Our pick of the best online collections of public domain images from the British Museum to NASA. Yours to use and modify as you like…
“Good artists copy, great artists steal.” A quote often attributed to Picasso turns out to have a suitably complicated history of copying and stealing itself.
Original ideas were an endangered species over 2,000 years ago – a wise, if a little jaded, King Solomon lamented: “What has been done will be done again; there is nothing new under the sun.”
In his book Steal Like An Artist Austin Kleon asks: “How does an artist look at the world?” and concludes: “First, you figure out what’s worth stealing, then you move on to the next thing.”
So when it comes to being creative lets cut ourselves some slack. We’re born onto a planet full of stuff and history and wonder. It’s not just okay to use what came before to create what’s next – it’s impossible not to.
Using Public Domain Images
This list of websites offering free to use public domain images has been a fantastic creative resource for my own artwork be it drawing, painting, printmaking or design.
A public domain image is one that is free of known copyright around the world. As the Creative Commons CC0 1.0 says that means: “You can copy, modify, distribute and perform the work, even for commercial purposes, all without asking permission.” All of which is excellent news for artists.
UK Public Domain Law
An artwork falls in to the public domain 70 years after the death of the artist. That’s the general rule anyway, see this DACS factsheet for a list of exceptions.
It’s also possible that the photograph or reproduction of a public domain work might itself be under copyright! Thankfully the European Union are hoping to put in place a Copyright in the Digital Single Market Directive soon which will make it impossible to copyright “faithful reproductions of works in the public domain.” Phew – and let’s hope the UK follows suit regardless of Brexit.
Fair Use for all other images
While I’ve tried to list only public domain images some of the websites below have specific copyright conditions for certain images so be sure to double check copyright terms before using an image. If an image is protected under copyright you might still be able to use it (or elements of it) if your work aligns with fair use.
Visit The British Museum Collection
As an artist who often works with animal imagery this has long been one my favourite sites for resource materials. If you like animals, birds, bugs, plants, the oceans and everything in them then welcome to your new home for high-res copyright free images. The image collection is held on Flickr rather than their website with every image available for download under a Creative Commons license. Check out these vintage bird drawings from The natural history of Carolina, Florida, and the Bahama Islands collection for an idea of what’s inside. Follow BioDivLibrary on Twitter for obscure highlights and insights on the collection. There are also over 120,000 images in their first Flickr stream grouped into sets.
Visit The Biodiversity Heritage Library
If you’re not careful you could easily lose whole days uncovering hidden gems in these fascinating collections. The best part is that almost all of it is available as copyright free high resolution tif files. You can either search by keyword or browse the collections from the homepage. Once inside a collection, select ‘View all’ and make sure to click the ‘Larger image available anywhere’ tickbox to show only images with high res versions to download. Highlights include hundreds of ghostly daguerreotypes and some wonderful air balloon and other vintage flying machine illustrations in the Tissandier Collection. But my favourite has to be this collection of free to use cat images.
Visit The Library of Congress Collection
In 2013 The British Library announced it was adding over a million free images to Flickr for anyone to ‘use, remix and repurpose’. It’s an awesome precedent to set and one many more museums and libraries would do well to follow. Many of the images are taken from 17th-19th century books and illuminated manuscripts but there’s lots outside of that too. Not sure where to start? Try out this selection of 430 images for a nice introduction of what’s available. It’s worth clicking just for this adorably drawn 19th century Tapir illustration.
Visit The British Library Collection
The V&A holds an amazing online collection – let down only by their strict-ish image usage restrictions. Like the British Museum their images can be used for certain non-commercial work but aren’t held in the public domain. If you can work around the license restrictions then you’ll find endless sources of inspiration among the cultural artefacts at the V&A. For example here’s over 500 images of beautifully designed Japanese Kimonos, a similar amount of slightly scary puppets or browse over 1,000 propaganda posters over the last century. The search is one of the fastest I’ve used and it’s easy to narrow down results using the sidebar on the left. The V&A also have a commercial arm at vandaimages.com.
Visit V&A Collections
The Rijksmuseum is the Dutch national museum based in Amsterdam. I used to work with a really tall Dutch guy called Taco. He was really smart, easy to work with and always got the job done. The Rijksmuseum’s online collection is like a digital version of Taco (if you swap height for range). Not only do they encourage artists to create new works using their images, they offer an annual prize of €10,000 for the best work created using Rijksstudio. It’s a joy to use and a wonderful resource for viewing other creative collections and gathering source material.
Visit Rijksmuseum Collection
The collections on Calisphere have been contributed by all ten campuses of the University of California and other important libraries, archives, and museums throughout California. Collections range from meticulous Indian Miniature Paintings to the incredibly unique costume design collection by UC Merced faculty member Dunya Ramicova. Calisphere is a collection of collections and the best way to get your head round it is to dive right in and enjoy the randomness of cool citrus fruit posters to British war posters.
Visit The Calisphere Collections
Founded in 1870 The Met lives at 3 iconic New York City locations housing over 5,000 years of art from around the world. The Met’s online collection is as rich in pickings as its offline museums with over 280,000 images to draw from. Not all Met images are held in the public domain and only some of them are downloadable in high resolution. You’ll just have to dig around and see what you can unearth as the rewards are well worth the effort. I’d particularly recommend the Arts of Africa, Oceania and the Americas section for some incredible cultural artifacts. The Musical Instruments collection is an equally impressive jumble of musical crafts and curiosities from around the world.
Visit The Met Collection
If you love natural history museums then prepare to get lost down the enormous rabbit hole of the Yale Museum’s image collection. Have a look at these beautifully carved and adorned Kachinas for an example of the treasures you can find here. There are over 300 images of masks, over 150 shields and over 100 hand made canoes. Don’t miss the wonderfully weird Eskimo Dolls either. I haven’t even mentioned the many thousands of animal, plant and fossil images so stop reading this and start exploring!
Visit The Yale Peabody Museum of Natural History
From its public home on Flickr The Commons goal is to “share hidden treasures from the world’s public photography archives”. It’s an admirable ideal and one that could see The Commons rise to the top of the free image charts as more and more public orginisations contribute. The guiding principle for contributors is to ensure that images have “no known copyright restrictions” and are therefore able to be used freely within the public domain. Dozens of notable institutions are on board – view the entire list of contributing organistations or browse the whole collection at random. You could do worse for starters than viewing the collections of George Eastman House that range from the proverbial sublime (moon landings) to the ridiculous (giant pigs to stretchy contortionists!).
Visit Flickr: The Commons
The art gallery at Yale University houses some of the finest examples of art from ancient times through to modern and contemporary works. Like many other museum and gallery collections there’s no guarantee you can download a high resolution image of a work in its collection but you’re more liable to have success with older artworks. After searching for a few minutes I discovered a genre of art I’d never seen before – the Chinese art of Mandarin Squares from the Qing dynasty. Only a couple of these are available to download but it’s still given me a new area of inspiration to explore further. In one of the world’s great mysteries the Yale Art Gallery holds over 4,000 cat images yet contains a mere 160 dog pictures… the truth about cats and dogs continues to baffle.
Visit The Yale University Art Gallery
It’s no longer a secret that The Wellcome Collection is one of the best museums in London for fascinating exhibitions and mind bending stuff. Founded by Sir Henry Wellcome – pharmacist, entrepreneur, philanthropist and collector of more than a million objects which formed the basis of the collection in 1936. Describing itself as a ‘free visitor destination for the incurably curious’ their online image collection serves up a similar feast for the incurably curious among us. Fancy an image of The smallest medicine chest in the world balancing on a finger, it’s all yours. Five hundred year old drawing of a mechanical hand you say, at your service. The Wellcome Image Collection is a true Cabinet of Curiosities and our collective creativeness is all the better for it.
Visit Wellcome Images
The Getty’s reasons for putting so many of their images into the public domain for free creative use is worth quoting directly: “The Getty adopted the Open Content Program because we recognized the need to share images of works of art for free and without restriction, so that all those who create or appreciate art—scholars, artists, art lovers, and entrepreneurs—will have greater access to high-quality digital images for their studies and projects. Art inspires us, and imagination and creativity lead to artistic expressions that expand knowledge and understanding. The Getty sincerely hopes that people will use the open content images for a wide range of activities and that they will share the fruits of their labors with others.” Indeed. Haunting photographs of life in 1870’s Scottish tenements highlight the richness of images available in the collection.
Visit The Getty Search Gateway
David Rumsey started collecting maps over 30 years ago launching his website in the year 2000. Rumsey’s dream was to make his large private map collection accessible to everyone and we’re glad to say he’s done just that. The collection focuses on rare 16th through 21st century maps of North and South America, as well as maps of the World, Asia, Africa, Europe, and Oceania. From early 19th century celestial maps to quirky hand drawn maps of San Francisco the site truly is a wonder of curation and a precious gift to map lovers everywhere.
Visit The David Rumsey Map Collection
Yale holds the largest collection of British art outside the UK with over 70,000 images available to download and use for creative projects. Over 3,000 Turner paintings, prints and drawings are represented while Constable makes do with a mere couple of hundred masterpieces! Browse over 3,000 public domain images of horses in sculptural and painted forms by some of the best British artists in history from Sickert to Seymour.
Visit The Yale Center For British Art
The National Gallery Of Art was constructed by Andrew W. Mellon in 1937 in Washington, DC. NGA Images is their online collection of artwork with all images available free of charge for any use, commercial or non-commercial. Explore some wonderful Gauguin woodcuts, 130 Degas artworks of ballet dancers, horses and portraits then finish up with some of Cézanne’s drawings and studies.
Visit NGA Images
One of the most difficult parts of putting this post together is giving away the sites I want to keep secret so I can have all the best source material to myself! Just kidding I’m excited to share the LACMA image collection as it’s such a fantastic resource for creativity. One of my favourite collections is the 10,000-500 BC category featuring early art from all over the world. What’s not to love about this Iranian deer shaped vessel from 1350-800 B.C. or this Egyptian Figurine of the Goddess Bastet as a Cat from 1081 – 525 B.C. It’s a humbling experience to witness so many beautifully crafted artworks thousands of years before everything we think of as modern and advanced.
Visit Los Angeles County Museum of Art
NASA seriously delivers in this collection of photos from the Apollo space programme that ran from 1961–1972 and includes the not too small accomplishment of landing the first humans on the Moon. This collection from Apollo 11’s incredible mission captures that other worldly wonder the moon landings gave us all. For example you can download this iconic Buzz Aldrin photo in 4048 x 3968 high resolution to use for absolutely anything you want as NASA has generously placed it in the public domain.
Visit The Project Apollo Archive
The first thing I noticed about the Walters Collection is the care and attention they’ve put into photographic the artworks. Sculptures and art objects are expertly lit and captured in high resolution images that accentuate colour and form. The site is also one of the best designed and very user friendly with easy to download high res images. The Walters Art Museum is based in Baltimore, Maryland and its collection traverses the third millennium B.C. to the early 20th century. I enjoyed the Art of The Ancient Americas section especially this Mexican Female Performer With Drum. You can also search the collection using Tags with an A-Z of topics from birds to beards and tempera to terracotta.
Visit The Walters Collection
The Morgan Library & Museum is based in the heart of New York City. Their online collection contains a large sections of drawings and an impressive array of Rembrandt prints. Discover the intricately illustrated Prayer Book of Claude de France that can fit in the palm of your hand. There’s plenty more images to find but things can get more tricky to navigate with illustrated manuscripts such as The Crusader Bible demanding a trawl through a list of links with no image previews. The rewards can be worth it though with Gothic illustrations of the Days of Creation and Noah’s Ark.
Visit The Morgan Library & Museum Collection
I’ve saved one of the best free public domain images resources ’til last. It’s only got a few thousand images at the moment but it’s only going to keep getting better and better as more people contribute to the collection over time. Wikipedia’s criteria for inclusion sets the bar super high in terms of free license, high resolution, excellent image quality and detailed descriptions. How does this translate in real life? Check out The Garden of Earthly Delights by Bosch where you can download the original file at a staggering 30,000 × 17,078 pixels (file size: 222.86 MB). That’s high quality! Wikipedia Featured Pictures sets the standard for freely distributing public domain images and I hope many other sites follow their lead. The Paintings, Architecture and Outer Space sections are particularly worth bookmarking for future reference.
Visit Wikipedia Featured Pictures
Phew, let’s call it a day here eh! Hope you found this collection of public domain images helpful for making art and fuelling your creative projects. I’ll be coming back to use it myself for painting, drawing and collage source material. Please share the post on social media if you found it useful, appreciate it!