Artwork Based on Artist’s Photos: Why it’s So Important

Artwork Based on Artist’s Photos: Why it’s So Important

Today, I’d like to take a brief break from the usual topics to discuss a matter of great importance to artists submitting artwork to exhibits, contests, and showcases. What is it? Why it’s so important to submit only artwork based on artist’s photos.

I want to discuss this partly because of a decision relating to the online galleries hosted here. What’s the decision? Beginning January 1, 2024, I will be accepting only artwork based on artist’s photographs.

But I’m not the only publisher or art event organizer to do this. Many other organizers have also made this decision, and it’s important for artists to understand why.

So let’s talk about that.

Why I Accept Only Artwork Based on Artist’s Photos

There are a lot of factors to consider for any images presented in a publication of any type. Those factors go beyond simply having the photographer’s permission to use their photography for the creation of art.

There are also a lot of different ways to get into legal trouble, and some of those never appear on the artist’s radar. I know that because I had forgotten some of the following information until I started doing a little research.

So it’s time to share with you what I learned with the hope that we all benefit. Let’s start with getting permission.


Most of us know that whenever we want to use someone else’s photography, we should get permission from the photographer.

Did you also realize that you need the photographer’s permission for the artwork to be published and promoted in any form?

But that’s only the beginning.

If a person appears in the photograph, that person also needs to give permission. If the purpose is a portrait, that permission is usually easily given.

However, they also must grant permission to have their likeness published. The more well-known the person, the more important that is. That’s why some artists who specialize in fan art (artwork based on public personalities) sometimes get into trouble. They didn’t get permission either to create the artwork or publish it.

In fact, if you draw a movie character, you may run into difficulty with the movie company. Not even sports figures are a good idea. Teams and other related organizations may not be pleased with the publication of your artwork.

Publishing includes posting on social media as well as in online galleries and magazines.

Animals as Well as People

Sometimes, pets also fall into that category. For example, artists cannot draw many famous race horses without permission. Obviously, the animal doesn’t care, but the owners and others connected to that animal may care. The fact is, they may care enough to enforce their wishes legally.

I have some pretty good photographs of the 1977 Triple Crown winner Seattle Slew. I took the photographs myself while visiting the farm where Slew lived out his post-race days. When I was thinking about painting his portrait, I contacted the farm to see if they had a problem with creating any artwork. They didn’t, but I decided not to do that painting anyway.

This is one more reason why it’s safer from a legal standpoint to limit eligible artwork to artwork based on the artist’s own photography.

Locations and Trademarks, Too

Believe it or not, there are a lot of landmarks and trademarks that will get you into legal problems if you recreate them in artwork.

The Nike Swoosh ad the Coca-Cola logo are both easily recognizable symbols. Use them in artwork and you may be subject to legal problems.

Some well-known buildings may also be subject to limitations on how they can be used in artwork, even if you do use your own photographs.

Do I Ever Allow Exceptions?

Yes. Sometimes, artwork based on the photographs of family and friends is acceptable.

For special purposes, artwork based on photographs provided by clients is acceptable. These “special purposes” are usually reserved for tutorials.

When there are exceptions, they will be noted in the rules. That’s why it’s so important to review the rules thoroughly any time you want to submit artwork, whether it’s here or somewhere else.

The Bottom Line

There are other reasons why for my decision, but these reasons are the most basic and the most often overlooked.

Many times, we may create an artwork thinking that we’re honoring a person, place or thing, only to discover that someone viewed it as copyright infringement. In such cases, the artist is liable. So is anyone else who publishes or promotes that image in any way.

Friends, that means me, as well as you.

That’s the main reason why I’ve made the decision to accept only artwork based on the photography of the artist.

I hope this encourages you to start creating that kind of artwork. If not, and if you choose not to submit artwork, I will be sorry to have that happen.

But I hope that’s not what you decide to do.

Read the Reader Gallery rules here and the showcase rules here. And if you have any questions, please ask!

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  1. Teresa

    Informative. Thank you. I was wondering, what about if we use photos that we purchased, such as from…..will we be able to use those if we prove they have been purchased and thus have permission to use? Just wondered….thanks

    1. Teresa,

      Those types of photos are another way to go, especially if you’re drawing things you don’t ordinarily have access to.

      But you still run the risk that other artists have purposed the same photo and may also submit work based on that photo.

      So for the purpose of my publications, I’m going to have to stick with the artist’s photos only rule. That makes things easier to explain to artists who are thinking about submitting artwork.

      Thank you for your question, though. That’s a reference photo source I hadn’t thought of mentioning.

  2. Kim Vlahovich


    Good for you. I think that’s a great idea!

    I would think that everyone can not only understand, but appreciate and support your decision to use our own work, to create our own work.
    Especially in this day and age.

    We have the tools at hand to seek out and create our own reference material by simply using a cell phone for example if a person does not have a camera at their disposal.
    I also believe that by using your own reference, you can take great comfort and pride knowing that your completed artwork is 100% yours, original and true to the likeness in which it was captured, even if artistic license has been taken to modify or adjust your original reference in any manner that you deem fit.
    With that, we can proudly put our work out there for sale or for show without concern for any repercussions coming into play.

    Using our own reference make’s it so much more rewarding and in my opinion helps fuel the creative process by looking at things around you and embracing an image that you see at a specific moment as opposed to surfing the web until you find an image that strikes your fancy.
    It’s great to see what’s out there and can provide a person with endless inspiration, but the rush I get when an idea comes to mind, or I see an image that I can capture, and create in my own way…that is just something that can’t be beat.

    Kim Vlahovich

  3. Françoise

    I agree with Carrie’s policy but I’d like to point out to (over)enthusiastic artists that those of us who specialize in animal drawing (especially wildlife) will have a hard time taking their own photos…
    In fact, this is why I’m now sentenced to a “pet only” magazine life (if I ever get one).
    Considering that we can indeed buy photos from reputable artists, it’s a shame we’ll never be allowed to publish our artwork.

    1. Francoise,

      Thank you for taking the time to share your thoughts.

      I understand your dilemma perfectly. When I started marketing my art, I was a portrait artist specializing in horses. I thoroughly enjoyed horse racing and loved painting and drawing race horses in action.

      But I had no access to tracks, and had to rely on the owners of the horses I wanted to paint or on the photographers who photographed them. I was fortunate to make good contacts with both groups of people and got some excellent photos from which to create portraits.

      But like you, that meant my work was unacceptable for most exhibits and online shows (not that there were many online shows back then.)

      You’re not the only artist who has told me they purchase reference photos from professional photographers or from websites that provide reference photos for artistic use. I have no problem with that. I’m glad to have that resource available to artists.

      The difficulty I face as a publisher is when two artists who have used the same reference photo submit work that’s very similar. Yes, that has happened in the short amount of time I’ve been publishing the magazine.

      I see two possible solutions to this problem.

      The first is for artists to work with photographers who will sell their images only once. I can’t give you any names, but I do know they are out there.

      The second possible solution is for me to publish an issue that allows images created based on paid-for reference photos purchased from reliable sources.

      Both solutions are worth considering.

      Thank you again for your candor in explaining your situation. I do understand your point-of-view, having been there myself.


  4. Françoise

    Hi Carrie,

    Although I can see your point, I don’t understand how the whole list of permissions pertains to the subject. I mean, we will run into the exact same hurdles as professional (or productive amateur) photographers do, so how is our using our own photos going to make any difference in this respect ?
    In fact, I’m pretty sure that the photos we would buy or download from Pixabay and such would have been checked out properly, whereas ours won’t…

    1. Purchased photographs are more likely to be legal than the photos from royalty-free websites. Most images from royalty-free websites are also legal, but there have been cases in which users copied images from the internet, then uploaded them to royalty-free sites as their own work. There are ways to find out who the actual photographer is, but for my own purposes, it’s easier and more efficient to work from my own photographs.

      Yes, when artists take their own photographs, they are required to get all the necessary releases in writing before they can use their image for artwork or for other purposes IF there is an identifiable person, an identifiable property (that includes pets), an identifiable trademark, or copywrited material in the photograph.

      And yes, that could present a lot of paperwork. That’s why so many photographers who photograph people carry model releases with them. It’s also a good reason why pet portrait artists should carry property releases with them when they photograph pets.

      So if you have to do the same amount of legal legwork with your own photographs, why bother? The main difference is that you can be absolutely certain of having all the necessary releases when you use your own photographs. You may need to spend extra time confirming that photographers on any photo website have acquired all the necessary releases. That may be only a few minutes, or it may run into hours.

      If you’d like more information on using royalty-free images, check out this article.

      One final thought. If you want to work with a photo website that accepts work only from photographers who can provide the necessary releases for every image they upload, check out Kaboompics. Their selection is more limited than sites like Pixabay or Unsplash, but they have some beautiful images.

      1. Françoise

        Hi Carrie,
        Thanks for the link to Kaboompics – I had never heard of this particular site.

        What makes things even more difficult is that legal matters don’t carry across countries.

        Being French, if I meant (hoped? 😉 ) to have stuff published in an American magazine, I suppose I would have to take both countries’ laws into account (shooting myself in the head would be an easier way out haha)… especially so since French laws are extremely complicated as regards copyright (don’t even get me started on which buildings you’re allowed to draw without legal permission).

        PS Being initially a professional translator, I am a stickler for copyright laws (for obvious reasons).

        1. Francoise,

          You’re welcome. I hadn’t heard of Kaboompics until I read the article I also linked to in my previous comment.

          You are absolutely right about legal matters being different from country to country. You are probably right that when submitting work for publication or exhibit in another country, you would have to be aware of the legal issues in both countries. That’s one thing I never thought about until I started publishing the magazine.

          I didn’t know you were once a professional translator. That’s fantastic. What a unique occupation.

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