31 Jan 2011

My Three Favorite Reference Image Libraries

Posted by Moshe Mikanovsky

This article was published on FineArtViews blog on January 27, 2011

My Three Favorite Reference Image Libraries

by Moshe Mikanovsky

This article  is by Moshe Mikanovsky, Regular contributing writer for FineArtViews.  An emerging artist searching his way in the art world, he loves to share what he learns.  With over 20 years of technology experience, Moshe combines his technological background and his passion for the arts with the goal of “working his dream”.  You should submit an article and share your views as a guest author by clicking here.

I paint from photographs. No, I am not shy in revealing this fact. In the past, I remember thinking it is not a real artistic way or it is not “serious” enough. But the more I learned and studied and the more I connected with other artists, I came to realize that any means to achieve your artistic vision is indeed, well, artistic. Should we add a disclaimer that “any means” does not include harming anyone, from human subjects to lab animals? I think it’s obvious, right?

As photographs are the main source for my studies as well as masterpieces, I need a constant source for images of varied subjects. Sometimes I can take these photographs myself, especially nowadays that my smart phone has a decent size built-in camera, available at any time. But in many cases, I just don’t have the right picture for what I need to paint. Whether it’s exotic animals, plants from different continents, or buildings found in far off countries, there is no limit to subject matter that is just not right at our fingertips, yet we can still feed our creative juices.

Today I want to share with you my 3 favorite reference image libraries which I’ve been using for some time now as the main source for my paintings. The main concern for using someone else’s images is copyright. You don’t want to make any infringement on another creator and their Intellectual Property, the same way you won’t want anyone to infringe your creations. With the massive volume of images online, you might think Google Image search will be the best place to find reference images, but the problem is that with most images online there is no specific waiver or usage policy, explicitly allowing an artist to use the image as a reference in this artwork. In such cases, you will need to ask for the photographer’s permission for such use. Permission given is a common feature of the following three libraries:

1.      WetCanvas’ Reference Image Library

WetCanvas is an online forum and community for artists. With almost a quarter of a million members and more than 9 million posts, it is a great resource for artists, in which I’ve found many good resources. One of them is the Reference Image Library, which now has almost 70,000 images. These are arranged by many categories, such as Animals, Building, Countries, People, and many more. Each category is further divided to sub categories, so it is fairly easy to find what you are looking for. With search options, viewing options, comments and more, it is usually the first place I will look for an image, and in most cases, I will find several suitable options.

WetCanvas is members based system, but it is free to join. To return back to the community, I try to upload reference images that I’ve taken. Who knows, maybe someone will be using them one day.

Site: www.WetCanvas.com


Dennis Hill created this free website as part of his FontPlay site, offering many amazing images from his own photography as well as some of his friends’ shots. Browsing through the galleries is not as simple as in the previous site, but it is really a treat. Sometime I just love wondering around the galleries, such as the Amusement Park photos, Mannequins or Words images. There are really a lot of beautiful images and they are all free of royalties for artistic usage. One section called “Gallery” includes some examples of artists’ usage of the reference images in their artwork.

Site: www.fontplay.com/freephotos/

3.     morgueFile.com

With over 250,000 images free to use as a reference in your artwork, this is an impressive site with many amazing pictures. The site navigation allows you to filter and search through the database of pictures using keywords, categories, sizes, colors and other filtering. The quality of the photographs is superb, with professional looking, high resolution images, which you can download and zoom.  This is really a place where you can find lots of great references.

Site: http://www.morguefile.com

It is important to note sites such as Flickr or Picasa for image sharing, on one hand, and Stock Photo sites on the other, such as SutterStock.com.

Flickr is free to use but the images uploaded by the members are governed by the Creative Commons licensing, meaning the owners of the images can choose what type of license they are willing to give to their work. In most cases, for the non-commercial photographers, the minimum is Attribution, which means you can use their image to derive work from, for commercial purpose, but you still need to credit the photographer. This is usually not done in a work of art, although it can easily be done in the title of the artwork. You could also contact the photographers and request their permission.

One might argue though that many works of art do not resemble the original sources one-to-one and therefore should not infringe on the rights of the original’s creator. I am not an Intellectual Property lawyer, so I can’t really give any specific recommendations.  I’d just like to mention a case in mind of artist Shepard Fairey who created the famous Obama HOPE poster based on a photograph of Associated Press’ freelance photographer Mannie Garcia. You can read more about the legal actions taken by both ends on Wikipedia’s Barak Obama “Hope” poster.

As for the Stock Photo sites, they are usually free. They have thousands of images, usually free to use as reference, so it is a worthwhile investment, if you need excellent source for photographs. Just make sure before you sign in, that they do deliver what you are looking for.

There are many other sites out there and you might have other preferred reference sites. Please tell us which site you are using by adding a comment to this post.


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