The backbone of my digital collages are public domain images that I’ve collected over the years. If I didn’t have them to use I’d be in BIG TROUBLE.
But what IS public domain?
What’s the Public Domain?
the realm embracing property rights that belong to the community at large, are unprotected by copyright or patent, and are subject to appropriation by anyone (source)
This means that the images (or texts) are no longer held under copyright by any person or corporation, and any individual person can use them for any purpose, including commercial use. You can edit them, change them, resell them or make them available for free on any site. This is EXACTLY what I want for my art, since I need to be able to edit images to fit into my collages and also be able to sell prints featuring those images.
There’s also “royalty free,” which means that the original copyright owner still holds their copyright license, but other people can use the images for any purpose, including commercial use. You may have to pay a one-time fee to use it, but not always.
If you plan on selling your art, it’s very important to make sure that every image element is either public domain, royalty free, or available for commercial-use (and you have bought the rights to it). I tend to only use public domain images because it’s easiest to remember, but you may want to experiment with different licensed images depending on what kind of art you make.
But if you want to JUST find free public domain images, here’s 10 of the best resources for finding free public domain or commercial-free images to use in digital collages:
Where to find free Public Domain images
My favorite resource! It has excellent photographs, book scans, and documents. I mostly use the photos, but have found some cool scans from old science and map books before. Most photos are from before 1930s. Be sure to go to the left sidebar and select “available online” to filter to only those entries, otherwise you’ll pull up a bunch of stuff that isn’t available unless you go to the library in person.
>>> Need some help finding photos on the LOC website?
My go-to for anything non-photographic. (Though they have a lot of photos as well.) I’ve found lots of great background images, doodles, floral elements, and vintage images that have been clipped out of books. All images are commercial-free/public domain and are tagged with keywords. I’ve also had great luck just looking through specific creators’ uploads, if I liked one of their images.
Unsplash has a lot of high quality photographs, particularly of modern technology and people, with a bright, minimalist aesthetic– which means they get used a lot as featured images on blogs. That said, there’s plenty of photos that aren’t massively overused. I’ve found good images of letters, patterns, plants, etc. that I’ve managed to incorporate into my collages without looking like every other blog out there.
Very similar to the Library of Congress’s selection of vintage and antique images and book scans, with a focus on New York-related objects. They have a huge selection of scanned music sheets and stereographs, as well as some excellent maps and even restaurant menus. Be sure to select the “public domain” ticky box when you search to make sure you only see those results.
>>> Here’s 5 of my best tips for getting the most out of the NYPL Digital Collections.
A newer addition to my resource list, this digital collection includes pictures and scans of physical items (such as statues, paintings, and jewelry) as well as books and images. I like using their fabric scans in particular, since it gives a collage an added textural dimension. Very easy to search and download images as well.
A similar range of items to the Smithsonian, but more focused specifically on art. Some great illustrations here in particular! A little confusing to search through, since they separate things out by individual collections, but the filters seems to work pretty well. Honestly, I keep forgetting that this exists– I need to check here more!
Pexels has a very similar selection of stock images to Pixabay, all royalty free. Their search has some cool options, like being able to sort by trending topics. They also have a lot of videos, which could be an interesting thing to incorporate into a colalge.
The Wellcome Collection has digital copies of lots of art and photographs collected between 1890 and 1936 by Sir Henry Wellcome (and his agents). Some really neat, unusual images here which are free to use, but most have an Attribution license on them which can make it a little more complicated to use as you’d have to keep track of which specific image elements you put into a collage. Still, it’s work checking out just to see what’s there for grabs.
This is a specific part of Flickr which is a collection of images under various usage licenses, so be sure to double-check. Some images have a “NoDerivs” license, which means you can’t change it; others have a non-commercial license, etc. I tend to just search under Public Domain Mark or Public Domain Dedication. Many museums and libraries host their digital collections on Flickr, which can means it’s a little faster to search through multiple databases at once.
This is a companion section to Wikipedia– it’s where the public domain images they use for Wikipedia entries are stored, and it’s available to the public as well! I mostly use this if I need photos of specific people or images of specific art pieces. Be sure to check the reuse guidelines, since some photos have more restrictions on what you can do with them.
Want more? Wikipedia has a whole page of resources for public domain images!
Whatever site you use, I recommend organizing your images so you can both keep track of their usage rights, and so you can find what you need for your collages.
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