Hiring Portrait Models for Art Reference Photos

This post is broadly about reference images and where to get them, but really the purpose is to discuss my first experience actually paying someone to pose for painting references. Actually hiring portrait models for art reference photos, which seemed intimidating, but in reality was quite a nice experience. I’ve long relied on various royalty free image websites, such as Unsplash, Pexels, and Pixabay for generic references to draw and paint from. Recently, I’ve even used a few AI people generators to view some faces that don’t really exist. But I finally tried a different route, which was to pay someone, or in this case multiple someones, for a reference I could use for art. Despite my worries, this turned out to be a fantastic experience that produced hundreds of excellent references I can use in the future.

Pose list I printed and used for reference during the photo shoot. I gave a copy to each model as well.

Before I get into the basics, or into the details on my experience with reference models, I’ll caveat the usual way though by saying that I am a novice when it comes to painting. I don’t have any formal training, so any advice I give here mostly comes from some degree of trial and error. Take what I say with a grain of salt and give more weight to the experts. That being said, if you’re just practicing and not going to sell the painting or any other commercial use…well, my opinion is just use whatever you want. As long as you’re not profiting from it, I think you can paint what makes you happy and don’t worry about it. When you’re just practicing and not going to do anything with it, a painting study like this should be fine. However, if you may have a commercial use, things get more complicated.

I’m not an attorney, so obviously I’m not trying to give legal advice. But I think the basics are pretty clear – if you stand to make money from your artwork, you shouldn’t use something created by someone else without permission or licensing. It does get a little more complicated when you start getting into whether it was a “transformative work”, a parody, or some other things. But when things get sticky like that, I find it’s nice to just be safe about it. For example, when I wrote a book, if there was any gray area about something, I defaulted to not including it. I ended up leaving out quite a bit that I thought may have been okay, but I didn’t want to risk it.

So, let’s say you want to find references that you can potentially use for a commercial use. And you don’t want to pay for them. Well, there are a couple paths available. One, you can look towards royalty free image websites, like Unsplash, Pexels, and Pixabay that I mentioned before. The US Library of Congress also has a ton of free images, but they aren’t curated or organized as well as some other sites. I use Unsplash quite a bit, mostly because it’s the first one I stumbled onto. But they have some good stuff available and it’s organized pretty well. I also like how clearly Unsplash’s licensing and commercial use details are spelled out – basically, you’re free to use their images as the basis of artwork you sell, publish in a book, or whatever other creative ideas you might have.

The back of my Amdall Gallery business card, which includes a model release form. I’ve had these cards for years, but hadn’t actually used this part until recently. Again, I’m not a lawyer, but I figured having something down like this was better than nothing.

Another great option is you can take photos yourself. If you took the photos, then you also own the rights to them. Assuming you also have permission to use the likeness of the person in the photo too. I actually have a model release form on the back of my business card, which I’ll embed here. I’ve long had in the back of my mind that it would be useful to hire someone to get a bunch of reference photos. As a hobbyist, I can’t afford a real, professional model obviously, but I thought I might be able to pay a small amount to a regular person for a small amount of their time. But the big question is, how exactly to approach this in a way that’s safe, comfortable, and convenient for both me and the model?

This has been a vague thought for years, but without a reasonable path forward, I never took action. A couple years ago though, we moved to a neighborhood that has a pretty active private Facebook group, so I posted in the group to see if this was of interest to anyone. I provided a lot of detail; that I was an amateur, why I was looking for reference photos, and that I’d probably want to sell paintings someday. Part of my pitch is that it’s not a live portrait session, just photos to use later, so I wouldn’t take up much of a model’s time. With potential models’ comfort in mind, I proposed meeting whoever it is at the neighborhood park in the late afternoon when there would be lots of people around. I ended up with three people willing to be portrait models, which was really fortunate because I wasn’t expecting anyone to respond.

We met at the park and I told them all up front that I really have no idea what I’m doing, but I had brainstormed some ideas. I made a list including different angles, facial expressions, and other things I thought might make good paintings. But I told them if they had their own ideas, to just go for it. The sessions took only took about 10-15 minutes for each person, but I ended up with several hundred reference photos! I was pretty nervous about whether it would be weird or awkward, since I’ve never done this before, but it was an excellent experience! Although they weren’t professional models, you could have fooled me, because they were able to make any expression or pose easily.

The first painting I did from these photos started off on a good track. Although I’m more comfortable now, at this stage in my learning process a couple of months ago, I was still getting used to freehand painting without using measuring tools. There were early rough stages when I was worried the painting wasn’t going to work, I was once again saved by the flexibility of oil paints. Ultimately, I was quite happy with the result and I think the likeness was solid.

Another interesting aspect to this painting is that it sort of went “viral” on Instagram, or at least relative to my usual very low social media numbers. The short video Reel I shared generated over 18,000 views and almost 500 likes, which is massively higher than anything else I’ve ever done. The kicker is that I have literally no clue why! I didn’t use trending audio or unique hashtags, and I haven’t been able to replicate that success since.

I don’t actually think this was the next painting chronologically, but I figured I’d share it next since it’s the same subject. This is my first ever freehand/no measurement figure study. Prior to this one, all of my freehand painting had been my usual head-and-shoulders portraits. But with all of these fresh new reference images, I figured why not make use of them and give it a try! After all, painting for me has been all about learning and pushing myself.

The likeness is definitely not perfect; I think you can get that sense pretty easily by comparing to the head-and-shoulders portrait of the same model, which I believe is more accurate. But I think it’s close enough that you can probably tell it’s the same person. Although it isn’t perfect, this is one of my favorite paintings that I’ve done; it’s a milestone as I mentioned, but also the painting kind of gives kind of an emotional response as the subject seems very sad. In this one, credit to the model because she just sort of tried different emotions and expressions throughout which was great.

I believe this might have been the second painting chronologically, and it was an interesting one. It actually followed the opposite path to most of my paintings. Typically, the early stages of a painted portrait will be a bit rough, and possibly a poor likeness, but as I progress it will start to come together. In this painting, I think the early stages looked a bit more like the subject, whereas later I think I lost some of the distinguishing features.

I do still think it’s a good painting overall though, and one that I like. Since these paintings are really just for my own practice, I don’t owe it to anyone to have a perfect likeness. So from that perspective, it’s a success! But if I were doing this for someone, say as a gift, it’s one I might have to take another crack at. Another aspect I really like about this painting is the color use. I thought I did a good job establishing zones of color and then not over-blending them, which is still sometimes a challenge to avoid. Blending on the canvass is pretty fun, but too much can muddy things.

And this painting was a bit of a surprise win in some ways. I think in hindsight, I was perhaps to tired to attempt it. If I’m remembering correctly, it was the second painting in a row of an extended painting session, I was arguably a bit too fatigued to do another one. But being tired rarely stops me when I’m feeling that painting spark! So, I dove into this one, and I was surprised that it turned into another one I really like. Apparently I wasn’t too tired after all.

During these photo sessions, we only used two props – one was the models’ smartphones that they already had with them. The other was a book that I brought, which turned into a nice addition to this piece. I even somehow managed to get the eyes oriented in the right way so it seems like she’s reading the book!

When we discussed the details of the photo session, I was specific about how I was going to use these photos. Basically, that I was sharing just the paintings and not the originals, and that prints or copies of the paintings (not the photos) may be sold or published in a book someday. For now, it seems none of the models want to be credited. But I told the models if any of them ever change their minds, I’m glad to tag them or add names anywhere appropriate. Overall, this endeavor turned out better than I could have imagined! I’ve got a ton of references I can use in the future and I know the resulting paintings can be used for commercial purposes and all that fun stuff. My thought is also, if I improve as a painter over time, I can also use these references for more creative things – as the basis for something, rather than just try to reproduce what I see. For example, I’m painting a character, but I need that character to be talking on the phone – I could combine these references with another person/character! I’m not that good yet, but perhaps I will be if I keep practicing.

So, that’s it for this one. Definitely glad I finally tried the “hiring a model” idea. I’ll also embed the YouTube videos related to these paintings – the first two have discussion about this same topic, while the rest are basically duplicates of the above Instagram Reels.


Leave a Reply