Submitted Date 02/25/2020

Poetry and visual art have always had a complementary relationship. While captivating writing is surely enough to distinguish a poetry manuscript, I've noticed (in my reviews as a freelance poetry editor) that the trend of adding illustrations to poetry books is becoming popular once again. Often, the poet will include simple sketches of their own, or they might hire an illustrator or graphic designer. Images generally don't appear on every page, but are used to complement key poems. Of course, whether publishing poetry, novels, or nonfiction, most writers use at least some kind of illustration for their book cover. I am 100% in favor of hiring a visual artist for this purpose, as I love the idea of artists supporting other artists, but there may be situations when you simply can't afford custom images. In these cases, your first thought might be to turn to stock image websites. You can certainly find many sites, like Pixabay, that offer free photos and illustrations for commercial use, and that is a viable option, but I want to present another way to use high-quality images for free. Keywords: out-of-copyright.

We'll start with some background on copyright. Copyright law protects an artist's work from being printed, copied, or distributed without their permission. But copyright is not granted indefinitely. Generally, it expires 70 years after the death of the artist, and, thereafter, the work goes into public domain. As of 2020, almost all works published before 1924 are in public domain, meaning the art can be reprinted by anyone. I mention "most" and not "all" because it is possible to have a copyright legally extended--though that would be a rare case. This is all great news for you and your poetry book. You can draw upon and honor the artwork of late artists, possibly reintroducing creations that have been out of the public eye for decades. Now comes the thoughtful work of finding copies of images that fit your theme and writing style. Honestly, this can be quite time-consuming. The benefit of illustrating yourself or hiring an illustrator is the power to ensure that the artwork pairs perfectly with your poetry. When you are searching through previously published images, you will likely collect prints that fit your general themes rather than specific lines of poetry.

There are a few ways to find these works. You can browse websites of organizations that collate art for your convenience, or you can do your own research. You may wish to research online, but it'll likely become more overwhelming than a physical library. Usually the information in books is more reliably sourced, and you can specifically look in the arts section of your local library--browsing books that feature work from the 1920s or prior. I also suggest doing specific searches to get a variety of options. Certainly it's not possible for any one source to make available the works of thousands of deceased artists. English publications often feature prints by Americans or Europeans, so make sure to specifically look for Indigenous, Hispanic, Asian, and African illustrators as well.

Now that you know a great tip for obtaining free, high-quality illustrations, I'd like to give some suggestions for incorporating them into your manuscript. Generally, it'd be helpful to maintain a consistent aesthetic in your book. Once you connect with a piece of art, do research to find other works done by the same artist. Alternatively, you can research the materials used (charcoal, watercolor, etc.) and search for complementary art that way. This is, unless you want to search based on a very clear theme. For example, I plan to publish my upcoming poetry book "to mother" around Mother's Day, so I'll likely search for diverse depictions of motherhood rather than try to maintain a certain aesthetic. Further, out of respect for the artist, I think it's best not to alter their piece. Just as I would not change lines in someone else's poem, I wouldn't want to display artwork in a way other than intended. If you are inspired by just a certain part of the artwork, you can note that you've chosen an excerpt from the source. For example, if you wish to show just one scene from the Sistine Chapel ceiling (it being such a large work), you can attribute the part featured as "Excerpt from the Sistine Chapel ceiling, Michelangelo, 1508-12".

Ready. Set. Search. Here are some webpages to get you started:
Library of Congress
Smithsonian Institution Collections
The Public Domain Review
Wikipedia: Public domain art
MET Museum (and search other art museums)


ANDREA HOPE is a poet, editor, and world citizen, whose works have won acclaim in North America, Europe, and the Middle East. Her poetry book, TO MOTHER, is available on Amazon in paperback and ebook formats.


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