AI image generators – could they be the answer to copyright free images for art reference photos?

If you’re anything like me, then you spend a good few hours before you start every art project. I don’t mean I’m running around buying art supplies before each project. No, it’s something far less fun (or maybe more fun?) – finding a reference photo that a) I want to use for inspiration and b) actually has a reasonable copyright license.

Sometimes, I’m just planning to vaguely base it on an image, allowing my own imagination to take over during the planning and composition phase, and the end result won’t be anything like the original. In such cases, the source of the original image doesn’t much matter, because I know there’s no resemblance to that image.

Other times, though, I want a good photograph that I can use to create a photorealistic artwork. And that’s when I usually need to hunt to find a reference photo (or photos!) that I can use. I usually turn to sites like Pixabay, Unsplash, Pexels, WildlifeReferencePhotos, and other well-known stock photo sites. [Remember, the images you find on a random Google search aren’t necessarily copyright-free, even if you limited the search to only copyright-free images!]

Searching these sites can take hours. I not only need to find a photo or photos that I can combine to recreate the image in my mind, but also to resist the temptation to look at all the other photos on these sites. Not to mention, there’s always that nagging concern: what if there’s a better photo that would work for my planned artwork?

In addition, there is also the concern around scale. Most of the stock photo sites want additional fees for an extended license if you plan to sell more than x number of images of that artwork. But imagine if an image you created became popular and you decided to put prints up on Fine Art America and exceeded that limit? Yep, then you owe an additional fee to the stock photo site.

Enter the AI art generators. Unless you’ve been living under a rock, you’ve probably already heard of some of these: DALL·E 2 from OpenAI, MidJourney, Stable Diffusion, and several others. But are they the right solution?

With the rise of technology in our everyday lives, Artificial Intelligence (AI) has become a popular tool in the art world. AI art generators are computer programs that can generate artwork using algorithms and data sets. These generators can create visuals that are virtually indistinguishable from works created by a human artist. But when it comes to using AI art generators for art reference photos, is it a good idea?

The Pros and Cons of using AI art generators

AI art generators are computer programs that create art using algorithms usually based on input from a user. While AI art generators can be incredibly fast and efficient, they do come with some advantages and disadvantages. On the one hand, they can help create art quickly, with minimal effort and cost. On the other hand, the output from AI art generators can be unpredictable and may be difficult to control or customize.

Additionally, AI art generators may not be able to replicate the quality or complexity of art created by humans. Ultimately, the decision to use one of the AI art generators to create your own art reference photos should be based on your own needs, budget, and creative goals.

Accuracy of AI art generators

When it comes to accuracy, AI art generators are very rather hit or miss. They can generate incredibly realistic images that look just like the real thing, but pay attention to the output: they may contain artifacts that simply wouldn’t occur in nature.

AI generated images are often highly detailed and lifelike, which means that you can use these generators to create highly accurate and detailed art reference photos. This is especially useful for digital artists who may be looking to create art that looks as close to the real thing as possible.

AI Generated Dragonfly
AI Generated Dragonfly

Keep in mind that while these images may look realistic, you do need to pay attention to the output. At the time of writing, the AI art generators still do tend to occasionally produce anatomically incorrect representation of living things, as in this dragonfly that inexplicably has half a dozen legs and a veritable web of wings! It may look realistic at first glance but it doesn’t hold up to closer scrutiny.

Image Quality

Kittens In a Basket – AI Generated Image

AI art generators can be used to generate visually compelling reference images, but it whether you can use them as art references depends on the quality of the images they generate. If you’re looking for high-resolution images with realistic colors and textures, you may be disappointed with what an AI art generator can produce. However, if you’re looking for basic shapes and outlines, then you may be satisfied with the images generated by an AI art generator.

Note that as of this writing, there don’t seem to be any AI art generators that allow you to export print quality (i.e. 300 dpi or better) images, so if you’re hoping to use these images to create merch, you’ll have to figure out a way to upscale them using other tools. This image of kittens, for example, is just 72dpi – if you tried putting it on a T-shirt or other merch, the upscaling would result in a very grainy image.

The Costs of Using an AI Art Generator

One of the key benefits of using an AI art generator is the cost. Because AI art generators are automated, they require much less time and effort to produce than traditional art references, making them significantly cheaper to create in the long run. They also save you from having to invest in expensive camera equipment or materials, meaning you can spend your time and money on other aspects of your project. You also no longer need a subscription to any of the pricier stock image websites, and there are no limits to the number of copies you can sell.

Ease of Use

AI art generators don’t require any special skills or technical knowledge, so you can start producing high-quality art references in no time and at a fraction of the cost. If you can write a few phrases, you can create AI art.

One caveat, though: at the time of writing this, most of the AI art generators don’t necessarily create what you’d expect right out of the gate. There is a learning curve as you figure out the phrases to use to get the kind of images you want. In addition to that, you’ll also use up some generations just trying to get recognizable human and animal features on your creations – but have patience, and keep trying. The software will only get better with time, as will you!

Legal Considerations

What about the copyright, though? Copyright laws can apply to the images generated by AI art generators. In many countries, the copyright is automatically given to the creator of the software, which would mean that the images generated by the software would be under the software creator’s copyright. This is a good thing: if you generate the images yourself, you own the copyright.

One thing to consider: trademark law. AI art generators may generate images that are similar to existing trademarks. It is recommended that you consult a lawyer to ensure that you are not inadvertently infringing on any existing copyrights or trademarks. I’d contend that if you’re creating artworks based on your own AI-created images, the chance of infringing a trademark or copyright are small. When in doubt, though, always consult a lawyer – I’m merely the neighborhood art geek.

So, should you use an AI art generator?

The answer, as usual, is a frustrating: “It depends.”

AI art generators can be a useful tool for generating art reference photos, but I’d recommend using them in moderation. While it’s possible to find interesting and unique images with AI art generators, it’s still best to draw inspiration from real life and use your own creativity when creating artwork. For myself, I tend to use the images as jumping off points to then fine tune in my own art projects, rather than using an AI generated as is.


If you want to try some AI generators out for free, DALL·E 2 lets you create up to 15 images free each month. You’ll need an OpenAI membership for that, which is also free. NightCafe lets you create 5 images every day, and others offer a free trial before asking you to sign up for a paid subscription.


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