Looking for Inspiration?

Whenever possible, I like taking photographs and using them as references for my landscapes. Fortunately we have some beautiful, scenic parks in the area, such as nearby North Park, and our Harrisonville City Park.

But, what happens when I want to paint a rugged mountain scene? And each summer, as I re-read my beloved tale of Treasure Island and want to paint ocean waves and deserted islands? Where do I turn for references?

Sometimes I ask friends or family members for photos I can use, but even then it might be hard to find a suitable reference. That’s when I get online and visit an online website for royalty-free photos. These sites have millions of photographs covering a wide variety of subjects — and, no, I’m not exaggerating the numbers.

Since I’m now getting involved in many different art shows, it was important for me to know and understand how to legally find and use reference photos through the web. Here’s what I’ve learned.

Photos for reference have a special use license attached. It could be a “Creative Commons Zero License” or an “Attribution License”. With either of these, you are allowed to use the photo as a reference for any kind of artwork you want to make. You are also allowed to sell the art you have created, to make and sell reproductions of your art, or to use the art in any commercial design — all without asking permission. If the photograph has an “Attribution License”, you will need to credit the owner, however.

So, here are a few sites that offer thousands of photo reference possibilities. Just for fun, I visited each site and did a quick search for ocean waves, then chose a photo that appealed to me. Take a look at the results:


This site has more than half a million photos, all available for use by artists. It’s spectacular. Just browsing around will give you a big jolt of inspiration!

Rock Formation


Need more than half a million photos to look at? Head to Pixabay where you’ll find over a million images that are free to use without attribution. The site is easy to use, too.


Fotor and Flickr

I’m putting these sites together because they’re related, and while they’re popular with many artists, I find them both a bit confusing and complicated. The photo collection is massive — over 3,000,000 images. Fotor itself is more of a photo-editing service, and the Flickr site is currently not accepting new sign-ups, so there could be changes in the works. With Flickr, you’ll want to visit “The Commons”, a collection of photographs that have “no known copyright restrictions.”

Flickr Ocean waves


One of my favorites! It has about 40,000 images — but who’s really counting? Everything is free for personal and commercial use. I loved this soft, sunrise look at the ocean.



It’s quality over quantity here, so searching won’t provide a lot of results. Images that you do find, however, are apt to be stunning. The site appears to be connected to, or at least sponsored in part by Shutterstock, so you’ll find lots of their photos popping up along with free trial offers. A little searching, though, will lead to royalty-free images. It was at Gratisography that I found this gorgeous scene which I hope to use in a painting:


Wikimedia Commons

Not my favorite site for photo references, but you might find just what you’re looking for. I didn’t find much with my search for ocean waves.


Public Domain Pictures

I had to do a bit of searching at this site to actually find free photos.

ocean-1562813077z2D (1)

ISO Republic

This is one of my favorites. It’s easy to use, easy to search, and easy to find accurate licensing information.

Ocean Sunset

Public Domain Archive 

This was a difficult site to maneuver. I had to select Categories before a search box came up. My search term ocean waves produced no results.

Morgue File

Despite the rather gruesome-sounding name, this site is one of the top places for finding reference photos. Honestly, though, it’s not on my list of favorites. Although it has thousands of images, it also has a lengthy terms and conditions page, along with its own Morguefile license agreement. The license makes it possible to download images for personal and commercial use so long as they’re modified in some way. Just reading through it all was a bit tiresome, but I did find a nice photo reference.

Rocky Shore

This quick look at photo reference sites is exactly that — a quick look. I’ve included many of the most popular sites, and there are many, many more. As you can see from the photos I’ve included in this post, it’s easy to find a lot of good references in a very short time, especially when you have an idea or a specific subject in mind.

Although I won’t attempt using all of these photo references in my art, there are a few that have definitely inspired me. I hope you’ve found a bit of inspiration, too.




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