Four Basic Tips For Creative Copying (Of Public Domain Photos)

2016 Artwork creative copying article sketch

If you were reading this site a couple of weeks ago, you might have noticed that I made a short series of digitally-edited paintings based on uncopyrighted/ public domain photos from the 1940s and 1950s.

Before I go any further, I should probably point out that not all photos from these decades are uncopyrighted! So, do your research and, if in doubt, err on the side of caution!

Anyway, here are two of my paintings from this series (and the source images for them can be found here and here respectively)

"Vintage Photo Blues" By C. A. Brown

“Vintage Photo Blues” By C. A. Brown

"Vintage Photo Glow" By C. A. Brown

“Vintage Photo Glow” By C. A. Brown

As you may have noticed if you looked at the source images, I’ve made quite a few changes to these pictures in my copies. After all, where would be the fun in just copying these pictures directly?

Although making a perfect replica of an old photo is a great demonstration of artistic skill, there isn’t really a huge amount of creativity involved in it.

So, I thought that I’d give you a few tips about how to make your own creative copies of old things from the public domain.

1) Copy from sight: Although I’ve written about the subject of tracing before, your creative copy will lose a lot of it’s individuality if you just trace the public domain photo or picture that you want to copy. So, be sure to copy the picture from sight alone.

Yes, it can take a bit of practice (and a few mistakes) to learn how to do this well, but the main advantage of copying from sight alone is that your own unique art style will have a chance to appear in the picture. After all, if you’re basically making a new picture from a guide, then your own unique artistic quirks will probably end up in the picture too.

However, if you take the lazy route and just trace a picture, then you’ll just end up with an identical copy which won’t really look very unique.

2) If possible, use black & white photos: One of the advantages of using old black and white photos (check that they’re in the public domain first though) as the source images for your artwork is that you can instantly make your artwork look unique by just adding colour to these pictures.

The advantage of this is that, although the B&W source photo will tell you how light or dark a particular area is, it’s up to you to choose which colours you want to use.

Your colour choices don’t have to be realistic, but having a good understanding of colour theory can come in handy here since you can easily make an old B&W picture look much more dramatic by using a complimentary colour scheme (eg: blue and orange, red and green etc...).

3) Know yourself: I know that this sounds obvious, but you need to have a good understanding of your own aesthetic preferences and sensibilities if you want to make a creative copy of something from the public domain.

In other words, have a good understand of what you think looks cool… and know how to paint or draw it.

For example, I absolutely love brightly-coloured lighting (in gloomy locations). If you look at the two pictures earlier in this article, you’ll see that they both contain this.

I was able to include this in my artwork for the simple reason that I’ve been practicing painting realistic lighting for at least a year or so. As such, I was able to completely change the lighting in both pictures into something that I thought looked more interesting.

4) Attribution: Although there’s no rule about this, it’s good practice to acknowledge any public domain source images you use in your artwork.

If you’re copying something that has been made by an artist or a photographer whose name is known, then adding a simple “After [original artist/ photographer]” to one corner of your picture is a good way to do this.

This shows that your picture is a tribute or a re-imagining, rather than a totally original work (since, although it probably – technically – isn’t plagiarism to copy things from the public domain without acknowledgement, it can look a lot like plagiarism).

I erred on the side of caution in my pictures and added quite a lot of acknowledgments though, mainly since many of the public domain pictures I found were from unknown photographers (eg: photos taken by UK/ US Government workers etc…).


Anyway, I hope that this was useful 🙂

2 comments on “Four Basic Tips For Creative Copying (Of Public Domain Photos)

  1. TheDoxieTruth says:

    Thanks for this informative post! I’ve been thinking of using public domain photos for inspiration.

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