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.
Public Domain Definition
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 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 depending on your art style you may want to experiment with different licensed images.
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:
Top 10 Public Domain Image Resources
1. Library of Congress
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.
If I need a modern photo, or something really high-res, I check Unsplash. I’ve found some good images of letters, patterns, nature, etc. A lot of bloggers use this site for their stock photos, so if you want to be totally unique in your art I might avoid images of people or computers, in particular.
4. New York Public Library Digital Collections
Very similar to the Library of Congress, with more of an emphasis on text. I have a harder time navigating their search page, but they have lots of illustrations available and tons of music sheets, if that’s your thing. Be sure to select the “public domain” ticky box 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.
5. Smithsonian Open Access
A newer addition to my resource list, this digital collection includes pictures and scans of physical items as well as books and images. I like using fabric scans in particular, since it gives a collage an added textural dimension. Very easy to search and download images.
6. Getty Search Gateway
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!
I don’t use this one as much because it basically has the same images as Pixabay, but it’s another place to check if you want.
8. Wellcome Collection
Another resource I keep forgetting about, this 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. I tend not to remember about specific licenses once I finish a piece, so I don’t use this resource that often.
9. Flickr Creative Commons
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.
10. Wikimedia Commons
I mostly use this if I need photos of specific people or images of specific art. 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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