artworks are those that are drawn from life and from our own sketches and photographs. Choosing your own subject matter and knowing why you are drawn to it will create work that is much more personal to you than using the photographers ideas. However, with the best will in the World, there are times when we do need reference photographs. Like me, you probably haven't got access to Giraffes, Elephants or Tigers to sketch and photograph, or you may live inland and would like to paint the sea. This is where sites like are so useful. Those of you who are regular viewers on my YouTube channel will know that I recommend Pixabay a lot. This is because you can be confident that you are not breaching copyright laws by using the images and also because they have a high standard of quality control on the photographs themselves.

As I myself use photographs from Pixabay in my YouTube tutorials, I feel it is right that I also upload some of my own photographs to Pixabay for other people to use. There is a voluntary payment option on Pixabay shown as the "coffee" or tips option, a nice touch which I have used myself to thank photographers for their work. If you don't feel able to leave the photographers "coffee", you can leave them a thank you note in the comments section. There are other similar sites, but always read carefully the copyright information. Some photographers give limited permission, where you can use the image as long as you don't use it commercially. 

I hope that this blog hasn't sounded too bossy or patronising, I just think that we need to be aware of the pitfalls. We are bombarded with so many images online on a daily basis, especially with the popularity of Instagram, that I think many people have the assumption that they are free to use, especially those who have grown up with the internet.

You can see my images here on Pixabay. Please feel free to download and paint them.

Let us know your opinions and experiences regarding copyright in the comments below.


  1. You can Google, provided you search for 'free-to-use' photos. At the foot of the search page is a 'help button. Click on that to search for 'free-to-use' - add 'even commercially' if needed.

    1. Hi, thanks for visiting my blog. Yes, I agree you can find copyright free material on Google as long as you know where to look and are mindful of what you are doing. However, I see so many people just copying off Instagram etc. that I think steering them towards sites like Pixabay is a good idea to be on the safe side.

  2. We must be in the same group on Facebook Cally! If was the same post, I was disgusted with the comment a lot of the members posted. I reported it. Such a shame how people can gang up and attack another person. Love your site and videos. Do you ever do online classes? Or workshops?

    1. Hi Kathy, thank you for visiting my blog and watching my YouTube videos. Yes, I agree Facebook groups can be problematic and it can be easier to say nothing to avoid conflict! I don't currently do workshops and classes online, however it may be something I do in the future. If you would like to keep updated on my online tuition etc. , you can sign up to my newsletter by scrolling down to the bottom of my website homepage and filling in your email here Thank you for your kind feedback, enjoy your art.

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