Looking for an inexpensive way to fill your walls or your FrameTV with some beautiful artwork? Using FREE high resolution digital downloads of images currently in the public domain is a great place to start! Below you’ll find galleries filled with links to some of my favorite images currently available in the public domain! For more details on how this gallery works, usage rights, what the term “public domain” means, or tips for printing your digital downloads, scroll down to the bottom of this page!
Portraits & People
Drawings & Illustrations
A QUICK GUIDE TO USING
PUBLIC DOMAIN ARTWORK
WHAT DOES TERM “PUBLIC DOMAIN” MEAN?
When an artist creates a piece of creative work, that work is immediately granted a copyright to them. In general, copyright protection lasts the lifetime of the artist plus an additional 70 years after their death. Which means that during that time, the artist, or their family, own the exclusive rights to the work, and if anyone else wants to use it, show it, print it, etc they need to gain some form of permission from the copyright owner first, often this permission includes a usage fee.
AFTER this period expires, meaning the creator has died and 70 years have passed since their death, the copyrights on their creative work are terminated and the item passes into the “Public Domain”. Meaning that anyone can use it freely without having to seek permission, or pay usage fees to the original creator.
Artists can also CHOOSE to place their work into the Public Domain right away if they so desire. (This is how websites like Unsplash work).
Another term that has been newly created to designate those creative works that no longer have any copyrights assigned to them is CC0 (Creative Commons Zero).
The legal system is a bit of a tangle over the term “Public Domain” with some jurisdictions recognizing differing rules for how and when rights are automatically removed or granted from a creative work. The term CC0 was created to help solve this problem by giving creators a more universal way to waive all their copyrights. (You can read more about CC0 here)
WHAT THAT MEANS TO YOU
What all that means for you is this: if a work is in fact 100% in the public domain, and you obtained it from a public domain source, then it is in fact legal to print, sell, or do whatever you would like with the work.
To be 100% certain, always be sure to carefully read any information on the website where you are obtaining your images from to ensure that they have the rights to be sharing the images and have not set any limitations on your use of them (ie can be used for personal or educational use only). In addition, things that are Public Domain in the United States, may not be in other countries, so just do your research.
BUT WHAT ABOUT THE CREATOR!?
This is an important question that I think too often goes unasked. In my personal opinion, just because a work is no longer copyrighted to the artist who created it, doesn’t mean that the artist doesn’t deserve recognition for their work still. Let me say that again. Just because the creator is dead and has been dead for the past 70 years, doesn’t give anyone the right to strip their name from their artwork.
Why am I harping on this? Because there are, A LOT, of digital download services out there right now gathering up artwork in the public domain, stripping the pieces of their original titles and artist’s name, throwing them up on their digital storefronts and then selling the digital downloads of the images with no recognition that the work is not their own. Or if there is recognition that these are “vintage” images and not their own artwork that they are selling, there is still no attribution of the work to any artist.
While I will admit that most of these services do in fact put in many many hours of hard work to sources these images, digitally update them for optimal printing, crop them to better fit various common size format needs for our modern day audiences, or even go as far as altering them to remove details they find distracting, and yes, while all that hard work is valuable, it still does not change the fact that they are not the original authors of the work they are selling and are choosing not to credit the original artist in any way.
Do I think it is wrong for them to sell these images? No. I actually don’t mind the fact that they are doing the hard work of digging through these archives and curating collections of images for people who don’t have the time or inclination to do so. I don’t even mind that they are digitally updating them to ensure they come out looking their best when printed. (Although some would argue heavily against anyone altering another person’s artwork). What I DO MIND is that it feels like they are not being fully honest. It feels as if they are attempting to pass off another person’s artistic creation as their own, even if doing so only by omission. This essentially steals the audiences chance to connect with the real artist in a deeper way, rabbit hole down exploring all the other work that artist created and building a relationship with the artwork that goes beyond “a pretty picture to hang on my wall”.
The bottom line is, I’m all for utilizing artwork in the public domain, but I think we owe the original artist the respect of at least knowing their name and crediting them with the work. Something as simple as “Name Of Artwork” Digitally Updated By XXX Print Shop From An Original Work By XXX Artist is all I want… is that too much to ask? I don’t think so.
HOW THIS GALLERY WORKS
Because I think it’s important for you to know where this artwork is coming from, and because I think it’s important to make sure that these archives receive the hits and web traffic to their site that they deserve as thanks for hosting these images and providing the service that they do, I’ve designed this gallery as a sort of curated collection of links.
So what you’ll find in each of the galleries above are low res image preview files of the images that I’ve curated. Clicking on any of the files will then take you directly to the archive where that image is available for a free high-resolution digital download.
I *HIGHLY* encourage you to look around while you’re there and see what else you may find, since the artwork that spoke to me and that I chose to include in this curated gallery may not be the images that speak to you.
If you would like to do your own search, the main archives I browsed to find these images were:
- The Met Open Access Collection
- National Gallery of Art Collection
- Art Institute of Chicago Collection
- The Smithsonian Institution Collection
- Paris Musées Collection (this one is mostly in french and can be a bit more challenging to navigate)
- Wikimedia Commons
- Yale Center For British Art
TIPS FOR PRINTING YOUR PUBLIC DOMAIN ARTWORK
Let’s talking printing for a second.
If you plan to print your images and not just use them digitally, here are a few general tips:
- Before you download your image, look at the description for the image on the website and check out what the dimensions are for the original work of art. As a general guide, I would suggest not trying to print your image larger than the artworks original dimensions. So if something was originally only 8in tall, I wouldn’t try to blow it up and print it as a 16X20. It can be done, but as a general rule I try to avoid this.
- Another way to ensure your image will print properly is to look look at the pixel dimensions on your digital download (these will vary widely), then consult this handy guide I’ll link to here, to see how big you can print that file. Some common ones are:
- 8×10 – Best Quality 2400 x 3000 / Minimum Required 1000 x 1250
- 11×14 – Best Quality 3300 x 4200 / Minimum Required 1375 x 1750
- 16×20 – Best Quality 4800 x 6000 / Minimum Required 2000 x 2500
- If you find yourself needing to print something using the minimum pixel dimension required, try to print your image on textured paper instead of plain glossy paper. The texture in the paper will help hide the lower pixel quality, where as glossy paper will amplify it.
- Because we’re using images that are often scans from museum archives and have not been updated and altered for ease of printing, be aware that some file may need to be cropped in a bit to clean up the edges. Especially if you don’t plan to use a mat in your frame.
- Lastly, be sure that your printer of choice regularly calibrates their printing machines. Places that print images as a random added service often don’t calibrate their machines as often as a professional print shop does. I like to go to my local professional print shop, or order my print from a professional print shop online for this reason. Going through a professional print shop will also usually give you the option to print on other various types of paper as well.