There’s a lot of confusion about things that microstock sites like® do and don’t accept (blends? meshes? text? unclosed strokes?). Contributors who’ve been around a while have learned over the years, but with new contributors joining the industry we figured it’d be a great time to put together a list of not-so-well-known do’s and don’ts to keep in mind when submitting your vector illustrations.

* Please note: We do brush upon some potential legal issues in this article. Please remember that I’m not a lawyer! Whatever I have to say isn’t intended as legal advice so please don’t take it as such. Whenever you’re in doubt regarding copyright or intellectual property, always consult a real lawyer who’s experienced in these fields (and not a scatterbrained illustrator in Calgary, AB, Canada).

1. Gradient Meshes


Any vector file submitted to iStock must be editable in AI10, which is completely gradient mesh compatible.

There’s one major downside to meshes though: They won’t work in programs other than Illustrator. This means all our Freehand, Corel, Xara, and Inkscape-using friends won’t be able to edit those meshes as vectors. If you do decide to use meshes, we strongly recommend you include a note in your image description letting customers know that if they’re not working in AI, they may have problems editing the mesh.

2. Blends


Blends, like meshes, are awesome. You can create some amazing shading effects using blends, and they’re generally easier for a newbie to edit than meshes are. iStock does accept blends, but there are a few things to keep in mind when using them.

If you’re expanding your blend before submission, you’ll want to keep a close eye on the results in AI10. Complex blends (say 10 or more color steps) can become extremely tricky to edit once expanded. Think of a woven blanket where each row of yarn is slightly lighter than the rest: It’d be very difficult to go in and change the color of a single row by re-weaving, let alone recolor the entire blanket row by row! Blends with too many color steps are the same way: They’re much too time consuming to edit manually for your average time-crunched designer.

When submitting a file containing blends to iStock, make sure that you’ve either left the blend unexpanded, or, that you’ve limited the number of levels when expanding (we recommend 10 color steps or less). Also, make sure you open the EPS file after you save it: Sometimes blends can do strange things when you downsave them.

3. Autotraces


At iStock, we gently try to discourage the use of autotraces. This is because they can make a terrible mess of a vector file. But there are still plenty of occasions where autotraces work, and in fact it’d be extremely difficult to create certain effects (texture, grunge, hand drawn styles) without autotracing!

If you are going to use an autotrace feature (such as Illustrator’s ‘Live Trace’), it’s critical you take the time to get to know how autotraces work. Twiddle with your settings and keep playing until you’ve found a good balance of detail and texture.

4. Text


While iStock does accept illustrations containing text, we do have one requirement: All text must be expanded.

This is because if you leave an editable text box in your file, and a client purchases it for use, that text will default to a system font like Courier unless the client happens to have the exact same font you used installed on their computer. Since fonts are constantly updated, and can differ between Mac and PC, odds are that cute decorative typeface you’ve used will NOT be on a client’s computer.

Please ensure you’ve expanded or converted to paths all fonts within your document prior to submission.

5. Duplicate or Similar Uploads


iStock is reasonably lenient on duplicate or similar vector uploads (where you’re reusing elements and uploading alternate color versions). Let’s face it, vectors take a long time to create, so if you’re drawing a beautiful woman it can be a real time saver to grab a hand you drew in an earlier file and recycle it in your new artwork. So yes, you can submit multiple versions of the same illustration to iStock.

We ask that people be respectful, though. The more complex the file, the more likely we will be to approve a second color version of the same artwork. If it’s just a simple icon set, we really don’t want to see it uploaded in every color of the rainbow! This isn’t useful to designers, most of whom can easily modify the colors themselves.

There’s no hard and fast rule on exactly how many color versions of a file that you can submit. Again, it needs to be judged on a case-by-case basis, and the overall complexity of the file is a main consideration (ie, could a designer recolor this quickly and easily on their own, or, would they benefit from seeing 2 colored versions of the same file on iStock?). When in doubt, change up the composition of your file, or add or remove shapes to create a different look.

6. Derivative Artwork


We figured we’d toss this into our list because it bears repeating: You cannot upload material derived from sources you did not create.

Have a snapshot from last summer’s holiday? It’s fine to base your illustration off of it. This is because you own the copyright for the photograph. You can either trace your photo directly into Illustrator, or, just use it as ‘inspiration’ for your vector. Ditto for sketches, renders, or anything else you might wish to use to create your file.

You can’t take photos you’ve found in Google searches, in magazines, in books, on billboards, or anywhere else unless you actually took that photo. This also goes for other artist’s illustrations: It’s OK to look at someone else’s portfolio but it’s a definite, DEFINITE no-no to copy their composition, subject, color use, and style.

People often mention Public Domain imagery. Technically, public domain images aren’t owned by anyone, so artists assume that it’s totally OK to trace it. Well, this is where things get tricky.

First off: How do you know that the photo is public domain? Just because someone uploaded it to Wikipedia Commons, it doesn’t necessarily mean they had the rights to do so. For all you know, they might have stolen the image from a Google search! Are you willing to put yourself at risk just because someone you don’t know has told you it’s public domain?

Secondly, iStock’s Artist’s Supply Agreement states that you are the sole copyright owner of anything that you submit. By definition public domain imagery isn’t copyrightable by anyone, so, how can you warrant you’re the sole copyright holder? Public domain imagery is tricky so it’s best to avoid it altogether if you’re planning on reselling your artwork for profit.

One last tip: When submitting to iStock, if your illustration appears derived from another work (a trace of an existing object, an illustration containing complex perspectives that would have been difficult to create from imagination, autotraced elements such as grunge textures, highly detailed people, etc) you will be asked to submit a ‘reference’ JPEG for the inspection team. But what if you’re just so talented you always draw directly into Illustrator?

Easy! Just start taking a few screen grabs as you’re working to show the inspection team that you are indeed working from imagination. Get into the habit and it soon becomes second thought. Always store your screen grabs with your illustrations when it comes time to archive them: If a dispute ever arises, it makes it quick and easy to track down your proof of copyright ownership.

7. Clipping Masks


There is a little confusion about whether or not it’s OK to use clipping masks on iStock submissions. The short answer is: Absolutely, we do accept clipping masks… But (there’s always a ‘but’, isn’t there?), keep the customer in mind.

If you use a clipping mask, be sure you indicate this clearly in your image description. We can’t begin to describe how many confused customers are out there right now, unsure of why they can’t seem to select any of the elements in a file! If you give them a head’s up, they’ll be able to figure out how to remove the mask and isolate the vector pieces they need.

Also, your file could be rejected if you’re masking out a lot, and we mean a LOT, of unnecessary shapes. If you’re cropping the outside pieces of a seamless pattern for example, that’s understandable. But if you have a whole other illustration hiding outside of your artboard, that’s not OK. Make sure you’re deleting any unnecessary shapes before setting up your mask: It keeps your file size down and helps prevent customer confusion!