Last Updated on January 26, 2023
Whether you are in search of a new character portrait, looking for a rogue’s gallery of NPCs, or just looking for inspiration for your next Dungeons & Dragons 5e campaign, here are three great sites for finding art, artists, and source materials that are available for free and in the public domain.
The Best Places To Find Free Public Domain Images and Art
- Artvee — free, high resolution (with optional Pro tier for even bigger files), beautifully presented (but there are gaps in the collection)
- Wikimedia Commons — huge selection, more than just art, requires creative searching (it’s a bit of a mess)
- The Public Domain Review — eclectic, beautifully curated, will distract you from planning your campaign
Click here for five of our favorite artists (whose work is in the public domain) to use as inspiration for D&D characters and campaigns.
A relative newcomer to the public domain art hosting space that’s quickly become my go-to starting point when I’m looking for art, Artvee’s big selling points are its interface and the overall high resolution of its scans. A lot of public domain sites (looking at you Wikimedia Commons) definitely favor function over form, but Artvee is a real pleasure to browse.
You can explore by genre, artist, or artistic movement. And, the process of creating collections of art you like or just favoriting specific pieces makes it really easy to gather up a whole bunch of media to help you mood board a campaign, add depth to your notes, or create handouts for players.
The other big selling point of Artvee is the sheer size of the images you can download. Wikimedia Commons may only have a file available in 200×200 pixel format, but Artvee’s files are of a respectably high resolution. It’s a shame that they recently locked away their really high-res versions of images behind a Pro Tier subscription, but if you want even bigger files for a commercial project or big print job, it’s not too pricey.
The world’s biggest repository of freely available media, Wikimedia Commons is an open-source library of more than 90 million images to which anyone can contribute. It’s absolutely packed with historical paintings by famous artists or completely obscure ones, maps of buildings and ships, illustrations, and sketches. Its biggest draw is that it’s got everything.
Sadly, Wikimedia Commons’ biggest flaw is that, well, it’s got everything. Search for “dragon,” and yes, you will get some stunning examples of medieval art as well as the evocative, harrowing painting by William Blake. You will also probably get 200+ pictures of a Swedish metal band’s gig from 2009 shot on a camera with a grand total of 2 chunky megapixels.
It’s a very mixed bag, and you’ll need to do a lot of searching by category. To do this, go to the bottom of an entry and look at the categories, which can be incredibly helpful and include paintings by the same author or paintings of similar subjects.
Overall, WIkimedia Commons is an amazing, if deeply flawed, resource. I’ve used it many times, but it’s not something you can just browse; you need to go in with intent, and if the site doesn’t surrender its treasure immediately, come at it with some lateral search terms.
The Public Domain Review
Lastly, a place I go looking more often for inspiration than actual content to steal, we have the Public Domain Review. This site is the place to go if you want to explore just how weird, wonderful, and esoteric public-domain art can get. You might struggle to find the exact picture of a knight fighting a dragon you were looking for, but you’ll also struggle to scroll down their front page and not find something that catches your eye.
I went to the Public Domain Review site to refresh my memory for this article and immediately lost an hour and a half reading about the blood collages of John Bingley Garland (see above — that one is made from cut-up scraps of William Blake’s engraving titled The Soul exploring the Recesses of the Grave), the 1910 painting “The Mermaid” by Howard Pyle (who also does some of my favorite illustrations of the golden age of piracy), and a charming photobook from 1910 called The Book of Bread, which, yes, is all about bread.
The Public Domain Review presents not only images (as well as books, films, and essays in full) but also accompanies them with contextual and analytical articles that are well written and easy enough to read. I’m a huge fan. Even if it’s not necessarily the best place to go with a targeted search in mind, you can very easily get lost in an ocean of different sources of inspiration. Personally, I’m going to go write an adventure about a cursed bread factory that’s being tormented by a mermaid.
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I played my first tabletop RPG (Pathfinder 1e, specifically) in college. I rocked up late to the first session with an unread rulebook and a human bard called Nick Jugger. It was a rocky start but I had a blast and now, the better part of a decade later, I play, write, and write about tabletop RPGs (mostly 5e, but also PBtA, Forged in the Dark and OSR) games for a living, which is wild.