Stock Art Rant

Exalted is a big, multicultural world where matriarchal societies are the norm. I want to represent that in the artwork here on Stranger Creations. Because of that, I spend a lot of time looking for good stock art for this project. I’m not perfect in this respect, but I do try.

I’m not sure you all understand just how much time this takes. How much soul-crushing, depressing, demoralizing time, that makes me want to give up all hope for goodness in humanity.

Most stock art is bad. You can quickly and easily find examples of art where the subject is…

  • Poorly Lit – The image is not merely “dark,” it has “bizarre shading that makes the image unusable.” Using a professional site cuts down on this problem, which is nice.
  • Not Selling The Look – Someone who is marked as “fierce” has a look that says “rawr, I’m sooo angry j/k.”
  • Just Not Tagged Right – The artist uploaded a really broad photoshoot with dozens of different poses and artists, and pasted the same set of tags into all of it.
  • Over-Shopped – I can flip a photo left-right myself. I can darken the edges myself. Don’t try to sell me both versions.

I would make a drinking game out of it, but I’d like to live, you know?

However, the bigger problem (at least for my mental health) is that looking through stock art is like having a lens through which to view all of the various racial, class, and gender biases of humanity. An easy-to-search lens in the format of 100 images per page.

To pick just one of those biases: stock art is packed full with all sorts of racism. It’s already difficult to find images of non-white people (unless you want them in business suits, in which case, no problem). Finding non-white people in any sort of fantasy/sci-fi scenario is much, much harder.

What search terms did I try for this? Well…

  • “Black”, which generally gives you white people in black clothing or with a dark background.
  • “African” or “African American” is more successful, but you only get 3 pages of results instead of 300.
  • Similarly to “Black”, removing the word “White” from the results only removes people with white clothing or people on a white background. Ok, fine, this is just a tagging thing, right? Except…
  • Removing “Caucasian” from the results just tells you that most stock art creators consider being Caucasian to be some kind of default setting.
  • “Indian” gives you some folks from India, which is good. It also gives you a ton of white people dressed as stereotyped native Americans. Ugh. Drink.
  • “Pakistani” gives you mostly the same folks you got when you searched for “Indian”, minus the Halloween-costume rejects. Given the traditional relationship between India and Pakistan, that’s kind of guaranteed to annoy someone.
  • Similarly, “Chinese”, “Japanese”, “Korean”, and “Vietnamese” give you basically the same overlapping set of results. Ugghh. You might as well just search for “Asian”, which is what I ended up doing. Unfortunately, this also gets you white folks who have makeup on to make them “look Asian”. Take a shot.
  • Looking for any sort of islander – “Polynesian”, “Hawaiian”, etc. – gives you men in leis holding ukeleles, and women in leis and bikinis.
  • “Hispanic” gives you about 50% Hispanic people, and 50% white guys dressed up in “Mexican” clothes.
  • Not a single site knows what “person of color” means.
  • “Ethnic”. Yes, I stooped to using “Ethnic” as a search term, because there was nothing else I could think of to find non-white people after all the rest of this failed. This gave me about a 50% success rate, and made me want to drink heavily.

This doesn’t even get into gender problems. When I search for “Strong Man” I get a guy with muscles. When I search for “Strong Woman” on certain sites I find women in business suits with their hands on their hips on mountaintops, and I end up yelling at my screen saying “NO, I NEED ONE WITH MUSCLES, BECAUSE SHE’S A WARRIOR.” And then I search for “Warrior Woman” and oh for the love of god why did I not expect midriffs I know how this dance goes why did I not expect it. Christ. Take a shot.

For every ten of those hundred-image pages, I typically find a single usable piece of stock.

Here are a few conversations I have had with stock art sites. In my mind, of course.

Me: “Hey, this one pose is ok, but it’s not precisely what I want. Do you have other images of this black woman from the same shoot?”
Stock Site: “Sure! Oh, by the way, she’s just photoshopped black in the image you found. She’s actually white.”
Me: “UGGGHHHH”

Me: “I need a man with japanese features and formal-looking clothing, but not modern business clothes. Ooh, I know – show me some samurai.”
Stock Site: “Here are a bunch of white women in skimpy faux-asian clothing with a sword that they clearly don’t know how to use. And some white guys with more clothes and the same issue.”
Me: “Uhhh, no. How about guys in hakamas instead?”
Stock Site: “Here are some white Kendo instructors.”

Me: “I need a photo of a black guy holding a sword.”
Stock Site: “Here’s the only one we have.”

Me: “Hey, I have an awesome idea for a culture where everyone wears veils. I found a bunch of great photos of women in veils. Give me a few photos of men in veils too.”
Stock Site: “LOLwhut?”

So yeah, it takes a long, long time to find good stock art. I found a site that I like quite a bit (CanStockPhoto) and it still has these issues, constantly. Don’t even get me started on the problem of finding stock drawings or other artwork for fantasy games that aren’t made solely for D&D or Tolkien-inspired games. I tried that and gave up fast, which is why you’re seeing photo-art for Stranger Creations instead of hand-art.

There are stock art sites out there that specialize in photos of people of color. Mosiac Stock, ColorStock, and Blend Images have this as a specific goal. Madame Noire has some good suggestions as well. I’d love to hear some more resources in the comments section, especially some that have fantasy art.

For now, I’ll just leave you with this unending parade of bullshit.

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5 thoughts on “Stock Art Rant

  1. So do you happen to own a camera and have connections with a major university? Do you know anybody who LARPs (Sward) or organizes Cons (Wodicka)

    Normally I could understand not having the time, but from what you’ve written it sounds like making would be better than attempting to find what you need from an OTS product, with a possibility of being a source of cash in its own right..

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    • Not a bad idea. “Own a camera” isn’t enough to get a good photoshoot, but I do know one or two professional photographers. I could probably get them to come to a convention for $500.

      Google tells me that the typical rate for a model is $25-60 per hour, or $150-$250 for a half-day. I could imagine that at Intercon we might be able to pack a full ten-hour day with people at a half-hour each, and pay them $25 each. (Why pay instead of just saying “We’ll take professional pictures of you in your garb”? Because we’re paying for the rights in perpetuity. If we made the art available on an existing site, so that we actually improve things for other folks, that can get even trickier. Many people are uncomfortable having their likeness used in an advertisement, for example.) (Also, why Intercon and not Arisia? Because I can’t use photos of Sephiroth.)

      So, probably $1000 for the whole thing, and hopefully we’d get about 20 models doing 1-3 outfits with a few poses in each. If they were all willing to sign away general stock rights, it might pay back a little bit in the long run. CanStockPhoto pays 35¢ per subscriber download, which is actually not bad for a stock site. That’s about 2800 downloads to break even. That’ll never happen, but at least the art would be out there so that other people trying to do this will go less insane.

      If Stranger Creations becomes something more than a large hobby project, this is a pretty good idea. Will consider and consult. Thanks!

      I know that you probably knew some of this already; I’m just being extra-explainy for other folks who might read the comments.

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      • I certainly like your not wanting to take advantage of folks for monetary gain*, but there are certainly motivations for the models other than monetary. Perhaps:
        * state upfront an appropriate non-commercial license and allow the models to have back the rights for commercial use?
        * talk to the student (nationality/ethnicity/etc) groups on campus to encourage attendance?
        * provide pizza?
        * no, seriously, now I want pizza. Excuse me.

        [*] Allowing the rest of us to swoop in and “take care of that for you”.

        Liked by 1 person

  2. If you want any images of Vietnamese, I’m happy to help you search, it’s always easier to look for photo of [X] people when using their language as keyword :’D

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