Reference Photos

Reference photos have probably been an artist’s best friend since photos came to be. Consider how things were before photography when your model had to sit for hours while you worked on their portrait. How much easier would it have been to work from a photo? Granted, there’s something to be said for working with a live model, but it’s also unrealistic to think they will sit there without moving until you’re done. And what about if you’re working with animals? Everyone knows you can’t get them to sit still for very long. Even if you’re working on a still life, reference photos can come in extremely handy. There are of course, pros and cons. Here they are…

Reference photos. Like most things in life, there are pros and cons. (Photo Credit: )


  • Everything is captured perfectly, and everything remains the same, from your subject to your lighting.
  • Nothing changes, no matter how long you take to finish.


  • You do lose the challenge of working from life (with a three-dimensional subject), which is an artistic skill all on its own.

So Where Do You Get Them?

The answer is simple. EVERYWHERE! The temptation that Google presents is to just snag an image off the internet and start your project. There are differing opinions as to whether or not this is legal. Well, if you’re using a reference photo just to practice…then, no. But what about if you intend to sell your work?

Using someone’s photo for your project has the potential for copyright infringements. (Photo Credit: )

Some will claim that you run the risk of copyright infringement by doing this. I’ve heard experiences of artists who were contacted by the photographer of the photo they used and of course, the photographer was demanding compensation in lieu of a lawsuit. And on the other side of the coin, I’ve heard from actual professional photographers who said there’s no way something like that would hold up in court. In addition, they claim that no matter how skilled an artist is, there’s always enough of a difference between the photo and artwork that they’d never pursue legal action.

So which opinion do you trust?

My advice would be to play it safe and use royalty free reference photos. There are plenty of sites that are free to use. You can use photos from this site to your heart’s content without worrying about anyone coming after you for royalties. Two of my favorite sites are:

The other option would be to take your own reference photos. The one problem I found with using royalty free sites is that I often see the more popular photos used over and over for various animal portraits, still life, and landscape projects. By taking your own reference photos, you guarantee that all of your artwork is unique.

It doesn’t have to be one or the other. It’s totally possible to draw from life AND with a reference photo. (Photo Credit: )

There’s no disadvantage to erring on the side of caution. It’s just as easy as a Google search. And if you’re a stickler for working from live models, why not use the reference photo in between sessions with your model? The photo will also help if you need to set the model, lighting, backdrop, etc. back up again. Same thing goes for a still life. If for whatever reason you need to move your arrangement, a photo would not only allow you to work without the setup, it would also allow you to reassemble it more precisely than if you were trying to go from memory.

For the purists who believe true artists should always work from life…

Relax a bit, huh? There’s more than one way to do stuff and your way’s not the only way. Besides, let’s say I want to do a color pencil drawing of sea turtle swimming through a coral reef. You get my point? No one is arguing the point that artists should be able to draw from life. But there is absolutely nothing wrong with using reference photos and there are times like my sea turtle example where it’s positively advantageous.

So, there you have it. Reference photos in a nutshell. Where to find them, the potential risks in using non-royalty free photos, the pros and cons, and even how they can be used in tandem with working from life.



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Myra Naito

Myra Naito

Freelance copywriter who is passionate about art and fitness. Check out my art blog at or follow me @mnaito_fineart .