As an artist, I use a lot of reference photos. But this can be a bit of a sticky subject when it comes to what you can use and what you can’t use. I never really understood copyright laws until I became an artist. We always see the little copyright disclaimer thing before a movie or video, but do we really understand what it’s saying? For my website I had to research a lot about copyright laws, how to present them on my website, and how to respect the copyrights of others, because I have content that I want respected as well. It was a good education, and I am grateful that I know more about the laws and how they are infringed upon.
Almost everything on the internet is copyrighted by someone. You cannot just pull any random picture off the internet and use it however you want to. As an artist, I cannot pull any picture off the internet and paint it as even a close replica of the original unless I have permission from the person who took the picture. I can however use it as a reference photo as long as that is simply what it is, and I change the picture enough so that it does not resemble the original photo enough to be identified as that photo. For this reason, if the image is copyrighted or if I am unsure, I usually pick 2-3 images of similar fashion, draw my own sketch using a combination of all the images, as well as my own creativity, and then paint the picture I drew rather than using any one picture alone.
The best option is to either take your own photos, know a great photographer who’s willing to let you use their photos, ask permission, or go to a website where there are not copyrights attached to the photos. When taking your own photos there are a couple of things I’ve learned. Take a lot of photos! A lot! With the convenience of digital devices, it’s easy to delete pictures you don’t want. Load those photos on a computer to view and delete the ones you don’t want. Phones are great, but the clarity of a large screen along with the ability to mess with the size and make adjustments is great. If you work better on your phone, I guess this could be a personal preference, but I think it makes a difference. Take pictures from several different angles and distances. One perspective might look great in person, but really bad as a photo, so get a variety. Lastly, delete all the photos you don’t want. I used to save several extras just in case, but I have come to learn that my gut is pretty accurate about what I am going to actually use and what I’m not going to use. It just simply saves space and time later.
My daughter is a great photographer. She is super willing to let me use any pictures she takes that I find interesting. She has even been known to call me and say, “I’m sending you a picture I think you’ll love; you should paint it!” I am grateful for her willingness to let me use any of her photos. I have also had friends share photos on social media that I thought would make great paintings and have asked if they would allow me to use their photo. So far everyone has been willing to allow me to use it as a reference photo, and once in a while I have friends send them to me randomly because they thought it would make a great painting. I love when people get as excited about my work as I am! When I get permission from a friend, I always sent them a print of the finished piece as a thank you.
I take a lot of photos, but I will never travel the world. Maybe someday my daughter will, she would like to, and then hopefully she’ll let me use some of those photos as reference. But, in the meantime … I have painted a lot of pictures of animals and plants from different countries and continents, so I use a website that has photos that can be used for commercial and home use, and a lot of artists use the same website. It’s called Pixabay. The photos on this site are free to use, there is often a photographer’s name that you can credit the photo to, but it’s not required in order to use the pictures. Just be aware that not all the photographs are free. There’s always a band of photos across the top that are copyrighted pictures. Usually 4-5 pictures. Those require permission. However, there are pages and pages of free pictures, on just about any subject, so just scroll past those few and you’ll find inspiration. I find myself looking for a picture of a specific subject, seeing something different, getting sidetracked, and ending up with half a dozen different reference photos that I hadn’t been looking for or anticipated. This is where I go for inspiration as well, when I feel like I’m stuck in a rut and don’t know what to paint. There’s always something there that inspires me.
So, that is reference photo copyright for artists and creators in a nutshell. There is so much more to copyright laws than this, but this is the simplified version. To me, copyright is simply about respect. Respecting that someone else’s work has value, that your work has value, and that we can all create uniquely, without copying someone else’s work. There is so much beauty in this world, and so many unique ways to display it.