Public Domain Imagery You'll Love!
Updated: Mar 13
Do you love to collage but struggle to find good imagery? If you aren't lucky enough to have piles of vintage books and ephemera at your disposal then free public domain collage imagery is your friend! Public domain imagery is isn't owned by anyone--unlike the majority of images you see on the internet--and can be reproduced and incorporated into your work without legal consequences. If you have a color printer at home, then printing out your own collage imagery is simple and inexpensive. And finding gorgeous, public domain imagery to use in your work couldn't be easier-- if you know where to look.
Lucky for you, a few years ago I--somewhat obsessively--scoured the internet for sources of public domain imagery and I managed to amass a decent list.
So here, in no particular order, are my favorite imagery websites.
(A quick disclaimer: The images on these websites are all, to the best of my knowledge, in the public domain, though I cannot guarantee it. Verify for yourself to be safe and familiarize yourself with the copyright laws for your country of residence. Skip to the end of this post if you'd like to know how an image becomes part of the public domain)
The Graphics Fairy
If you're familiar with any imagery websites, then this is probably the one. Since 2007, The Graphics Fairy has been a source of free vintage images for artists, designer, crafters and home decorators. Though you can get access to an even larger library of images with a premium membership, their free library currently stands at about 6,000 images.
The Biodiversity Heritage Library
The BHL is the world's largest open-access digital library for biodiversity literature, and, as a result, an outstanding archive of images of living things. Over 100,000 images have been uploaded to their popular Flickr account since 2011. Search the collection using the magnifying glass right above the gallery of images. One caveat: So far I've only figured out how to copy these photos onto my computer, but not onto my phone. When you click on these images, "save photo" or "copy photo" is not an option. You have to opt to download instead (arrow/box icon) which only works for me on a computer.
With over 600,000 vintage, medium resolution, public domain images with no restrictions on usage, Viintage is a veritable gold mine. There is also an option for paid membership to get access to high resolution images, though I find the medium resolution images totally satisfactory for small collages.
Dedicated to the home DIY-er, you might not think this website would have much to offer collage artists. Except that they have amazing collections of high resolution vintage images intended to be used in home decorating. These collections used to be easy to find from the homepage but now are buried in the annals of the website, so I've collected the links to each collection above. Enjoy!
Picture Box Blue
This really fantastic website represents the personal stash of a British collector of vintage images. What began as a collection of maps has expanded to include lovely vintage images of all kinds, all at least 100 years old. Expect to find images here that you have never seen anywhere else!
Smithsonian Open Access
When it launched Smithsonian Open Access in 2020, the Smithsonian institution removed copyright restrictions from almost 3 million of the images in its digital collection and nearly two centuries of data. Since then people have been able to download, transform, and share this content for free and for any purpose without further permission from the Smithsonian. Enjoy!
Free Vintage Digital Stamps
This website, offering "creative images for the creative artist," features downloadable ephemera from a variety of eras and in a variety of formats with many categories to choose from. Included are examples of how to use the images in collage and artist trading cards.
Free Vintage Illustrations
Curated by a content marketing writer with an art history degree, this website is a personal collection of vintage media. The collection isn't huge, but I especially like the galleries for scientific illustration and animals.
Cathe Holden Free Images & Printables
Graphic designer Cathe Holden generously offers up a multitude of her designs (especially all sorts of delicious labels) for other designers and artists to use. Her collection used to be available on her website but now is only accessible through her Pinterest account. You'll find labels as well as alphabets, ephemera and more.
A collection of scanned vintage ephemera assembled by Michigander Trudy Hunter. Categories including labels and postcards, children's book illustrations, fashion plates, and animals.
Old Book Illustrations
A rich source of of Victorian and French Romantic illustrations from books dating from the 1700s to the 1920s. Most of the images are engravings, etchings and lithographs but also included are color process and halftone process images.
Old Design Shop
Old Design Shop is another site started by a collector of vintage books and ephemera who, lucky for us, decided to share her treasure trove with the world.
The Public Domain Review
A mecca of digital curation, The Public Domain Review is a non-profit, online journal dedicated to collecting "curious and compelling works from the history of art, literature, and ideas" that have now fallen into the public domain. Their vast collection of material is free for all
to enjoy, share, and build upon without restrictions.
My Personal Collage Printables Board on Pinterest
Finally, have a look at the Collage Printables board on my Pinterest account.Peruse freely, but BE CAREFUL as not all the images on this board are public domain, so you'll have to check them out individually. Images on my board are culled from the above sites, plus many more.
What Does it Mean if an Image is in the Public Domain?
A public domain image is any image not protected by intellectual property laws because the copyright expired or never existed in the first place. In other words, no one owns the image. That means artists and designers can copy the image without restriction and without obtaining permission. This is good news if you plan to sell your work, or even post it on social media. Most images published or created before 1923 are considered public domain, in my understanding.
Want to know more? Visit publicdomainsherpa.com
What if I'm Cutting an Image out of a Book I Own?
If you own a book, then you own all the the physical pages contained in that physical book and can cut them out and use them as you like, including in work you plan to sell, even if the work is protected by copyright. You CANNOT, however, use photocopies, scans, or other reproductions of the pages in work you plan to sell, unless the book is in the public domain and not protected by copyright.
How Do I Capture the Images I Find on Public Domain Websites?
First, click on the image to make sure you are seeing the highest resolution version. Then simply right click on the image, select "copy image" and paste into a document or folder in your computer. If the option to copy image doesn't appear, try "take screenshot" instead and use the cursor to create a box around the image, then select "copy."
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