Where to Find Free Reference Photos to Use in Paintings

If you’re an artist, you probably know that using copyrighted photos from the internet or magazines is prohibited.

For a new artist, this would leave you with not so many options especially if you do not travel a lot to take your own photos.

In this article, we’ll look at some free photo reference sources you can use for your art work.

Firstly, any photograph that is free to use means that the owner (photographer) has granted permission for use without strings attached, or may be that it is copyright free. Here’s where to find such photos:


Here, you’ll find a huge collection of reference photos for artists, and while the photographers own the copyright to these photos, you can freely use them for paintings, at least according to the terms of use. There’s also another place on the website where you can share reference photos.


Flickr is another great source of free reference photos. However, you must ensure that you search for photos using the ‘Search Tool’, which makes it possible for you to find photos that are marked with a ‘Creative Commons Attribution License’.

It is this license that permits third-party users to make copies and derivatives to be made from a photo (such as through painting). It also allows for the commercial use of the copy of the photo so long as you credit the owner of the original photograph.

Art Design Web

When you want to check for the copyright that applies to a particular photo on Flickr, browse to the column to the right of the photo and check under ‘Additional Information’. Here you’ll see a small ‘CC’ logo which when clicked on will show you the details of the Creative Commons License.

You can also look at places like the Morgue File, which is a Public Image Reference Archive. This one contains tons of reference material for free photos which you can utilize for any creative pursuits.

There is also Stock.Xchng that includes free and paid-for images. When you enter a search term, free results are displayed first, and then below them is a list of ‘premium results’ which are available at a fee.

Some artists do not mind parting with a few dollars on eBay to source for the photos they want, especially if you’re looking for classic black and white or color photos. These old photos can provide for fascinating subject matter.

Many artists find black and white photos to be especially interesting because they can then use whatever colors they want in their new painting without being restricted by the colors in the original photos.

Things an artist should know about copyright

Whenever you’re on the hunt for free photos, be sure to read everything you need to know about copyright for artists. This is important because copyright laws change by country, even though there are copyright agreements that are internationally binding.

Most copyright information you’ll get from online sources will only be for guidance purposes only. It is better to consult a copyright lawyer whenever you’re not sure about any copyright issues.

ultimate painter tool

pencil portrait mastery course

oil painting techniques