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1. How to find artwork for t-shirts: Seven top strategies

Finding artwork for t-shirts: 7 best methods

There's nothing quite like a great piece of art when it comes to transforming a blank t-shirt into a fun piece of clothing with its own unique style. Whether you're an artist yourself or you’ve got an eye for design, there are several excellent ways to source artwork for t-shirts without infringing on any copyright laws.

Read on to discover the best places to search for custom art, photos, and illustrations to infuse your products with new life. We'll also give you the low down on what you can (and can't) legally sell on a custom t-shirt according to copyright laws.

Main takeaways from this article:

  • Finding the right art or images to feature on a t-shirt can instantly turn it into a one-of-a-kind product that's a lot easier to sell.

  • If you plan to use something other than your original art, it's incredibly important to familiarize yourself with copyright laws. While it is possible to find images you can sell on a t-shirt, not all art or photos are fair game.

  • We'll clue you in on how to tell whether it's okay to use an image on your t-shirt design without infringing on the creator's intellectual property rights.

  • You'll also learn several other legit approaches to sourcing t-shirt design art, even if you're not an artist yourself.

How to find artwork for t-shirts: Seven top strategies

From photos and clipart to hand-drawn or digital art, plenty of images are begging to be used as t-shirt designs. Let's dive right in and take a look at where to get awesome images to feature on your custom shirts.

1. Create your own artwork

In some ways, independent artists have it made, as the world is their oyster when it comes to creating cool art to sell. If you are an artist or designer yourself, offering your artwork in t-shirt form can be a great addition to selling options like wall art or photo books.

Many creators use tools like Gelato’s design editor to create a vector or original piece of digital art. But you can also use free software like Gimp or Paint.net to transform drawings or paintings into uploadable digital files.


  • You get to promote your own art while retaining the rights to your work.

  • There's no need to worry about infringing on the intellectual property rights of others.


  • Not all creators are natural-born Picassos or designers.

  • Mastering some graphics software programs involves a bit of a learning curve.

2. Collaborate with other artists


If you're an artist, you probably know plenty of other talented folks who love creating cool images just as much as you do. Explore the idea of joining forces to create a unique piece of art combining your talents.

Luckily, there are several handy sites out there that are designed to make the collaboration process a lot easier. Meet artists from all over the world in the Magma Community and then use Aggie, Magma's art collaboration application, to work on joint projects.


  • Collaborating can be a fun way to expand your artistic range.

  • Working with others is always a solid way to keep yourself accountable for achieving your goals.


  • Be sure to come up with a suitable profit-splitting arrangement before you begin.

  • There's always the possibility of encountering the dreaded "artistic difference."

3. License art and photos online

While it's definitely possible to find images online that you can use for t-shirt designs, it's important to familiarize yourself with different types of licenses. For instance, while sites like Unsplash and Pexels offer free photos for marketing uses, users can only print most of their images on merchandise if they directly get permission from the original artist.

However, some sites offer packages that include merchandise rights, such as Shutterstock's Enhanced License, Vecteezy's Pro and Pro Extended Licenses, and Graphic River's T-Shirt Licenses.


  • You can explore plenty of amazing art and photos for your t-shirt designs.

  • Licensing can be an excellent option for non-artists.


  • It's incredibly important to ensure you understand the licensing agreements and requirements for any piece of art you intend to redistribute on a t-shirt.

  • Even art that's free for commercial use may require additional licensing to be sold on a product.

4. Use public domain art

If you want to search for images you can use in your t-shirt designs with no worries, you can't go wrong with a drawing, vector, or any other piece of art in the Public Domain. Public Domain art includes art that isn't currently restricted by copyright laws of any sort for various reasons.

Vintage photos and images often fall into the public domain, as much art is considered fair game 70 years after the creator's death. Here are some solid places to get Public Domain images:


  • Much of history's most extraordinary artwork now falls under the public domain.

  • Whether you're looking for a great vector, painting, or photo, you can discover plenty of 100% free options in the Public Domain.


  • Some sites don't exclusively offer Public Domain images, so it's always important to double-check the license of any image you intend to use.

  • Anyone can use Public Domain images, so it's possible for another creator to use the same image on a t-shirt.

5. Hire freelance artists


Hiring a freelance artist or designer can be a smart way to go if you've got an idea for a t-shirt design but don't feel up to creating it yourself. Check out freelance job boards like Upwork and Fiverr, where you can browse through countless independent artists who would be happy to help bring your idea to life.

Online art communities and social media are solid places to network or ask for referrals. Check out each artist's portfolio to ensure you choose the right fit for your unique style.


  • You can choose from freelancers who specialize in various styles and mediums.

  • You can enjoy a long, mutually beneficial working relationship if you discover the right artist.


  • Finding the perfect freelancer for your needs can take some time, effort, and even trial & error.

  • While sites like Upwork, Fiverr, and Mintly offer protection for both parties, be wary of ever paying an independent artist you meet online before receiving proofs of your finished product.

6. Visit art fairs and shows


Making a habit of visiting live art fairs, shows, and events in your area is also a solid move if you regularly feature custom art products in your online store. Whether you hope to find a local artist to partner with or simply want to get your creative gears churning, check out any museums or galleries near you.


  • Whether it's a museum showing or your local art week fair, artistic events are networking gold mines.

  • Surrounding yourself with art is always a reliable way to glean inspiration for your own pieces or designs.


  • Not every creator you meet may be up for collaborating, but it never hurts to ask!

  • Depending on the venue, some artists may be greener than others.

7. Hold design contests

Need help to find the right designer to create anything from a logo for your company to artwork for t-shirts? If you want to be able to select from multiple options, then a design contest may be just the ticket for you.

Platforms like 99Designs and Designhill allow you to create a contest where multiple designers submit concepts based on your design brief. You can then provide contestants with feedback and suggestions before ultimately selecting the winning design of your choice.


  • You'll enjoy full copyright ownership of the design you go with.

  • Contests can be a fantastic way to get product ideas and branding ideas.


  • Make sure you check out the contest price ranges offered by both 99Designs and DesignHill. Some are pricier than others, but each package has a 100% money-back guarantee.

  • Starting a contest exclusively among each platform's best designers can cost significantly more.

Three best practices for sourcing artwork


Now that we've discussed some of the best places to search for potential t-shirt art, let's talk logistics. Here are several foundational best practices to keep in mind when it comes to finding the perfect artwork for t-shirts.

1. Follow copyright laws

To use non-original art in your designs, you must get familiar with copyright laws and image usage rights. iStock by Getty Images offers a solid breakdown of various image licenses and the requirements of each.

With the exception of public domain work, never assume that an image is safe for retail use, even if registered under a Creative Commons license. There are actually multiple types of Creative Commons licenses, some of which require attribution, forbid modifications, or make an image ineligible for retail use.

2. Optimize artwork for printing

No matter what type of image you choose, make sure to research the best resolution and image sizes recommended by your printer or POD service. Generally, you'll want to strive for high-resolution images for the best results.

Even something as simple as the type of file you upload can make a big difference in quality. If possible, convert your images to vector files, which can maintain quality and resolution even when they're scaled.

3. Test your designs

Before you introduce your custom shirts to your customers, it's always best to make sure you order at least one sample of each. No matter how great a design looks on your laptop, there's nothing like feeling the fabric, seeing the colors, and testing out the durability for yourself.

You can also use tools like audience testing and feedback to gauge interest in a specific design before turning it into a t-shirt. This could mean anything from conducting a survey on social media to running a pre-sale featuring several different versions of a design to see which sells the best.

Create a competitive t-shirt business with print on demand

Familiarizing yourself with how to thoughtfully (and legally!) source artwork for custom t-shirts is an important part of starting a successful online t-shirt business. But it's only the beginning of a long process that working with a print on demand partner can make a lot easier!

POD providers like Gelato offer all the tools you need to create one-of-a-kind shirt designs - we'll even supply the t-shirt itself! When you connect your Gelato account to your ecommerce store, you can rest assured we'll take care of everything each time a customer places an order.

One of our 130+ local producers will print your product using high-quality materials and get it quickly and sustainably shipped right to your customer. You simply supply the designs and customers, and we'll handle the rest, complete with exceptional customer service that you can depend on.

T-shirt artwork FAQs

Can I use artwork on a shirt?

While you can absolutely print artwork on a t-shirt, it's vital to understand that not just any image is fair game. You can always use your own art or images that are considered Public Domain.

Beyond that, things get a lot trickier. Even creative commons or royalty-free images may require a separate license to be sold on merchandise.

What designs sell best on t-shirts?

The great thing about starting your own online t-shirt shop is the endless possibilities for designs. Which you choose to focus on will likely depend on everything from your own interests to the target audience you choose to cater to.

Some popular niches include:

  • Humor

  • Animal or pet-themed t-shirt designs

  • Holiday-themed designs

  • Funny or motivational slogans

  • Sports-themed shirts


Next steps

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