How to Use Reference Photos in Art

By Alina Bradford

photo referencesUsing reference photos when creating paintings or drawings can be convenient, but there are several important things to consider.

First, the artist must consider the legal repercussions of the use of reference photos. Second, the artist must learn to use reference photos correctly to create a fresh and unique point of view in their art.

How Copyright Works

Just like art is legally owned by its creator, photos are owned by the photographer, unless someone buys the right to use the work or the work is offered for free use. The right to use or own a work is called copyright and each person “owns” the copyright to a creative work that they create as soon as it is placed in tangible form, according to the U website link.S. Copyright Office.

What does this mean to an artist? An artist cannot legally paint or draw art that looks exactly like a photograph taken by someone who doesn’t give consent for the photograph to be used. This is considered copyright infringement, in most cases. This is illegal and the artist can be sued.

One of the most famous cases of this is when the AssociatedPress accused artist Shepard Fairey of using one of their photos of President Barack Obama to create his painting entitled “HOPE.” The Associated Press demanded compensation and credit for the use of the photo.

How to Use Photos Legally and Successfully

There are a couple ways for an artist to use photos as references legally with satisfactory results.

First, the artist should look for photos that are meant to be used as art references or that is free for the public to use without copyright restrictions.

Second, an artist should never copy a photo, no matter what the copyright restrictions are. Why? Because to create the best composition and interest the artist should take elements from several different reference photos and combine them in their finished work.

For example, an artist may decide to combine elements from several different photos to create a composition. The artist can do planning for the painting or drawing by combining the elements in sketches or by combining the photos with photo editing software such as Corel or Photoshop.

These two methods are the best ways to keep your artwork out of the courtroom and in the buyer’s hands.