Your guide to iStock’s policies regarding derivative artworks and reference material

At some point in your iStock uploading, you may come across a rejection for ‘Derivative Artwork’ with a note to submit your reference or source material. What does this mean? What exactly is a ‘derivative artwork’? What’s ‘reference’ and what kinds of illustrations require reference to be submitted?

Every illustrator works differently. Some talented folks can sit right down in Adobe Illustrator® and whip out a highly detailed illustration completely from their imaginations. Others illustrators prefer to sketch their ideas out and then scan them. Some like to autotrace grungy elements to add extra texture to their files, while others build custom brushes to create different line effects. Some of us prefer to trace off of photos, while others like to work from real‐life models and objects.

What is a reference image?
When you’re using something else to create your illustration, you are ‘referring’ to it while creating a ‘derivative’ work (ie, it’s derived from a source image, or ‘reference image’). There are lots of things you could use for reference: 3D renders, photographs, textures, brushes, sketches, and so on. If you couldn’t have created your illustration without using your reference, then odds are your file is considered ‘derivative’.

iStock accepts derivative artwork, of course! Working from photographs ensures that your perspectives and proportions are correct. Autotracing a grungy texture can add a tactile and hand‐created feel to your work. And naturally you’ll need to work from photos or real life in order to illustrate existing objects/animals/places/whatever. Our collection would be pretty limited if every file was an imaginary and unrealistic illustration.


In this example, the artist has used a snapshot of someone’s hands knitting in order to trace their work.

Reference images and copyright ownership
We’ve established that it’s OK to use reference when creating your illustrations. But there’s a catch: you can’t use someone else’s renders/photos/textures/brushes/sketches/etc. as reference.

You have to be the sole copyright holder of every illustration that you submit to iStock. This absolutely includes any materials you used in the creation of your file.

What do we mean by owning the copyright to your reference? Well, you can’t just do a random Google search, find a photo you like, then trace it and sell it for profit on a Royalty Free website. This is because it’s not your photo; the copyright belongs to someone else and they likely won’t be pleased you’re earning money from their work.

This rule applies to anything that you yourself did not create: grunge textures, brushes you find online, 3D renders, someone else’s artwork, pattern designs, scans from books or magazines, images found on the internet, etc. You can’t use any of these as reference for a Royalty Free illustration on iStock (unless, of course, you own the copyright).

This is why we request that you submit reference for any derivative illustrations you submit. We need to make sure you’re the sole copyright owner of everything in your file, otherwise you could land in serious copyright trouble.




In these examples, the illustrator has used their own snapshots as the basis for their vector illustrations.

Creating your own reference imagery
Some people express panic when they realize they can’t just Google whenever they need help with an illustration. But trust us, once you get into the habit of creating your own reference files, you’ll feel a lot better. You’ll always be assured that you are the copyright holder of your own work, and you can defend yourself if there were ever an authorship dispute.

Want to upload a paint splatter? Well, grab a piece of paper and a can of paint and get messy. Scan or photograph the results and trace them to create your own customized splatters.


Here’s an example of a scan of a watercolor paint splash on paper. The illustrator then autotraced this splatter as a vector.

Want to upload a realistic illustration of a cat? Borrow your neighbor’s pet for the day and take photos of it from every angle. You can then use these to draw lifelike kitties to your heart’s content.



In these examples, the illustrator has used photos of different birds to create their illustrations. Even silhouettes require reference if they’re based on real animals, people, locations or objects. They’ve also used some photos of wood grain that they’ve utilized as textures in their vectors.

Proud of where you live, and want to sell some illustrations showing what your surroundings look like? Grab your camera and head outside. You can use photos to create reference of everything from landscapes to cityscapes, and everything in between.

Need a grungy, aged texture for your vector? Then scan something with a texture you like, such as fabric, aged paper, stained cardboard pieces, anything goes. Or take photos of chipped paint, gravel, pebbles, aged wood, grungy concrete, whatever. You can use these as textures too.


Here, the artist has used two different types of reference: One is their own photos of a pig, and the other is a texture reference used to create the wood grain background of the illustration.

The important thing is that YOU are creating your own reference files, not using anyone else’s.




Multiple reference photos were used to create these illustrations. If you’re using more than one reference image, simply stitch them together in Photoshop and save them as a JPEG for upload.

TIP: One good thing about working from reference is it doesn’t matter how high quality it is. Clients of iStock never have access to your reference images so there’s no point in fussing over quality. Blurry, wonky white balance, poor cropping? It doesn’t matter.

So don’t be shy in taking your camera outside, and don’t fret over your ancient dusty scanner. You don’t have to be a pro with high tech equipment to create your own reference. You can take a quickie shot with your camera phone, or make a low resolution scan of a texture or pattern, and still be able to create a beautiful vector from it.




Here you can see that while the reference images weren’t the highest quality photos, they still worked out perfectly for use as illustration reference!

What if I did draw an existing object, but I didn’t use a photo and drew it from real life instead?
Some artists prefer to work with their subject right in front of them. If this is the case we recommend that you take a quick photo of the object so that we can confirm it was there when you drew it. Even a shaky snapshot with your camera phone will suffice.

If you don’t submit reference and your illustration is of an existing object (say a real location, an existing animal/plant, or an identifiable object like a particular brand of coffee maker, etc), it’s likely your file will be rejected. This is because it would be very difficult to draw something solely from imagination that actually exists in real life! Taking a quick photo, even if it doesn’t match your final illustration, is the easiest way to ensure your file is approved in a timely manner.

So what happens if I can draw realistic objects from memory?
Earlier we mentioned that some lucky artists are able to sit down and draw realistic objects directly into drawing programs without any reference at all. While we all wish we could do this, it does pose some problems for these artists: How can they prove that they were able to create highly realistic imagery solely from their imagination without basing their vector on an existing image?

This also becomes a problem for anyone who likes to create their own textures and custom brushes without reference. It can be done from scratch, especially if you play around with the existing brushes in Photoshop or Illustrator. But how can you prove that they’re your original creations, especially if you’re autotracing textures you’ve created in Photoshop?


In this example, the artist has submitted a screenshot of the custom texture brushes that they used to create their artwork.

Easy! All you need to do is get into the habit of taking screenshots while you work. On a Mac, the key command to take a screen shot is Command‐Shift‐3 (full screenshot) or Command‐Shift‐4 (to select what you’d like to capture). On a PC, press the ‘Print Screen’ button on your keyboard to capture the whole screen or use Alt+Print Screen to capture your active window.

You don’t need a screenshot of every little thing you do to create your illustration! Just provide enough for inspector can see that your progression wasn’t based on reference.

And you don’t need to do this for every submission: Only the ones that contain hand‐created grunge textures, or are highly detailed/realistic. Simpler or more stylized illustrations are easier to create without reference and as such we generally won’t ask to see reference for these kinds of submissions.


The character in this illustration is clearly drawn from imagination, however the background has a subtle autotraced brick texture that would require reference.

How do I upload my reference?
You will be asked to upload your reference during the File Upload process. Make sure you have it handy when you start uploading!

Your reference doesn’t need to be super high resolution, only big enough so that the inspector can clearly see the details. You’re welcome to watermark it if you wish, though this isn’t required as clients aren’t given access to our clients. No one can see them except for the inspectors who check your files.



TIP: When you’re all done uploading, we suggest that you keep a copy of the reference image close to the vector file. This is especially important when it comes time to backup your work! Backing your illustration up with its reference image makes it much easier to locate your source imagery, which could be handy in case of a dispute over the ownership of your file.

Not all illustrators work with reference imagery, of course. There are plenty of very talented people who work directly in Illustrator using just their Wacom pens and their imagination. But we hope this Guide helps those artists who do work from reference understand what iStock requires in order for them to sell their files.



Note: Please note that when you’re drawing an identifiable person, you will also need to provide a Model Release. You’ll also need to provide your reference image along with the Model Release. This applies to caricatures of real people too!