3 Ways to Work with Copyrighted Images

Artists today have access to millions of images that spark imagination, seed inspirations, or simply serve as references for studies. I frequently use this wealth of “free” images to work through issues in my own practice, particularly when studying figure painting.

Since hiring a model is currently beyond my budget and attending life drawing sessions doesn’t give me the artistic control I desire, working from reference photos gleaned off the internet has been a valuable addition to my painting practice.

But the risk of infringing upon a photographer’s copyright is high.

The trick is to alter your original artwork enough that it is “unrecognizable” from the copyrighted image. There’s no real clear definition in copyright law where the line of recognition is drawn. So it’s best to air on the conservative side and breathe as much personal artistic intent into the image to make it truly your own.

There are many ways to do this. Below I will demonstrate 3 techniques I’ve personally used in my own work to extrapolate beyond the reference image.

1.Flip & Crop

Drastically editing the composition changes how we see an image. This is the easiest change to make. However, it doesn’t always pass the “unrecognizable” test. Since I was using an image that was categorized as an artist drawing reference, I felt safe in making these simplest of adjustments.

Photo Reference.

I took the painting a few steps further by infusing it with energetic brushwork and a colorful background.  As I continued to work on this figure study, a story began to unfold.

Tai Chi 9×12″ oil painting on birch wood panel. ©2017 Brooke Walker-Knoblich

The model in my painting was pushing at the boundaries of the composition in a really interesting way. It felt as though he was moving energy around in his 8×10″ frame. As his head came into focus, it felt natural to change his ethnicity to make a stronger reference to Tai Chi energy movements.

Looking at the two images side-by-side it’s obvious that my painting used the photo as a reference. But I believe the changes I made (in composition, color, and feeling) are enough to make my painting original again.

2.Change the Portrait

As a portrait painter, it’s important to me that I capture a likeness, as well as the spirit, of the person I am painting.

But with these figure study paintings, I’m more interested in capturing the proportions and energy of the human body, than a portrait of a particular person.

When the portrait is of little consequence, changing it is the easiest way to take ownership of the subject and intent of my painting.

Photo Reference.

I was inspired by the dynamic, triangular nature of this pose. Using a limited palette of Raw Umber, Sienna, and Titanium White, I played with the monochromatic effects of infusing the black and white image with transparent and opaque colors.

Alexandria. 8×10″ oil on birch wood panel. ©2017 Brooke Walker-Knoblich

The afro arose spontaneously when I began to darken the top edge of the background and I liked it so much, I pushed the ethnicity change.

The portrait is completely made up. It was a challenge in and of itself, I rarely work from my imagination alone.

I intentionally turned the face towards the viewer and gave her a serious expression that feels empowered, not coy.

Photo Reference

I also changed the portrait of “Au Naturel” from the original reference image above.

Au Naturel 10×10″ oil painting on birch wood panel. ©2017 Brooke Walker-Knoblich

The model’s look in the photo felt too “come hither” for my taste. So I re-imagined her as a red-head and gave her a dreamy, peaceful expression. It’s an expression I’ve often witnessed in a live model, deep into a session. There’s a subtle sparkle of intelligence and mystery there.


3. Environment is Everything

Changing the image environment (background, atmosphere, lighting, etc.)  is the most fool-proof way to avoid copyright infringement.

Add or subtract enough elements and it will pass the “unrecognizable” test.

Photo Reference

I was inspired by the elegance of this pose and the subtle color variations in her skin. I decided to eliminate everything else in the composition to focus on these elements.

Of the Earth. 10×10″ oil painting on birch wood panel. ©2017 Brooke Walker-Knoblich.

I changed the colors and darkened the atmosphere to obscure all the distinguishing details, like her headscarf, tattoo, and profile.

The changes made to the overall ambience and environment of the image dramatically effect the overall feel and intent of the image.

In Closing…

If you want to pursue the subject further, Alan Bamberger serves excellent analogistic advice on many subjects. I recommend this piece as a follow-up to my post.

All of these paintings are part of my intentional practice studies. I’ve painted from life long enough to enable me to see beyond the limitations of a two-dimensional photo.

That being said, working from photographs alone will not further your art practice. There really is no substitute for the real thing.




My original oil paintings are for sale from my website.

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