Question on Photo References - Legality? Morality?

  • Hello illustrators!
    I've been doing a lot of animal studies in watercolor lately to really start to understand the medium more, and also because, you know, fun.
    I've been listening to 3 Point Perspective, and ever since listening to "Ship Happens" I've been considering Jake's or Lee's advice on how each of their works have 3 lives. I am considering doing these studies on individual pieces of paper and if they pass muster posting them on etsy to see if they attract any interest and some cold hard $$$.
    BUT these studies are definitely still coming directly from photo references found off of google.
    What is the general census on this - acceptable or not?
    Any thoughts on this would be great to hear.
    Thank you,

  • You should use a site like morgue files that has free to use images otherwise you shouldn't really be selling the work. Gather multiple images and use them to inspire your work.
    here is a link to the mentioned site

  • SVS Team SVS OG

    @kkahn I agree with @rcartwright if it is a direct copy of the image. But if you use multiple images a just a reference on the subject you would be fine. I tend to gather at least 3 or more images of a subject before I start to draw it.

  • Thank you to both of you - I figured that would be the case, but I was curious on how the community felt about it.
    I will definitely check out that website, or take a trip to Alaska to collect my own reference materials 😉

  • @kkahn I personally would be worried about using this one especially for selling Pixabay is another site with wonderful free photo refs and Deviant Art has got some nice animal refs from people who live in countries with more wildlife.I would say the best way to ensure there are no copyright issues would be to buy stock images

  • SVS OG

    @rcartwright Thanks for sharing about - Didn't know about that one - Been using which i think aggregates from and others

  • SVS Instructor Pro

    Be cautious of any "free" image websites. Because it was mentioned I dug into That website, in my opinion, does not do due diligence in guaranteeing that the images they make available are actually legal from a copyright standpoint. I just watched a video with one of the founders of and I was unimpressed. He talked a good line but essentially was "Well, we just allow the images to be posted and then try to figure out the legal stuff later. We keep trying to teach contributors about licenses but you know, it's hard."

    That's not to say sites like that aren't potentially useful for photo reference, just that you should approach all "free" sites with caution and a healthy sense of skepticism.

    The philosophy that @Chip-Valecek has is a good one (minimum of 3 reference images). And I'll add to that, if you find the PERFECT photo reference -- get rid of it! Temptation to copy would be too strong.

    Just don't assume that someone has done the hard work for you -- for free anyway.

  • There is a forum called Paint My Photo ( where photographers specifically upload images for artists to use and you are allowed to sell whatever you make from them. I don't know if there would be many Alaskan animals but there are certainly others. The only stipulation is that you credit the photographer for reference and you don't share the images off site - you direct people to the site. I don't know if that's any help?

  • SVS OG

    @kkahn thanks for starting this discussion! I was wondering that this week. I’m painting sea life this week. Some things we simply can’t go and shoot. When I paint a mushroom, I go buy one. I can’t go and buy a jelly fish or a whale! It’s great to hear what everyone has to say and where to find reference.

  • SVS OG

    Side note... The polar bear is beautiful. Love the use of colors. Let’s see the rest of the painting!

  • Hi! I think you have to left these ones as training. Most artists have copies of other artists work or from photographs like yours made for learning purposes, not for selling or even show normally.
    You learned a lot doing that, I think that the goal here is now to create original art using your new skills. Is fine if you have to use references, but for "pieces", I mean, don't copy the whole work. Use references only for things you have problems with or use multiple references and make a "collage" so your work is something completely different.
    Have a nice day!

  • @zombie-rhythm I agree - and to be honest already knew deep down what the community would say. All the reference websites are gold though, and I appreciate everyone's thoughts on the subject!

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