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Drawing Famous Faces & Copyright Info for Artists


Ink (Pentel brush pens) in Aquabee Deluxe 6×9 sketchbook
To enlarge, click image, select All Sizes

My painting group buddies Lea and Susie are taking a monthly portraiture class from local artist Myrna Wacknov. One of the homework assignments they’ve worked on during our painting group sessions is to take two sheets of watercolor paper and divide each into 8 sections using strips of tape. Then on one they draw the same person 8 times using different colors, techniques, lighting, etc. on each image. On the other they do eight different people but unify them in some way. Judith isn’t taking the class but jumped in anyway and is painting a sheet of 8 angelic portraits of George Harrison from an old Rolling Stone cover.

Then I found the book “In Character: Actors Acting” at the library, with 250 pages of photos of character actors’ faces showing every kind of expression and feeling. I couldn’t resist joining in. I bought a used copy of the book and plan to go through it, flipping it open to a page and making drawings or paintings in my sketchbook. This is the first one. There were two photos of this guy on the same page and I got distracted and accidentally drew his left eye from one photo and the right eye from the other photo. He was looking in different directions in the two photos–he’s not really wall-eyed, poor guy.

Copyright issues:
I did some research about whether I need copyright permission to use these photos in drawings. The answer is yes and no… BUT since I doubt anything I draw will look “substantially similar” to the original photo (or the person I’m drawing!), I’m probably OK.

Here’s what I learned on a page about copyright rules for illustrators:
Q: What are the rules when it comes to illustrating celebrities?
First of all, if you’re not working from your own photographs or memory, you need to obtain permission from the photographer who created the photo you will be using as reference material. (You do not need to get permission from photographers if you create portraits or caricatures based on dozens of photographs from different sources and you are careful to not to include elements that would make it obvious you copied from a particular photograph.)

Q: Can I use someone else’s photograph as reference material for a painting I’m creating?
If you’re copying a photograph, you must get the photographer’s permission…Even though it’s in a different medium, you’re violating the photographer’s copyright if you copy a photograph in your painting.
To constitute a copyright infringement, a “copy” must be “substantially similar” to the original work. If your finished illustration looks different from any of the originals you used as a reference material, you shouldn’t need to obtain permission.

19 replies on “Drawing Famous Faces & Copyright Info for Artists”

Good for you Jana in posting some information about copyright and celebrity portraits.

I do find it incredibly difficult to understand how some web forums take a very strong stance on copyright issues re members posting images for everything except celebrity portraits. Maybe because so many of their members want to do them? If that’s the case then that stance seems to me to be a bit like the “….but everybody does it so it must be OK” line. And we all know what our mothers used to say about that rationale! šŸ˜‰


Such a lot of great posts this past week, Jana. The Japanese day sounds wonderful. I’m leaving tomorrow. I will have so many of your ‘lessons’ and musings in my mind as I pedal. I did do some long rides but not much cycling for 20 years. It feels so much better to be fit and bendable. Back soon. Alison


Beautiful painting! I admit I feel very uneasy over copyright. I’m sure the laws are different in the UK too but the whole issue is too complicated and open to misinterpretation. DH says it’s OK as long as you credit the artist/photographer so you are not passing off the work as your own and I’ve also read that it’s OK up to a point if you are not selling the work or using it for promotional purposes. Still, though, I feel uneasy about my Tom Cruise drawing and yet if you look at the work on Flickr, the amount of work copied from photos is staggering. It would keep lawyers busy for decades to come. I wonder if I should remove that portrait?


Katherine and Felicity,
From my understanding I think that the issue (at least in the US) is less about who the subject is and more about the fact that the photographer and/or the publisher owns the rights to the photograph. The book says the photos may not be reproduced in any fashion without permission so the question is really “am I reproducing the photographers artwork?” or “am I using it for inspiration but making something that would not be recognized as a copy of a particular photograph?” I think as long as I’m not selling the work and it doesn’t read as a copy of the photo there’s no problem.

But if I were trying to render a drawing to look as close as possible to the photo and if the photo was such a unique image of the celebrity so as to be recognizable as a particular photographer’s artwork, then selling it would be a problem. But putting it on a blog? For the publisher to go after someone who did that would just be crazy and I don’t think they have that kind of time and resources. Just think of all the copies of Elvis on everything from black velvet to toilet seat covers! I’m sure they were all from someone’s photo! I’m tempted to write and request permission too, but in my experience from doing that at work, publishers often charge quite a bit for the right per page. I’m just going to be careful to use the images as inspiration rather than make recognizable copies.


nice sketch jana!. this is a good idea. I need to work on heads and expressions myself. The book you found sounds great. Love the copyright info….
So what about Elizabeth Peyton, the NY painter who paints pictures of celebrities and images from magazines? She sells them for thousands.
I just saw her show at Regen Projects in LA. (It was v. nice)


Thanks for posting that information. I think that as long as one does not derive INCOME or recognition or the art is posted prominently in any cover or publication (with no mentionof the author) , the photographer needs to authorize the specific use for derivative works. It involes anyway his/her time, resources, artistic vision and anything he used to create the photograph. I don’t consider a blog such an important publication unless the blogger has a big following — define BIG, right?- in which case he wuld need to seek approval. I guess, that is my take on this. I don’t fall on any of those categories, so I think I am in no trouble. I am an amateur photographer also and would not liek to see my work used to derive income without my consent.


To clear up a couple of issues left in the comment… It does not matter if you make an income or not off of what you copied, it is still copyright infringement. Crediting the copyright holder also does not release you from copyright infringement unless something has a certain Creative Commons license. This is true in most industrialized countries do to the international Berne Convention. Fair Use (which is a USA only concept) is a tricky subject also because it is not clearly define in the law because it is more of a defense used to try to justify copyright infringement, judges really get to pick and choose when and where the arguement works on a case by case basis if.


hey hey, love the wall eyed portrait lol… yeah I am an artist as well. I do realism drawings…. recently I done a hendrix drawing… and unfortunately it’s pretty percise… I have only drawn his body which is head to knees without a guitar…. there is a considerable amount of background haha there that i did not draw… I dont suppose there is a percentage of the pic as a whole that would be required to be able to enforce the law? not that I am trying to get out of it but… not sure who did take the pic because I got it off the net…. and even if he’s still ALIVE…… any HELP would be greatly appreciated…


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Technically probably not, since I was copying somebody’s photos. But I doubt they’d care as I was just doing it for study purposes. Jana

On Fri, Apr 25, 2014 at 1:38 AM, wrote:



This is all because of “Hope” — the infamous portrait of Obama. Prior to that decision people used images, especially of famous people, for reference. I personally think this is a sham and hope that things get carried away to the point where architects and builders say you cannot take a picture of their building which they created without their written permission, or landscape architects say you can’t photograph their parks with out paying them a fee. Celebrities should be able to copyright their faces too, so no one can take any pictures without written permission. It has gotten out of hand. It is all because of a bad decision by the courts, because “Hope” was based on an image, not a rip-off of an image. But perhaps now things need to swing so far out that lawyers get tired and stop this nonsense. Copyright should be like porn, you know it when you see it. If you take my image and make copies and make money from it, then that is copyright infringement. If you are a student drawing faces, you should not think about this one bit, and be able to draw from images, any image. Plus, students routinely COPY famous pictures in developing their own style. This makes me mad. . . . Of course, not a Jana. The topic is infuriating.


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