A Year in Illustration

Creating visuals for abstract ideas with the public domain, fair use, Creative Commons and zero artistic talent.

Cory Doctorow
17 min readDec 25, 2022

A vintage illustration depicting Ida Tarbell chopping down a tree from which an irate John D Rockefeller shouts at her.

Back when we were inventing blogging, most posts did not have illustration, which was good for me, since I can’t draw so much as a stick figure, and there was precious little in the way of public domain or otherwise freely reusable stock art.

The rise of social media — with its automatic thumbnails pulled down from a “hero image” from the post — meant that bloggers like me had to start finding illustrations for my work. This was made doubly hard by the fact that I mostly write about abstract ideas that don’t suggest obvious illustrations. Add to that the rise of copyright trolls who see bloggers as piggy banks to be inverted and shaken for “infringement settlements” and illustration becomes a fraught and difficult business.

And yet, I soldier on, mostly because years of trying (and largely failing) to come up with illustrations for my posts made me stubbornly habituated to the practice, and because I am unwilling to surrender.

This year, I feel like I finally hit my stride. Thanks to some recurring motifs — close-cropped and sitting in a folder on my hard-drive — and a mixture of Creative Commons-based Google Image Search, Openverse, and Library of Congress searches, I’ve found a way to re-create the editorial illustrations of the bygone era (Victorian and beyond), where subtlety is nowhere to be found.

Below, I’ve collected my favorite collages of 2022, along with some production notes for other would-be latter-day villainous woodcut producers.

A club-wielding thug whose off-hand is making a ‘give me’ gesture; he is wearing a green eyeshade and standing alongside a desk with a green-shaded lamp on it; in the background is the tri-color Italian flag.

This one, for “The Mafia hires good accountants” uses this club-wielding giant, clipped (I think?) from an early 20th century socialist magazine. The eyeshade, desk and lamp are public domain clipart.

Cory Doctorow

Writer, blogger, activist. Blog: https://pluralistic.net; Mailing list: https://pluralistic.net/plura-list; Mastodon: @pluralistic@mamot.fr