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Public domain art resources
Using public domain art in tabletop game design
Time for a break from data visualizations and code! Let’s talk about public domain art in tabletop games!
Public domain art
Public domain art is awesome. If you are just starting out, you might not have much of a budget for custom art. Perhaps you are making a historical game, and want to use period art as part of the theme. In both cases, public domain art is a possible option!
With some minimal work, a public domain piece can be touched up to work quite nicely in a variety of formats. Here’s the original Monstrous Pig of Landser from The Met, converted to black and white, and levels adjusted:
A little more work, and that would easily fit in a TTRPG zine!
But first I feel like a small disclaimer may be in order…
Public Domain, Open Access, CC0… the world of public domain art and licensing can be confusing. This post is not a comprehensive guide to the distinctions between licenses, nor does it cover the differences in public domain law between various nations.
You might recognize it from MÖRK BORG:
The Tate Collection says their images are released under a Creative Commons CC-BY-NC-ND license. This means that you must include attribution, you can’t use it for commercial purposes, and you can’t remix/transform it into a derivative work.
And yet, you can find The Deluge on Wikipedia with the following note:
So Wikipedia says The Deluge image is in the public domain based on laws in the United States, but that may not be the case in other countries.
It’s complicated, and I’m not an expert in this.
Instead, this post is simply a list of some of the resources I consider to be most helpful when trying to choose art for a project. I am not a lawyer. If you plan to use any art, be sure to follow all applicable licenses and local laws.
Where to find public domain art
1. The Public Domain Review
The Public Domain Review opened my eyes to the wide variety of public art that is available. Essays, collections, and more, this is less a repository of public domain art than it is a “exploration of curious and compelling works from the history of art, literature, and ideas.” A fantastic place to browse on a regular basis and get inspiration. This site began my love of woodcuts from the early modern period.
2. The Met
Since 2017, The Metropolitan Museum of Art (The Met) has made “all images of public-domain artworks and basic data on all accessioned works in its collection available for unrestricted use under Creative Commons Zero (CC0).” It’s now one of my favorite sites to just browse art and enjoy the images. The search filters are useful, and the image downloads are usually high resolution. Be sure to filter the result to only show Open Access images.
3. National Gallery of Art
The National Gallery of Art in Washington, DC also has an Open Access policy. It has a large collection of drawings, paintings, photographs, prints, and sculptures. You can limit the search to only items that have images, and the downloads are high resolution. I haven’t used this one as much as The Met, but it’s worth browsing.
4. Google Arts & Culture
Google Arts & Culture is different than the other resources listed. Most of the images (as far as I can tell) are either not in the public domain or they aren’t high enough resolution to use for print. The site does, however, have fantastic ways to browse a wide variety of art either by artist, time periods, or other criteria. Pieces usually have a helpful text description. I’ve been able to find art or artists using Google Arts & Culture and then go get the high resolution images from a source like The Met.
Artvee has a collection of over 200,000 public domain paintings, drawings, posters, and illustrations. I’ve found this to be one of the best resources for full color paintings. While the low resolutions files (e.g. 1152 x 1800px) are free, you’ll need to upgrade to Artvee Pro for $7.99 USD/month to get the high resolution images (e.g. 3081 x 4816px). Depending on how you use them, the smaller images might be just fine, especially for spot art. Full page 300dpi A5 art with a 3mm bleed (approx. 1819 x 2551px), however, will probably require the higher resolution versions.
6. Biodiversity Heritage Library
The Biodiversity Heritage Library, part of The Smithsonian, is an interesting resource for public domain plant and animal images. The collection, in my experience, is mostly scans of books. The search functionality is a bit trickier than some other sites, but if you can find the right book, it can be a treasure trove of images. Alternatively, the BHL Flickr album might be a good way to browse for images.
7. New York Public Library
The New York Public Library Digital Collections site is “a living database with new materials added every day, featuring prints, photographs, maps, manuscripts, streaming video, and more.” The search allows you to limit to only public domain items, and they maintain a group of Public Domain Picks. The collection also contains floor plans which could be useful, depending on your project.
8. Old Book Illustrations
Old Book Illustrations is a searchable database of images which strives to be a “destination of choice for visitors more particularly interested in Victorian and French Romantic illustration.” Not the best search abilities, but it has a wonderful collection of Gustav Doré illustrations, and each image has a detailed description.
Rijksmuseum is the national museum of the Netherlands, dedicated to Dutch arts and history. Perhaps most famous for it’s Johannes Vermeer collection, but it has so much more. You can browse via Rijks Studio, building your own collections and checking out collections from others. At the risk of offending serious art critics everywhere, imagine Spotify playlists but for art! Great search functionality, high resolution images, color palettes, and easy to browse. It also has an impressive collection of Albrecht Dürer woodcuts, which I appreciate.
Some things to think about:
Check the license before using any art assets. The sites above are all very clear which items are in the public domain, but not all are like that.
It can take time and effort to find good public domain art. You can spend hours browsing collections looking for a few pieces to use, but I think it can be an extremely rewarding experience. I have a new appreciation for art that I didn’t have before. Consider taking your time, and just enjoying it!
Look for public domain art around you. I now watch for book covers, posters, ads, and other things that could be using public domain art. If you do this enough, you’ll start to recognize common pieces and maybe the original source. It’s a fun way to get inspiration and ideas.
And if you need some weird little traced woodcuts for your next project, be sure to check out Rabbits & Demons. I plan to add new pieces as I complete them. They are free to use.
What are your favorite public domain art resources? Have you seen public domain art used in novel ways in TTRPGs or board games? Please share them!
See you next week!
— E.P. 💀
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