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Finding and Using Images: Searching for Images

Use this guide to help you find images for your art history, studio art, and design courses. (Originally written by Heather Lowe of the Visual Resource Center.)

Search language


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 Oxford Art Online, 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 databases, you have to be on campus or logged in. Remember that you may need to log in to the Pfau Library catalog using your Coyote ID and password to access many resources from an off-campus location.

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.

Subject Guide

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Stacy Magedanz
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