How To Use A Photo Reference Without Violation & Make It Your Own

Almost every artist has used reference images for their art. References images help artists learn new skills, challenge themselves, and enjoy various subjects. Today more than ever, artists have access to thousands upon thousands of reference images that are free to use without copyright violations. However, we do need to be careful that when using images that are not our own that they are not copyrighted or someone else’s property. Photographers are artists too, and just like you don’t want your art stolen – they feel similar.


This is an excellent question! You can use FREE places like Pexels, Unsplash, Freepik, and Pixabay, or you can pay for stock images through Adobe Stock, Dreamstime, and Shutterstock. You can also find a photographer you love that takes images of the subject you want to work with and contact them to see if you can use their images.

Another suggestion that slips the minds of many artists, is that they can take the images themselves. Many artists having access to a pretty stellar camera in the form of a phone we carry everywhere means artists can more easily take their own images. I know many artists that take their own images, using themselves, friends, and family. It also helps you get more connected to the work. For most of my artwork, I have used my own references.

As a photographer myself, I have had numerous artists asked permission to use my images. I have never minded personally, as long as someone asks. So to be professional and respectful, always ask a photographer before using their image. Don’t be shy. They can only say no, then you find a new inspiration.

To the right, you can see a painting by Megan Buccere, who used one of my photographs for inspiration for her painting. As you can see she did not copy the image, she used part of it and created her own vision. This is the best way to use a reference., by finding your own voice.

Also, if you do get permission from a photographer it is customary and supportive to give credit to the photographer when posting it.


When we start out, it is common to copy things. The idea is to learn to draw what we see so we need things to see in order to draw. It is much harder to draw from memory or imagination. When looking at a reference image, it helps us see the tones, details, and all the nuances that our memory leaves out. Over time as you grow, you can learn to improvise and create those details on your own.

In the image above where I showcase my recent painting and the reference used, it is obvious that they are vastly different. I took the image as a base but made the artwork my own. All the choices I made brought me to that. Here are a few suggestions to help you do the same.


1. Find an image that inspires you and when you find it, think of the ways you can alter it. If it is a person, does she have light hair? If so, try making it dark. If the hair is long, try making it short.

2. Use the basics of the image in your outline. You can freehand from looking at the image using a grid, you can use a lightbox or even transfer paper. Perhaps you like the jawline, her lips, and the eyes, but you are not a fan of the original nose. Change it to a nose you love.

3. Choose a color palette that suits you. I used pinks, teals, and black in this image which were not present in the reference image. The reference image was purple, dark blue, and brown. In the original image above she had brown eyes, I changed them to blue and altered her gaze to look more upwards.

4. Combine more than one image. A good example of this would be to take the original image of the woman, and then find another model wearing a shirt I love and use that shirt’s pattern for my artwork.


Some of the most famous and well-revered artists used reference images. Images featured from top left, then clockwise.

Henri de Toulouse-Lautrec, Norman Rockwell, Alphonse Mucha and Alphonse Mucha (2).


It is my hope that you will take a leap and try something new, expand your style and use reference images in a new one. One of the best ways to find “your style” or “voice” is by experimenting, making lots of mistakes, and taking risks.

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  1. Dave G.

    This article was very helpful. I had created some images based on photographs, and now I know not to sell those. One question though; is it okay to use old magazine ads (like from 30 or 40 years ago) as reference photos? If I do, would I need to contact the administrative personnel of the magazine company?

    • auniakahn

      This is a great question! As long as you are not making and exact copy then it is perfectly fine! Great question.


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