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Is it bad to use a reference when making & drawing art? The beginner guide


Let’s See:- Is It Bad To Use A Reference In Drawing

This topic is a little bit blurry, and there’s no definitive answer to it. The things you are allowed to do when it comes to using reference depend on the laws where you live (which you may need to check out). The good thing is, there are some few rules & guidelines you could follow to protect yourself from committing a copyright violation without knowing it.

The best way to go about using a reference is to stay on the safe side as much as you can, as sometimes even pictures that don’t violate copyrights can get a lawsuit (more on that later), so staying on the safe side can save you a lot of trouble if this ever happened to you.

Using references the right way cannot just save you the trouble, but also pushes you toward becoming better, which is the goal for many of us.

Bear in mind I am not a lawyer, so this post comes from the point of view of an artist, and doesn’t constitute a legal advice. Just a bunch of guidelines I hope you find useful. I hope they help you avoid a lot of trouble in your journey to become a great artist.

Everything Is Copyrighted

Everything in the Internet is automatically copyrighted, from the moment it’s posted there. While this is kind of a known fact, it’s surprising how many people don’t know about it, and assume that they can use whatever they can find online.

It’s important to know that the images & artworks you can freely use however you want are the exception. Some of them will be mentioned later in this post.

Blindly Copying Other Drawing & Artworks Can Hamper Your Growth As An Artist

Copying other artworks is not exactly a bad thing if done right. The problem is, too many artist keep on blindly copying and cannot draw without referring to a photograph or some sort of reference. This may be totally okay if you’re just starting out, as it can help you observe the lines & shades in your references. But you need to grow past this stage eventually to become a good artist. In many cases, copied artworks tend to be stiff, and any possible mistakes the original artist made will be transferred to the one you copied, where the final goal should be the ability to fix these mistakes, and even makes all sorts of changes to make the final artwork completely yours (More on that later).

Picasso himself said that “Good Artists Copy; Great Artists Steal”. Based on that, copying can make you a good artist for a starter, making the artwork yours by artistfully changing it can make you a great artists.

A Better Way To Go About Using A Reference, The One That Helps You Improve

Let’s say you want to draw a cat, it could be because you like cats, or it could be the cat of one of your characters. I mentioned earlier that you could get a picture of a cat, and change a lot of it to make it yours. The issue is, for many new artists, this is not an easy thing to do.

One way to go about it is to get many pictures of cats, study the anatomy of these cats, the pattern in their fur & other things. Then draw a cat based on what you know from your observations. Granted, it’s unlikely going to work out the first time you do that, but being able to do that will open all sorts of doors to express yourself. The final artwork that came from that will likely be original, and you won’t have to worry about someone comparing it to any other picture. This is called sampling, and it’s a very legal thing to do. :>

Doing It The Safe Way Can Help You Grow As An Artist

Here’s a funny story that has to do with copyrights & resemblance. In 2016, the American actress Lindsay Lohan accused Rockstar games of using her picture in their famous game, GTA V. It turned out Rockstar used the picture of another actress. Eventually, the lawsuit was thrown out of the court. This case tells you how even by being on the safe side can still get you a lawsuit. Though doing your homework can save you the trouble of it.

The Perfect Crime

Since the correct use of reference has some sort of copying. It’s like perpetrating the perfect crime. One no one can discover since you actually did much of the job yourself. Even by doing that, someone can still come & claim that you copied a certain picture, which is why you need to learn how to alter the images you use to turn them into new artworks that only belongs to you.

One way you could go about it is to look at the reference(s), then draw your own later, without looking at the reference. You could use the reference to fix any possible mistakes at a later stage of creating the artwork or photo.

What Are Some Of The Safe Ways To Get Images To Use As Reference?

There are many methods you could get images & artworks to use as references, some of them allow you to sell the final image commercially if you want. The good thing about using their picture is, even if you failed to alter the image to make it yours, you are still safe, since you used something you were allowed to use in the first place.

Drawing From Life Is The First Good Option

Copying things from real life is an excellent way to avoid violate the copyright of other artists. They also say you become better that way compared to drawing from pictures. Just keep in mind that if you drew people, make sure that the people you drew can’t be recognized in your pictures, you could run into legal issues from doing that.

Since you may not be able to carry your drawing tools everywhere you go (especially if you draw using an easel, or you have a heavy pen display like Wacom Cintiq Pro). Shooting picture to use for your drawing can give you a huge amount of resources to use to your heart contents, all without worrying about copyright violation. Something you could face if by getting pictures from the Internet.

While writing this post, I was about to suggest that you shoot pictures of famous landmarks to use in your artworks. But according to this article, it turned out you can’t photograph certain landmarks for commercial use, like the Eiffel tower at night (I told you copyright is an blurry subject).

Safe Sources To Copy Art From:- Drawings & Artworks With Expired Copyrights (The Public Domain)



There are many places online where you could get pictures to use, modify, print without having to ask for permission. One of the sources I like to use is Pixelbay, which has a lot of public domain images, just make sure to check out the license on the side of the screen to know what’s allowed & what’s not. The picture of the book above was taken from there, and the Pixelbay license clearly stated I could use it commercially without attribution.

Any other trusted site with public domain pictures can be a great source for pictures to use to your heart contents. Public domain, after all, is for everyone to use

Creative Commons Pictures Is One More Place To Go

According to Wikipedia, “creative commons is an American non-profit organization devoted to expanding the range of creative works available for others to build upon legally”. In short, it’s a way for authors & artists to offer their work for others to adapt legally.


Just like the case with Public Domain, there are multiple types of Creative Common licenses you need to take note of, some allow to be used for non-commercial use, while some others allows for all sorts of use. Each common creative artwork license describes what you can & can’t do with it, sometimes in an easy to read language. Like the following terms taken from Wikipedia (a site I take many pictures I use in this blog from).


Many artworks in Deviant Art are available to be used by others. These artworks range from digital art & photographs. The key here is to find the ones that allows you to use it the way you want. Again, there’s a license section on the sidebar of many artworks & photos that tells you what you can or can’t do.

Note:- Some of the things I just mentioned about checking the license also applies for when you look for music to use. It benefited me a lot to find soundtracks to use for my Lolita Caramel visual novel. Specially since a can barely compose any musique myself. ^^

Asking For Permissions From The Original Can Open All Sorts Of Artworks For You To Learn From

If you asked for permission use their art, many artists would happily allow you to reuse their pictures, and can be delighted to do so (There was a time when someone asked for my permission to color on of my artworks. It made me feel like my drawing was appreciated). Some artists may pose restrictions on what you can & can’t do with the final artwork. I personally tend to require attribution & a link to the original picture. In case of a commercial use, I will ask few questions about the final work before making a decision. Many artists are new & don’t get enough spotlight, so this is a good chance for them to get some possible publicity too.

Some artists will refuse to let you use their pictures. In that case, you avoided a possible trouble had you used their work without a permission.

The main downside about asking for permission is that it can be time-consuming to do so. So it’s okay to stick to the other fast ways of getting references.

And Finally

The use of the work of other artists & photographers is surely a tricky subject. I apologize if you feel that I didn’t give you a definitive answer to the question you may have had when you came here, this is because there’s no definitive answer to many of the cases related to that.

As I kept saying in this post, when it comes to using reference for your artwork, it’s better safe than sorry. So make sure you get permission, use public domain sources. If you’re to use picture from any source, make sure you do enough modification to make it yours. As that will help you become a much better artist.

I hope I answered your question whether is it bad to use a reference when making & drawing art. See in another article~

See Also:-

I am an anime artist, and huge fan of digital art. I love drawing with pencils too. But I rarely do that anymore nowadays. Since some aspects of digital art can be tricky, I try my best to explain the concepts as easily as possible.


  1. I don’t agree with this article at all, I’m a beginner and I want to learn how to draw, I don’t care about copyrights or anything, intellectual property doesn’t exist. All I care is knowing if I copy others people drawing will it make me batter at drawing or will it make me dependent on drawing. You DON’T have to obey the law (in certain cases), slavery was legal some years ago, copyright doesn’t make sense and I’ll draw whatever I want.

    1. Sure, you can do what you want! If you’re doing it to practice at home, you don’t need to worry about copyright at all. But if you’re going to publish your stuff online, you may get caught in copyright issue if you’re not careful, specially if you’re a beginner. Either way, this post most mostly about using reference for creating original artworks, and not practicing & improving (although I touched on the topic of improvement quite a bit)

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