Using Stock Photos in Artwork


Thinking about using someone else’s photograph in your next art piece? Here’s a breakdown of why, how, and where to source stock images, without getting into trouble.

Why Use Stock Photos in Your Artwork?

The debate often heats up. Is it ok to use someone else’s work instead of creating your composite artwork entirely yourself? Is it laziness? Is it cheating? Truth is, art is art. And if you can wow or touch someone with artwork that contains the work of different artists, then that’s fair game.

Using someone else’s work as part of your own work is 100% your prerogative as an artist, and you can have 100 reasons to do so. The idea is intriguing, to say the least… marrying the creative work of different artists, who are unrelated, probably never will meet, and created their art for different reasons- into a single new art piece.

Different Ways of Using Stock Photos in Artwork

Usually, you can use stock photos in artwork in three different ways:

As part of a digital art piece

One common way of using stock photos is to incorporate them, integrally or partially, into a Photoshop composition (or another photo editing platform) of your own.

For artistic reference

A very common way of using stock photos is for artistic reference, where you base your physical painting or sculpture off a purchased photograph. Even if you don’t really integrate the stock photo into your creation or you only partially replicate it, you are still required to obtain a license for that image. It’s not just a legal obligation, you’re also supporting a fellow creative.

As part of a physical art piece

This is the least common way of using stock photos, but some artists have created amazing collages or other artworks with printouts of stock photos.

How to Find Stock Photos for Your Artwork

Before you can start searching for stock photography, you need to know what you’re looking for. You can start by creating a sketch of what you are hoping to create, and then base your search on that sketch. You can also browse stock photography websites or even online art communities like DeviantArt. In fact, on DeviantArt, you can both get inspired by other artists’ work or you can actually purchase stock photography by fellow creatives.

There are two ways to go about finding stock photos. You can try your luck at finding free images under creative commons or public domain. Or you can choose the safest option (with the biggest choice) and purchase a license for the image of your choice.

Creative Commons and public domain

If you don’t know what creative commons or public domain means, then you should read up about it before venturing on the thin ice that is free stock photos. Plenty of articles about that on the net. If you’re inclined to go the ‘free way’ then you have plenty of options online. Websites like Morguefile, Life of Pix, Unsplash, Picjumbo, and the likes offer free-to-use images. Make sure you read all the fine print before downloading. Another downside of this kind of website is that the quality and choice of images are usually rather limited.

Your Best Bet: Stock Photo Licensing

The best choice is still to purchase a license for stock photos. They’re usually not that expensive and owning a proper license to use the image will protect you against lawsuits or requests to take your artwork down. Also, you’ll get access to nearly limitless collections of suitable and high-quality images.

Still, also here it’s advised to take the time to read the licensing conditions. You often have to choose between different licenses so it’s important to purchase the right one and understand its limitations. You’ll need to purchase an extended license if you want to sell artwork that uses a stock image. Why? Because, even if you use only a part of the stock photo or you somehow alter the image, the stock photo is considered an essential part of your artwork that makes it valuable for sale.


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