I recently published a 306-page Dungeons & Dragons adventure. As you can imagine, sourcing royalty free artwork for this epic endeavour was no mean task, and one that started in a very frustrating manner.
After hours of scouring every corner of the website, I basically found ONE good source for D&D and RPG art and that was Drivethru.com (there are a few other ‘ok’ ones worth knowing, and I will list them later on this page). To begin with I didn’t even find Drivethru to be exactly a chest full of artistic riches either, but as I learned how to search and delve through the site I did finally turn up enough quality images to adorn my adventure with some truly gorgeous art that fitted the story, most of it extremely fairly priced.
Given how much time I invested in turning up top quality art, I figured a blog post on the subject might be in order, which hopefully should prove useful to freelance D&D adventure writers and indie RPG games publishers alike – as well as maybe the odd fantasy novelist!
While Drivethru’s search field is a pretty good way to source specific monster art and villains, given that the website catalogues all kinds of gaming supplements you need to append your search with ‘art’, ‘stock’ etc (in other words you need to search for ‘orc stock art’ not ‘orcs’, as the latter will bring up adventures related to orcs, rather than royalty free images you can use). Otherwise, the website has a ‘publisher resources’ filter (under Product Type) which is also useful to click and search by, and which can be further refined to search for commercial license stock art.
Apart from making the most of Drivethru’s search functions and filters, I think the most valuable trick I learned, however, was to hone in on the best artists on Drivethru and search for suitable illustrations etc via their profiles. Not everything on Drivethru is labelled well enough to be found via search alone, so identifying the best artists and searching their portfolios turned up a lot of gems I would have missed otherwise.
With that in mind, let me break down the artists I found with the largest collections of quality artwork, so you can get straight down to business…
Drivethru Stock Artists
I’m going to walk you through my favourite artists, with little previews of their available portfolios. If you like what you see, follow the links provided to reach the artists’ profile pages on Drivethru, where you can browse their entire collection and purchase the art. Most of the art is licensed for single use, and I would advise that you should check the licensing agreement before you purchase, wherever possible (most put artists put the agreement in the description).
1. Dean Spencer
Dean must be the most prolific artist on Drivethru, and luckily also one of the very best. I probably used more pieces by Dean than any other artist, when I published Dragonbowl, and you can be pretty confident of finding appropriate material if you’re publishing any stories or supplements in a fantasy / Dungeons & Dragons setting. He does have a few horror, sci-fi and cyberpunk pieces too. See all his work on his Drivethru page here.
– Dean Spencer Cover Art
These are a range of covers large enough to use for printed products. They all cost $14.50, and as you can see Dean has a talent for painting compelling scenes!
– Dean Spencer Quarter Page Art
These are mostly smaller versions of the cover art Dean has for sale. They cost $3.75 each and make for great interior art. Browse here.
– Dean Spencer Filler Art
Some of this art is cut from Dean’s larger works, but there’s also a host of handy spot art that can work in almost any fantasy roleplaying product. Dean covers a lot of classic fantasy tropes within this selection, so you are likely to find something that fits your adventure / supplement.
2. Forrest Imel
Forrest is one of the most talented artists I’ve seen on Drivethru, and while his work is more expensive than most (currently $25 a figure vs. $5-10 for more other artists), the stunning hyper-real style means the outlay seems more than fair. Those looking for packs will find he has a couple of ‘Fantasy Classes’ series on offer, starting with this one.
3. LPJ Design
LPJ Design is my little secret! Their Portfolio series shares awesome fantasy, sci-fi and superhero art…. BUT you have to click the preview to see exactly what’s in each package. I only realised this when I bought a lovely piece of art and found that I had 5 more amazing pieces for the same price. Once I realised this I went through each of their Portfolio titles and clicking on the previews to discover hidden gems behind the front cover piece (which may or may not be of interest). Contributing artists include Storn Cook and Jarek Madyda and there are some really first rate pieces: including some fairly hipster-styled heroes and villains!
4. Daniel Comerci Art
Daniel Comerci produces some beautiful character illustrations in a comic book / flat style. He has a nice mix of heroic and humble folk. His common dungeon items and arcane object packs are also very useful. Browse his Drivethru page here.
5. Bryan Syme (Quiet Thunder Productions)
Brian is another of my favourite artists on Drivethru, and I wish his collection was larger, because it’s all top quality stuff. You can check it out yourself, right here.
6. Misfit Studios
I think Misfit Studios have the biggest collection of royalty free fantasy and sci-fi art bar none available on the internet. You have to do a bit of work to find it, starting with clicking on their profile and then drilling down to the dozen or so artist subpages.
– Eric Lofgren (Misfit Studios)
By far the largest contributor to Misfit Studios’s collections is Eric Lofgren whose portfolio includes no shortage of adventurers, villains, monsters, covers, superheroes, spaceships and other sci-fi illustrations. Browse all his pieces here.
7. Purple Duck Games
Purple Duck Games appear to be a Pathfinder supplement publisher who have made their large catalogue of stock art available to buy on Drivethru. I will also highlight some individual artist profiles I like:
– Brian Brinlee (Purple Duck)
Brian is a great character artist who designed the front covers of my Totem of the Leopard, Lion and Cheetah barbarian paths for the DMs Guild. He has over 40 works on Drivethru, including several works of steampunk art. His two warrior packs are particularly good value!
– Brett Neufeld (Purple Duck)
Nice clean style from Brett, who has 86 pieces for sale on Drivethru. A good mix of characters and objects.
8. Eric Pommer (Mindplaces)
Eric has a realistic artistic style, typically using a fairly neutral pallet of greens, browns and greys, coupled with deep shadows. His art represents some common fantasy themes, like guards, bards and lockpicking thieves – perfect for adventure writers. He also has some fantastic covers for sale. See all his works on Drivethru.org here.
9. Brandon Chang
Brandon Chang’s art has a clear anime influence (in my eyes at least), giving it a specific aesthetic. He has a lot of cool characters in cool action poses, many of which defy typical fantasy tropes. He has around 20 pieces available to buy for commercial use.
Vagelio has a more whimsical style than most of the other artists on Drivethru, with inked lines and pastel colours that suit a fairytale adventure or children’s story. Check out her entire collection here, which features some beautiful full page / cover art.
This list so far is far from exhaustive and here are some other artists whose work I recommend, which for brevity’s sake, I will just give honourable mentions for now. If you haven’t found what you’re looking for yet, check these out:
Ramon Lucha – Lots of nasty beasties, often with a touch of the grotesque about them.
Tortoise & Hare Creations – High fantasy art in a very colourful and pronounced style.
Fat Goblin Games – A games publisher with collections by several different talented artists, particularly Joyce Maureira and Felipe Gaona. A lot of their work has a very retro, old school feel about it.
Rogue Genius Games – More bold and bright stock art by Jacob Blackmon, including a lot of animals, monsters and bad guys / gals.
Freehand Transmute – a few really nice pieces here that could work as covers or full page interior spreads.
Basilisk Art – Two or three stunning pieces in this small collection.
Vilches & Charro – One or two amazing set pieces, and some quality portraits.
Other Stock Art Resources
Ok, now that I’ve covered Drivethru, I’ll take a brief look at some of the other websites where one can get their hands on fantasy art one can use in their commercial projects.
If you’re not familiar with it yet, the DMs Guild is a sister site of Drivethru and a market place for all kinds of Dungeon & Dragon supplementary products, including classic out of print titles. Pretty much the only thing you can’t buy here are the official latest 5e releases by Wizards of the Coast (you have to go to Amazon for those), but overall its a vast repository of fan and independent-created content. I myself have released a dozen or so 5e D&D supplements and adventures here.
In terms of art, there’s a bunch of free ‘DMs Guild creator resources‘ packs full of fantastic old Wizards of the Coast art from previous editions of the game. This is an absolute life saver if – and only if – you’re creating 5th edition Dungeons & Dragons content for sale on the DMs Guild. This art can’t be used for any other purpose – something to bear in mind!
Aside from that, there is a small selection of useful stock art to browse by other contributors, such as this pack of items, these 25 character illustrations, these beautiful green and blue dragons, and some nice pieces by Adela Quiles.
Shutterstock boasts some stunning fantasy works, particularly atmospheric landscapes, and also has plenty of horror and sci-fi imagery. The subscription model is extremely off putting for small independent creators like myself and I’m not going to commit to €30 a month without any guarantees that I’m going to find what I need… for someone with a lot of projects on the go, it would no doubt make more sense though. Visit their website to have a browse.
This is a huge resource of completely free to use stock images, and I usually end up dipping into Pixabay for a few little pieces on any given project. There’s a lot of rather trite dreamy nonsense here, as well as hyper sexualised 3D art that I’d recommend you avoid for any serious endeavour, but there are a few gems, as well as photos that you can run a filter over to create something more suitable for an RPG product.
Another small website that’s been knocked together rather cheaply, and where you’ll have to do a bit of pan sifting to find any gold, but worth dropping by to see for yourself.
I should probably sign off my saying that while it’s possible to search and find some great Creative Commons art, such art is rarely licensed for commercial use. I.e. if you’re planning on using the images in a product that you will sell, legally you’re on shaky ground. Meanwhile, some beautiful old paintings by Renaissance masters may look great and Leonardo may not be around to sue for damages, but often the photo of the artwork you find online is actually a copyrighted work of art itself, even if the actual painting is far too old to be bound by copyright law. I prefer to tread carefully.
Another option of course for publishers is to commission bespoke art, and certainly this will give your project a professional feel that stock can rarely deliver, as art that fits the story is really the best type. Perhaps in a future article I’ll give my thoughts on that topic and share some tips for commissioning artists.