Copyright-Free Reference Photo Websites for Artists

Most people are well aware that paintings are copyrighted.  But not many people stop to think that photographs are copyrighted too!  This includes derivative works.  Making a painting or drawing from a photograph is a derivative work, and unless you have the photographer’s explicit permission, you are not allowed to use it as a reference or sell your finished work.  This makes it difficult for the artist, especially those just starting out. Finding the right reference photo for your artwork requires a little work.

The best solution, of course, is to take your own photos.  But you only get out of it what you put into it.  Using blurry cell phone photos as references will not yield quality work.  In order to make a great painting or drawing, you must have a photo that is high resolution, in focus, and has a good source of light to highlight the subject’s form.  Another challenge is that people may want to draw or paint things that are not easily accessible to them, such as faraway places or exotic animals.   Not everyone can afford to travel.

Royalty-Free Does Not Mean Copyright Free!

Most stock photo websites have very strict rules against using their stock photos for derivative works.  Even if you purchase the image, you can only use it how they specify, which is usually as-is and on websites and for print works such as magazines. Royalty-free does not mean copyright-free.  It means the person buying the image pays a flat one-time rate, instead of a royalty (meaning each time it is used, you must pay a fee to the owner of the photo).

The solution to this is to find copyright-free photos.  These are usually labeled as Creative Commons 0, also known as Public Domain.  To learn more about Creative Commons labeling and what they mean, please visit this website: Creative_Commons_license

The following websites and Facebook Groups are excellent resources for copyright free / CC0 reference photographs. Read the rules for each website or group; some require attribution (including the photographer’s name/website as the source whenever you post a drawing or painting made from that reference photo), and some don’t care.  Some require paying a small fee to access the photos, while others are completely free.  Most are completely public domain, but a few websites have more restrictions that you must follow if you want to use the photo as a reference. All of the Facebook groups are closed groups; you must join the groups to use their photos.

This list last updated August 7, 2020.

Free Websites

  • Pixabay – Completely free. Has the largest selection of public domain images of all of the sites.  Fantastic selection of animal reference photos. No attribution required.
  • Pexels – Another great free site. Has a great selection. No attribution required.
  • Dreamstime Copyright Free – Great photos, all for free.  A good selection of animal photos. All images are CC0 which means no attribution required.
  • – Free site, large selection. All images under CC0 license, no attribution required.
  • Paint my Photo – A great place for animal and wildlife photos.  Must sign up (free) to access, and they request a small monthly donation to subscribe (voluntary)
  • Unsplash – Another excellent website with lots of photos of animals and nature.
  • Anatomy360 – Free references for human anatomy and figure drawing
  • WetCanvas Reference Image Library – Will require you to sign up but it is free, and they have lots of great photos.
  • ReShot – Similar to Pixabay, lots of great copyright-free photos for you to use.
  • FoodiesFeed – Great high resolution photos of food.  While these are aimed at food bloggers, these are perfect for artists painting still lifes.
  • Wikimedia Commons – A great place to go for lots of pictures.  NOTE: Read the Creative Commons descriptions for each image; some are more restrictive than others.  Some require attribution.  Avoid any image labeled with SA (share-alike) as these require posting derivative works under the same license (something you do not want to do! This essentially means your drawing or painting is public domain.) Try to stick to images labeled CC-0 or CC-BY.
  • Flickr Copyright Free Search – Flickr has the ability to search for copyright-free images in their site, since users can set their copyright level.   A decent selection of public domain photos is here. No attribution required for any of the images labeled public domain.
  • Google Images – Has a search feature that allows you to search for copyright-free photos.  When you perform an image search, underneath the search bar click on Tools.  Then select “Labeled for Reuse with Modification” in the Usage Rights drop-down menu (the second from the right).  Then you can see only public domain images in their search.

Pay-to-Access Websites

Facebook Groups