Where to Find Illustrations for Study and Work: The Best Free Sources

Antique paintings and photographs are not only useful for studying and writing research papers, they are also a good way to illustrate your project or product.

As a rule, such images have long been in the public domain, so you can safely use them for personal and commercial purposes. They are great as a source of inspiration for creating casino site Playamo games and a way to make a college presentation brighter. But searching for them in ordinary search engines may be inconvenient: it’s better to turn to curated collections with verified licenses.

These search engines, library and museum collections will help you find an illustration for any task.

Types of Licenses

Most of the images found on the resources on the list can indeed be downloaded for free, but you need to consider licenses for use in projects: some only allow use of the image for non-commercial purposes.

Publicly available images are usually distributed under a Creative Commons license. There are six in total, but in my estimation, free media content is more often managed by two.

CC0 1.0 Universal (CC0 1.0) makes an image in the public domain, you can use it for yourself and for commercial purposes, without attribution.

Attribution-NonCommercial 4.0 International (CC BY-NC 4.0) allows the image to be used only for non-commercial purposes and with a link to the source. Images with this license can be inserted in theses and dissertations. When the work is published, the terms of use are retained if the publication is distributed under the same terms as the image.

Information about the use of media content from a particular database is usually spelled out in the Terms of Use section of the site, and the license type of a particular image is in the metadata.


A database of media content compiled from the collections of museums and libraries. It contains over 30 million images, much of it in the public domain.

Europeana has the advantage of a search engine that allows you to refine your query by many parameters, including visual and content characteristics of the image, region, and period of origin. Plus you can choose the type of license and subject of the image: “fashion”, “migration”, “music” and others.

Moreover, the site has selections ranging from Chinese influences on European fashion and amulets from different eras to the image of the hermit in art.


PICRYL is a system for finding images in the public domain. Since there are many sources, the search engine can find a wide variety of materials, from medieval miniatures, portraits and photographs of cats to children’s drawings and daguerreotypes.

The material the system gives access to is in the public domain, and can be used without a license. To download high-resolution images, you’ll need a subscription, which costs $25 a month. It also includes a service that improves the quality of the original images.

The British Museum

The museum’s electronic catalog features engravings, works by famous artists like William Blake, images of everyday objects such as 17th-century Indian playing cards and shadow puppets, and artifacts from cultures of the ancient world, including from the famous Egyptian collection.

The search engine allows you to refine your query by various parameters: historical period, material of which the object you are looking for is made of, region of origin. Besides the general catalog, the site has thematic galleries created by curators devoted to death or Chinese culture.

Much of the material in the museum’s electronic collection of media content is licensed under CC BY-NC 4.0, which allows free use of images for non-commercial purposes. You can purchase images for commercial use on a separate website.


A simple search engine that searches the collections of various institutions, including the Rijksmuseum in Amsterdam and the New York Public Library. Accordingly, the materials are varied, too – there are art objects, newspapers, magazines, and documentary photographs.

Although Museo has no fine-tuning, it allows you to search for specific types and contents, such as prints or images of plants.

The pictures in the results are in the public domain and can be freely used and distributed.

Smithsonian Research Center

Under the Smithsonian Research Center, there are many museums in regions of the U.S. – the site includes images of the exhibits.

The search works through three thematic catalogs: Art and Design, History and Culture, and Science and Nature. Since many of the institute’s museums specialize in historical, technical and natural science topics, it’s easy to find ethnographic photographs, images of machinery, biological and medical illustrations and images in the collections. Furthermore, the electronic collection has a section with 3D models of various exhibits.

Some of the images on this resource are licensed to restrict commercial use. To ensure that only images with a CC0 license are displayed, make a note of it in your search results.


In the online catalogs of the Bibliothèque Nationale de France one can find illustrative materials from its collection. The images are categorized: there are sections on biological illustration, prints, and posters. You can then search by author or content of the image. For example, the poster catalog has sections like fashion, religion, and tourism. Gallica also has thematic selections, such as those devoted to cities in France.

The images in the National Library’s digital collection can be used free of charge for non-commercial purposes. Commercial use requires a special license, but this rule doesn’t apply to academic publications.