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.