Finding Images

Finding images is easy. Finding the right image can be difficult. This guide will help you develop search and evaluation strategies that can make finding the perfect image a lot easier.

Deciding where to look

Where you look for an image will really affect the results you get. You probably wouldn't want to go to Flickr to find an image of Picasso's Guernica. And likewise, you wouldn't go searching a museum's collection for an image to use in your graphic design project. Asking the following two questions can help you determine where to look. The first will help you decide if you need to license the image, the second will help you decide the type of collection you should search.

  • Do I need this for educational, artistic, or commercial purposes?
    • Educational purposes. In many cases, using images in your school projects will be protected by fair use exemptions to copyright. Unless you are going to publish an image of another artists' work, you should generally be able to use images of copyrighted material in your school research and presentations.
    • Artistic purposes. Using images in your own work is a much more complex issue. Fair use guidelines suggest that many reuses of copyrighted material in original, noncommercial work might be considered fair. You may want to take a closer look at the Artists and Copyright information provided by the VRC to decide whether you can use another's image in the way you wish.
    • Commercial purposes. Any commercial reproduction of an image, even if you somewhat alter the image might be a copyright violation. If the image will play a large role in your design, you will most likely need to license the image. You're also much more likely to be scrutinized by copyright holders and the legal system if your design is used commercially.
  • What is the general content of the image?
    • The type of image you're looking for will also have a big impact on where you should look for it. For example, if you're working on a painting and need a reference drawing of the human skeletal system, you might want to search a medical image resource rather than an art image resource.
    • If you're looking for certain types of artwork (minimal, political, etc), you might want to find a gallery or museum that exhibits work in that category.
    • If you need a large, high resolution image for a graphic design project, your best bet may be the Creative Commons or a stock image database.


Unlike articles whose entire text may be searched, searching for images can be especially tricky because you must match your search terms to the cataloguer description. Often the cataloguer may not use the same vocabulary as you. What can you do to improve your chances?

  • Plan ahead
    Think up lists of keywords that might describe the image you want. Try to think of synonyms, broader terms, and narrower terms. Think of different ways to look for the image: artist, title, description, date, and geographic region. Each of this might help lead you to the right image.
  • Switch it up Don't be afraid to change strategies in the middle of a search. If nothing turns up with the terms you're using, try switching databases, terms, or what field you're searching in. Is there a good way to browse the images?
  • Get help
    When all else fails, try getting expert help. You can refine the terms you're searching by searching a thesaurus such as the Getty Art & Architecture Thesaurus, Getty Union List of Artist Names, or the Library of Congress Authorities. These resources will usually give you a list of related terms and tell you which one is preferred.
  • You can also try general art history resources like The Metropolitan Museum of Art's Hielbrunn Timeline of Art History or Smart History to help you locate styles, periods, and specific artists that interest you.

Get connected

Due to the copyright issues presented by publishing images on the web, many image databases require a subscription. Usually a library or university will subscribe to these resources, and in order to access the the databases, you have to be on campus or logged in. This is often accomplished with a VPN, or virtual proxy network, which is a way of making it appear as though your computer is on campus. Visit the Information Security Office website to find instructions for accessing the CSUSB VPN.

Another option is visiting your library or another campus. If CSUSB doesn't subscribe to a particular resource, your local library or another college near by might. Most public colleges allow the general public access to their libraries, including their wifi networks. You can choose to visit one of these institutions and use their resources while there.

Go analog

Sometimes the image you need just isn't available online. Try searching books in the VRC, the Pfau library or even your local public library. Many times a nice image can be scanned or photographed to the digital size required.

  • Scanning Recommendations:
    • Print item 200 – 360 dpi
    • Analog slide or film 1600 – 3200 dpi
  • Final image recommendations:
    • Screen 72 dpi (Powerpoint images 1024 x 768 px at 72 dpi)
    • Print 300 dpi

Also consider turning to special collections and archives. Are you working on a history paper or a narrative art project? Archives and special collections collect personal and institution papers. They are a wonderful resource for finding primary source images. You may have to pay a small fee for reproduction and an additional fee if you need to license an image.

Resources for finding images

General Art



Stock Images

Also see the resources lists.