Before using the following list of online image resources, consider all the dangers and pitfalls of painting from other people’s (or any online) photographs.  (See my February 26, 2019 blog titled “Properly Using a Photograph as a Painting Reference”,,  to learn about the pros and cons of reference photos.)

Use caution if an image is not your original work.  You should assume that any image you find online is protected by copyright unless you see evidence that the creator has given permission to use the image in a certain way.  Under federal law, a photographer has the sole right to copy and distribute the photos she or he takes.  You CANNOT use or publish a work without the creator’s consent.  Usage rights tell you whether the image creator has allowed use of that image and under what conditions.

Types of USAGE RIGHTS include:

FAIR USE allows you to use a copyrighted image without permission, either for your personal and educational purposes or for the public good.  You can, however, transform the image into something new!   If you turn a copyrighted image into a COMPLETELY new work, you can use that image freely.

CREATIVE COMMONS NON-PROFIT provides free copyright licenses for creators.  The copyright holder can determine several things with these licenses:

  • whether you need to credit the holder for the image (for example, photos from “”)
  • whether you can use that image for commercial purposes
  • whether you can modify that image
  • what license you must use if you modify that image.

(Google and Flickr allow you to filter search results by searching for images with a specific creative commons license.)

PUBLIC DOMAIN means that the creator has given up the copyright willingly or that the copyright has expired.  Copyrights expire seventy years after the death of the creator.  Thus, you are free to use PUBLIC DOMAIN images any way you’d like.  (Wikipedia Commons has a large database of images in the public domain.)

Some websites allow you to use “stock” photos.  Some stock photos are available for purchase; others may be free.  When you buy a stock photo, you are buying the right to use a copyrighted image.  Rights can vary, so read a license agreement closely.  (,, and are examples of stock photo sites.)

Here is a selected list of websites (that I have used in the past) offering free-to-use photos.  Search what you are looking for, and you will find thousands of possible photos that you can use.  (The more specific your search terms, the more success you will have in finding what you are looking for.)


These are just some free sites.  Things change all the time online, though, so expect new sites to appear and others to change.

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