I've been working on my own as a graphic designer, illustrator and animator for over a decade. When I first started, I created most of my artwork from scratch. I have fond memories of those years, but overtime there has been a greater need for efficiency as the business continues to grow.

Today, I use a lot more stock images which help speed up my process, however I'm feeling less like an artist and more of a hack.

My question is, am I being short-sighted by using stock images?

If I place my original designs front and center and accompany it with stock image "filler", can I still call it my own?

I imagine if I was still creating from scratch that I'd have a good collection of original art that I could sell as stock images -- money being made when I'm not working. Thoughts on this?

  • "If I place my original designs front and center and accompany it with stock image "filler", can I still call it my own?" - How can we answer that for you? It's a subjective question. Commented Jan 29, 2020 at 0:16
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    "I imagine if I was still creating from scratch that I'd have a good collection of original art that I could sell as stock images -- money being made when I'm not working. Thoughts on this?" - You could go through "what if"s all day. You have to deal with your current situation. Commented Jan 29, 2020 at 0:17

2 Answers 2


I use both.

If I place my original designs front and center and accompany it with stock image "filler", can I still call it my own?

The design? Absolutely! Simply not the artwork. You don't honestly think the guy building that "climbing" web site can go out and take photos of Mt Everest because the client wants a photo, not a drawing do you? There are some factors which preclude original artwork creation. Using stock imagery is standard in the industry for many designers for numerous reasons. Of course usage plays a large role here. If a stock illustration is 90% of a cover design and the primary driving factor. Then, well, I think I'd be uneasy taking credit without first explaining it's stock image.

Overall, it depends upon what is called for. I do not feel using stock images devalues a design overall. If a piece of stock imagery fits a piece then the choice is fine. I don't inherently think less of any design if I'm aware it's using stock imagery.

My question is, am I being short-sighted by using stock images?

Maybe. But that's your call. Stock artwork sales are their own animal. It's a "business model" more than anything. You can choose to use it or not and the return may or may not make it worthwhile.

Where I find most benefit to original creation is the in the fact that over the years I have built up a collection of my original artwork and will default to that collection first. I can charge clients based on that image I created 5 years ago with a minor edit while not needing to spend the time to create the artwork from scratch today. There's also a strong continuity factor if I use all my own artwork. I detest finding a "perfect" stock illustration for something and then needing 3 more similar images... but there's nothing which matches the same style as the first image.

When to use original artwork / when to use stock

If I know I don't have anything to fit a given usage, then it becomes a choice -- often dictated by deadlines and what a client has been quoted or is willing to pay for. It comes down to some questions I ask myself when quoting/bidding a project then I move forward based upon my own answers.....

  • Do I have the time, considering all project deadlines, to spend creating the artwork?

    • If "no", then I find stock imagery representing my concept as close as possible. But I won't spend days searching stock sites. I'll find the first or second acceptable piece and use that. I also tend to rarely, if ever, use stock images "as they were downloaded". I almost always alter them in some manner to create at least a modicum of uniqueness.
    • If yes ....before deciding on whether or not to create original artwork, and formulating an appropriate price, I ask myself a few more questions....

      1. Is the client likely or willing to cover the time and expense?
      2. Is the artwork something I'll use again in the future if I were to create it?
      3. Is the need imperative? Is there some project aspect so unique that my inclination is I will NOT find suitable stock images and I feel it's relatively imperative to have some kind of artwork in a specific location of the design?

If the answer to #1 , 2, or 3 is "yes", then I'd prefer to create the artwork. To that end, I try and create deadlines and price quotes to encompass such creation.

If the client is unwilling to cover the expense, or through price negotiations the overall return for a project has dropped below acceptable limits, I am not going to spend several hours formulating original artwork. In these cases, I stick to (modified) stock imagery even if I'd rather create something.

If I do use stock images, I provide the client a choice of replacing them with original artwork where feasible. I explain to the client that given a bit more time (and cost) I could improve/change imageX, Y, or Z with original art that may be better suited to the piece. It's then their choice. I offer....

  • Exclusivity
    • Clients pay more and I will not reuse the image for any other client. The total cost of the artwork creation is added to any project fees.
  • Usage
    • I explain to the client art will be reused for other clients should the need arise, but this lowers the overall cost to them initially. I then put the final artwork in my own personal "stock" directory for reuse.

I also have some clients were the only deciding factor is my workload and the deadline of a given piece. They are happy to pay for whatever I create, within reason. So there's never and real discussion either way as long as pricing remains in a the same relative range for similar projects they've given me. When I create art for these clients, it's always under the "usage" terms outlined above and they are made aware of that factor. So, if they want an exclusive image, they simply tell me.

In the end.. I'd spend all day, every day, creating original artwork if I could. But this is business. I can't expect every client to pay for that service and I can't feasibly turn away clients if they don't want original artwork. I have clients with projects falling across the entire range, from stock-only, to usage, to exclusivity. So I tend to get my "fix" for original artwork satiated most of the time.

I also spend down time between projects on original stock images I think would be useful for my ongoing clients. Then, if the need for that art arises, I charge them for it. For example, if a client uses a great deal of [object] images... I spend my down time creating random [object] images. I may have no direct need for any of those images at the time. However, I may accidentally create something very useful for the client in the future and will charge the client for it at that time.

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    Scott, I appreciate you taking the time to answer my questions. Your reply is very thorough! I like the idea of building up an archive of one's own work and reusing it where appropriate. I think it's time to blow some dust off some old "art"ifacts ;o) Also, thanks for adding the exclusivity vs usage part. Commented Jan 30, 2020 at 1:22

I find myself in a similar situation, but don't think there's a problem with that. Most stock items I use are:

  • Photos of things or places that would be impossible for me to photograph directly or in a time-effective way. Like, I've never been to Chicago, but did use a ton of stock Chicago pictures in high resolution. Basically, if the client doesn't have their own photos or they have poor quality photos, I immediately go and get stock replacements, which clients generally understand and agree with. They will generally care more about deadlines, than having a custom made 300$ photo vs. a 5$ stock photo which looks the same or better.
  • Icons: design today has shifted to this weird idea that everything must be associated with an icon. Every benefit, feature or highlight needs to have an icon in front. You see icons everywhere and some websites or apps will look more like a collection of icons instead of having actual, relevant text content. Even here you see alot of people posting questions about impossible icon jobs, where clients are pushing abstract ideas to be made into icons (which is not always easy). So yes, there is a growing demand for icons and many times I find myself pairing and adjusting icons from different sources to look like they're coming from the same set.

.. however I'm feeling less like an artist and more of a hack ..

The hard reality is many times clients don't have the time to wait for artists. You have to improvise with whatever is within reach (either your own stock or other people's stock). Design has become a very 'competitive' field versus what it was a decade ago.

Like, when I started freelancing, there were about 5, maybe 10, other good freelancers that I knew were capable of sustaining a long-term self-employed freelance situation. Most good designers a decade ago were under employment, at least where I live.

Now, everybody wants to be a freelancer and there's so much in the media about freelancing. The result being there are alot more non-artists, but full-time freelancers out there using stock and delivering work.

Plus a zillion of people trying freelancing on and off, and all this is creating a rush where clients prioritize on delivery time.

  • Lucian, good thoughts. Yes, it's best to keep competitive, agree. And I think all of us could have more outlets or personal projects to use our creativity. Thanks for your comment. Commented Jan 30, 2020 at 1:29

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