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Any collage artist knows the pain of needing a specific image or graphic that would be PERFECT to complete their piece of art…and not being able to find it.
Having a large ephemera collection makes it easy to avoid that trauma, but where does a DIGITAL collage artist get her images from?
Well, the majority of my digital ephemera and vintage photograph collection was actually sourced from online resources that share public domain graphics. If I didn’t have them I’d be in BIG TROUBLE.
The key to my collection is the fact that they’re PUBLIC DOMAIN images, meaning they’re free for anyone to use for any purpose, including commercial use.
But what IS the “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 then later sell prints featuring those images).
Historically, collage artists have been able to use almost any image they want in their pieces since it’s transformative. And for paper collages, that’s probably still fine. However, digital collages that are posted online have the potential to run into bots that automatically scan for copywritten images– and then send take-down notices to the artist’s hosting company. Better to just avoid that and use graphics that are either public domain or have explicit commercial use rights.
Remember “royalty free” too
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.
For instance, Canva has a lot of graphics available for subscribers to use, even for commercial usage, but you have to be a Canva Pro member to do it.
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.
That said, if you want to JUST use 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
Great for: Vintage photographs, book illustrations, old book pages and papers, maps, paintings, advertisements, newspapers.
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? Here’s how to search and filter for photographs and other graphics on the Library of Congress website.
Great for: Vintage graphics with transparent backgrounds, pre-made art journal backgrounds.
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.
Great for: Photos of “textured” things like fabric, piles of paper, tiles and mosaics.
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.
Great for: Vintage photographs, music sheets, costume illustrations, maps of New York City.
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.
Great for: high quality images of sculptures, jewelry, fabric and quilts.
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.
Great for: Paintings and illustrations.
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!
Great for: Modern images of animals and people.
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 collage.
Great for: Vintage photographs and antique paintings.
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.
Great for: Vintage photographs, maps, manuscript scans, and modern images.
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.
Great for: Scientific images, antique and modern portraits.
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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