4 sites with reference photos for artists

Acrylic painting based on a photo I took. 16x20" canvas.

Acrylic painting based on a photo I took. 16×20″ canvas.

I’m learning to paint in acrylic. I have excellent brushes (these and these), wonderful paints, dozens of blank canvases, and not many ideas.

So I go outside and take some pictures, and a few of them seem to be worth painting. I’m not a great photographer, though… I’ve taken about ten thousand pictures in the last few years, and I’m pretty happy with a couple of hundred, maybe. You can see some of them at my Flickr page.

Okay, since that hasn’t given me everything I wanted, I turn to the Internet to find images that I could paint. And I immediately run into a snag: copyright.

I’m not opposed to practising my painting techniques on any old image I can find, but on the off chance I want to sell a painting (or give one away – much more common) I don’t want any legal entanglements. Plus, copyrighted images are copyrighted for a reason; I certainly don’t want to deny anyone the opportunity to monetize their work.

So Creative Commons stuff and Public Domain stuff are great.

I have four sources I typically use for my paintings (apart from my own photos). There are others, but many sites require that their images not be used digitally, which I understand but can’t live with.


This excellent photo sharing site has a good Creative Commons licence search/filter. I go to the CC-BY licence, generally; I find the “Share Alike” licences confusing (what if you combine images with different licences?) and the “Non-Commercial” licences don’t meet my needs. [On a side note, this is also a great backup service for your own photos.]

Smithsonian Art Museum

The Smithsonian has a nice collection of stuff. Most of it is copyrighted and not okay for my purposes, but I found some good paintings by Edward Mitchell Bannister that are in the public domain (he died in 1901).

WetCanvas Artist Reference Library

This is a community for artists. The interface is a little dated, but there is a large reference library for artists that can be helpful.

Morgue File

This is the best one. Really high quality images and a pretty liberal licence (just shy of public domain), and many have higher quality versions that you can license if you need them. Lots of great photography here. I’m currently working on a painting of this, and I’m planning to paint this, this, this and this. And yes, they do explain the creepy name.

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