Is It OK To Draw From Photos? 5 Pros and Cons

Is it okay to draw from photos? That depends on what your definition of okay is. Is drawing a photo copyright infringement? No, since a drawing is not a copy of a photo, it's a new medium, therefore a new interpretation of the subject matter. So, you can find a photo online, draw it, then call it your own. 

This is very appealing to artists for a number of reasons, the main one being having access to a limitless supply of photo reference that they can work from. Now, while drawing from someone else's photo may not be a copyright infringement, but as an artist, shouldn't you want to create an original vision of your own? 

Isn't copying something that another artist created, and photography is art, something that you should avoid? How would you feel if you took an amazing photo, then you found out that an artist drew that photo, and essentially stole credit for your vision?

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Why Do Artists Draw From Photos Taken By Other Photographers?

Is it OK to Draw From Photos
Is it OK to Draw From Photos

If you ask most artists that try to create realistic looking drawings or painting, they'll admit that they use photo reference. Some artists use it extensively, and others use it here and there when the situation calls for it. The point is that it's very rare to find an artist that can create a realistic-looking drawing or painting without the use of photo reference. 

Now, some artists take their own photos and use those for photo reference, and there are a lot of advantages to doing this. For one thing, you have complete control of the composition and lighting that you're working with. For another thing, the concept you photograph will be completely original, so you won't have to deal with the moral dilemma of whether or not it's okay to use another artist's work as a reference for your own.

If it's so advantageous to take your own photo reference, why don't all artists do it? With today's technology taking photos is easier than ever before. In the past, if you wanted to take a photo, the first thing you'd have to do is buy a camera. Next, you'd either have to buy film or pay to have prints made if you were using a digital camera. A quality camera could be quite expensive, placing it out of reach for many people. Today, things are quite different. Today most people carry a smartphone with a camera that's more powerful than many high-end cameras from years ago. 

That means that if you want to take a photo, it's a simple matter of pulling your camera out and snapping what interests you. As an artist, you should always have your phone ready, so you can take a picture of something that inspires you since you never know what you'll see when you're going about your day.

While always being ready to take a photo is a good idea, actually finding something that interests you enough to want to draw or paint it later is a bit harder. This is why many people turn to use photo reference that they find online. Instead of trying to hope you come across something that inspires you and is useful, you can go online and search for it. You could even go online and search for random photos and find out that inspires you to think of something you may not have otherwise thought of, then you can create an original work of art based upon your newfound inspiration.

Pros of Drawing From Photographs

Mimic Your Favorite Artist

They say that imitation is the sincerest form of flattery, and that's certainly true when it comes to art. There isn't an artist alive today that hasn't been influenced by those that came before them. As an artist, you should never think that you're good enough. You should never stop learning. That doesn't mean that you have to be self-critical to the point where you don't get anything done, but the day that you think you know it all is the day you stop growing creatively. 

What's the point here? The point is that by working from photographs, you have the ability to mimic your favorite artist. Some artists will stop here; they'll work and hone their craft until they get to the point where they can produce a fairly accurate copy of their original artist's work. But, many artists that start out mimicking the work of others will then take what they learn during the mimicking phase, then use that to add their own interpretation to the artist they are studying.

If you have an artist or a group of artists that you admire and would aspire to be like, then producing copies of their work is a great starting point. When you learn how they did what they did, you'll be able to do far more than copy their work, you'll be able to create original works of your own based on their style and technique. This article is the property of As time goes on, you can move further away from your source material and begin to develop a unique style. Who knows, maybe one day your style will be so distinct that nobody will ever know that you started out by mimicking another artist.

Try Out Different Drawing Techniques

Most artists have an established style that they tend to stick to. It's normal to want to stay in your comfort zone. After all, it takes quite a while to produce an original piece of art, at least it does for most artists. So, if you're going to invest a lot of time into something, you want to give yourself the best chance of getting it right. So, you stick to what you know, and you produce quality work. But, playing it safe has its drawbacks, namely that you won't grow and develop.

One great way to force yourself to try new things is to start looking at what other artists are doing, then try to incorporate some of their techniques into what you do. The artist Nolan Clark has created an entire drawing course based on the idea of developing your understanding of different drawing techniques. Click here to find out more about these courses visit online art lessons. 

While you could play it safe and start looking at artists that do work similarly to what you already produce, playing it safe is boring! Instead, start looking into artists that do things that are very different from what you do. Look for artists that produce abstract art when you produce realistic art. Look at artists who paint with watercolor when you, yourself, are an oil painter. The point is that you should think outside the box and force yourself to work outside of your comfort zone.

Learning new techniques is challenging, but it's also a lot of fun. How can you be sure that you're using a new technique you've learned the right way? One easy way is by producing copies of famous artwork that makes use of that technique. If you can produce a copy of a drawing or painting using techniques that you want to emulate, then you should be able to take that technique and incorporate it into your original works.

Many Different Styles Of Art To Choose From

Another major pro for using photos that you find online is the enormous variety that you have to choose from. While the internet has its limits, for all intents and purposes, the amount of material you can find online is infinite. You can find just about any style of art you can imagine, and you can find thousands of examples. 

You can choose to study different visual artists that work with the same mediums that you would like to learn more about and emulate. Or, you could stick to looking for photos to work from people, places, or things. Using photo manipulation software, you can even edit, alter, and combine photos that you find to create unique compositions that you can then draw or paint.

Develop Your Understanding Of Drawing And Painting

If you want to be great at anything, what do you have to do? You have to practice. You have to practice a lot. While it's true that there are some rare individuals that have enough raw talent to get by without having to practice, but for the vast majority of us reaching our goals will involve a lot of time spent at the drawing table. Now, as an artist, you probably love it whenever you get a chance to hone your craft, so don't let the fact that you'll have to spend a lot of time practicing dissuade you. This is something to be celebrated! While you're working on improving your techniques, you should take the time to build a solid foundation. You need to crawl before you can walk, then walk before you can run. What does that mean?

What this means is that before you are capable of reaching your full potential, you'll need a solid foundation first. What that foundation is will depend on what kind of artist you are. For example, if you draw the human figure, then a solid understanding of anatomy, and how light and shadows play on the human form is a must.

If you work in color, then you need to understand color theory. What does all of this have to do with drawing or painting from photos?

It has everything to do with drawing from photos. When you draw from photos, you can study just about any art style or other subject matter that you can imagine. You can learn by observing, imitating, and adapting. Always remember that you can't skip steps. There aren't any shortcuts. You won't get up one day then magically have an amazing drawing or painting skills, you'll have to develop them. It's going to take hard work and dedication, but imagine the sense of satisfaction that you'll feel once you reach your goals.

Cons Of Drawing From Photos

The main drawback of drawing from photos involves the possibility that you'll be violating copyright laws. If you produce a nearly perfect replica of a drawing or painting, and you attempt to sell it or sell prints of it, then you could be in violation of copyright law. The general explanation is that any copy or slightly altered copy of an original work of art violates the rights of the artist. Now, copyright law is violated all of the time by artists that draw copyrighted material then sell it for small sums of money. Most big companies won't spend the time and money to pursue claims against these kinds of violations, but that still doesn't make it right. As an artist yourself, you should be sympathetic to the rights of other artists and always side with them and their right to have their work protected.

Now, copying a drawing or painting is one thing, copying a photo by using a different medium such as graphite or paint is an entirely different issue. Could a copyright holder file a lawsuit against you for creating a drawing or painting based on a photo that they took? Sure. Are they likely to do it? Probably not. Most photographers recognize the fact that drawings and paintings are unique forms of art, and a drawing or painting based upon or inspired by a photo isn't a violation of their rights. If you produce a photorealistic painting that copies a copyrighted photo, you may have some issues, but for the most part, basing a drawing or painting on someone else's photographs is a low-risk proposition.

The other con of drawing from photos that someone else takes is that you'll be building on the work of another artist. If you create a replica or a slightly altered image based on a photo, you're copying their work. You aren't making a statement yourself, you're simply retreading what was done before you. 


Now, copying the work of someone else is fine, but only if you're doing it so you can learn their processes then apply those processes to your own work. The bottom line is that when you draw from a photo, and you intend to claim it as work of your own, make sure that you alter it enough so that it becomes something original. 


Ian Walsh is the creator and author of and an Art teacher based in Merseyside in the United Kingdom. He holds a BA in Fine Art and a PGCE in teaching Art and Design. He has been teaching Art for over 24 Years in different parts of the UK. When not teaching Ian spending his time developing this website and creating content for the improvedrawing channel.

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