From photo to sculpture

As Shepard Fairey continues to be in the news, I can’t help but wonder if I am going to get sued for turning someone’s photograph of a storm into a sculpture. I’ve been more realistically depicting thunderstorms in clay in over the last year, and more recently I’ve also been working on some figures from Flickr images as well.

Flickr faves

Flickr is a goldmine of inspiration for me at this point in my work. Of coruse, I’d love to be able to actually, physically chase storms — photographing, drawing and sculpting them during the chase — but that hasn’t been realistic up to this point. So I end up searching the Flickr pool for images I can turn into sculpture.

Is this fair use? Is it enough of a transformation, even if I’m trying to create a more-or-less accurate representation of the storm in three dimensions? Personally, I’d be flattered if a sculptor turned one of my better photographs into a work of art. But is some overzealous photographer going to recognize one of my works as a picture he or she took and get all perturbed?

I don’t possess the time or resources to deal with lawsuits. Is the safe route to not use other people’s photographs at all (or only use those with an appropriate Creative Commons license)?

I’m probably safe. First off, I generally need to cut off certain edges of trailing clouds, and turning photos into sculpture also requires quite a bit of extrapolation. Basically half of the storm is not visible in a photograph. Further, my own form of realism is still fairly abstract on account of scale and materials.


About pcNielsen
Paul Nielsen founded The Aesthetic Elevator late in 2005. He owns a piece of paper, located somewhere in his house (not on the wall), stating that he earned a B.F.A. from the University of Nebraska around about 2001. While there, he studied studied architecture, graphic design and ceramics, graduating with a degree in studio art. Paul presently serves as communications manager for a small non-profit doing their print design and marketing. He spends as much time sculpting in his studio as possible — which is not nearly enough. Visit his website at

3 Responses to From photo to sculpture

  1. Tim J. says:

    I wouldn’t worry at all about the clouds… how many people could walk up to the sculpture and say, “Hey, I saw a picture of this cloud on Flickr!”.

    The figures would be more worrisome, depending on how close you got to the original… but I have no idea where “the line” would be, legally speaking.

    I’m at the point where I only paint from my own photos, even if that means passing up some very tempting subject matter. I get frustrated, though, that I’m not that great a photographer. Still, I mainly use them for a reference, and go by memory in addition.

  2. pNielsen says:

    I want to get to the point where the images are more reference than they are now, but I don’t feel I’ve gotten to that point yet. In fact, I may be years away from that point if I’m honest with myself, especially if I continue working on my art in a part-time fashion.

    Then again, the ideal process I have in mind is such that I’d like to: Photograph and draw as I chase storms, go back to the studio and draw from the photographs and then sculpt. The ideal will probably change over time, of course.

  3. Julie says:

    I’d think of them more as references and not be too concerned… There is, though, something wonderful in working from your own photos… I like the idea… find a favorite photo and make something that is distinctly about that photo… display them together…

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