Saturday, May 23, 2015

When and how to use reference photos in Fine art and Illustration

Prevent unintentionally disrespecting another's creation and copyrights by understanding why you use a photograph.

Every artist uses a photo either for a derivative or a reference use.

Derivative use in:

Fine Art

Copyright free photographs generously provided by photographers are an excellent way to practice artistic interpretation and take some artistic license.  When I was learning to paint I tried to exactly copy a reference picture by using a grid.  However, as we grow as artists we move away from making a derivative and use our own interpretation and take some artistic license instead.

The photo drew my attention because it invoked emotions in me. It allows me to daydream and go back into my youth, growing up close to the beach.
The picture also made me wonder, what is distracting the dog, what broke his focus away from the ball? Emotions and questions are perfect ingredients for a painting.

Even though my watercolor painting "Distractions" on the right became my own independent artistic creation and I used my own artistic interpretation of the photo, I still used the major elements of the photo on the left which are protected under copyright law. As you can see I added a background but deleted other details. Yet, despite my adaptations and changes, my painting is still considered derivative work and I therefore needed permission of the copyright owner of the photograph.

My thanks to JuneartZ Free reference photo's for artists for granting me permission to use the photo and for generously sharing copyright free pictures to use for other artists.


In the beginning it is perfectly okay to base your painting on photographs (or from pictures  you were granted permission by the copyright owner) or other references because that is how we learn. But as I developed as an artist, I explored my own individual talents and my artistic voice.

I knew that painting animals was my strength but realism not. So, I approached clients who were willing to commission me to paint Pet Portraits that would bring out their nature or other more abstract things they would like to see immortalized. This is how I turned the pretty reference picture on the left of the Siamese cat Siro into a painting on the right that brought out his warm true exotic nature.  In this case I used the photograph more as a reference for the exact proportions, color markings, etc. so that the owner could recognize his cat while using my own artistic interpretation of his cat. In this painting I took much more artistic license but it is still a derivative work and I had to ask for permission to use the photo.
With thanks to Bas Verbruggen in the Netherlands for providing me with the beautiful reference picture on the left and for commissioning me to paint his cat Siro with acyrlics on canvas 2011.



After a while I decided that I wanted to study children's book illustration because I needed a field where I really could set my imagination free.

During this course I was looking for projects to put my portfolio together and was looking for pictures where I could take some artistic license like turning this baby picture of my cousin and me into a picture book illustration on the right (watercolors and colored pencils on paper).

Concept and Character Design

After practicing some more paintings from my own reference pictures I was ready to push my imagination a little further.

In a ragdoll group I found this adorable picture on the left of a ragdoll named Axle. Immediately, a picture of a pastry chef came in my mind. The owner loved it and wanted to produce and sell products with the design. That was when the Chef Axle Enterprises was born. As an artist I felt very honored to have been the Chef Axle designer and artist since 2013.

My thanks to Chef Axle Enterprises LLC for commissioning me to design Chef Axle since 2013 till now.

Reference use

When you only have words as your reference you will need some reference pictures.

This watercolor painting was drawn from many reference pictures, especially photos taken from the sky or high towers. The dog, boy and cat are painted from memory and experience since I painted cartoons as long as I can remember. The dragon is created by studying many photos of lizards and birds to understand wings, skin texture etc. Since I used only minor elements from many pictures I didn't have to ask for copy right permission because I only used the information as reference. Once I knew what a pea pod looked like, I could create my own version as you can see in the black and white illustration on the right.

These examples are the watercolor promotion image and one of the black and white illustrations from the wonderful Marvellous Creatures: A Children's Poems Bundle  by Mark Kerger.

Your own and other references

Nature, life, and city scenes are all great source for references. I made this water color sketch years ago in the car on a cold winter day. I always carry a snap shot camera and/or a small watercolor set with me so that I can make my own studies or references for bigger paintings or other projects .

Artistic interpretation is total freedom and the reason why I am grateful to be an artist.

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