Steal Like An Artist

“Art is theft.” — Pablo Picasso, artist

Austin Kleon has written a delightful and whimsically illustrated little book on creativity called Steal Like An Artist. I recommend you pick up a copy and read it. The following is adapted from this practical guide to discovering your artistic side and developing a more creative life.

The writer Jonathan Lethem has said that when people call something “original,” nine out of ten times they just don’t know the references or the original sources involved.

What a good artist understands is that nothing comes from nowhere. All creative work builds on what came before. Nothing is completely original.

“There is nothing new under the sun.” — Ecclesiastes 1:9

Some people find this idea depressing, but it should fill you with hope. As the French writer Andre Gide put it, “Everything that needs to be said has already been said. But, since no one was listening, everything must be said again.”

If we’re free from the burden of trying to be completely original, we can stop trying to make something out of nothing, and we can embrace influence instead of running away from it.

The truth is you are a product of what you choose to let into your life. You are the sum of your influences.

“We are shaped and fashioned by what we love.” — Johann Wolfgang von Goethe, author

The artist is a collector; not a hoarder. There’s a difference. Hoarders collect indiscriminately. Artists collect selectively. They only collect things they really love.

You’re only going to be as good as the stuff you surround yourself with. Your job is to collect good ideas. The more good ideas you collect, the more you can choose from to be influenced by.

“Steal from anywhere that resonates with inspiration or fuels your imagination. Devour old films, new films, music, books, paintings, photographs, poems, dreams, random conversations, architecture, bridges, street signs, trees, clouds, bodies of water, light and shadows. If you do this, your work (and theft) will be authentic. Authenticity is invaluable; originality is nonexistent.” — Jim Jarmusch, independent film director

Carry a notebook and a pen with you wherever you go. Get used to pulling it out and jotting down your thoughts and observations. Copy your favorite passages out of books. Record overheard conversations. Doodle when you’re on the phone.

Keep a swipe file. It’s just what it sounds like — a file to keep track of the stuff you’ve swiped from others. It can be digital or analog — it doesn’t matter what form it takes, as long as it works. You can keep a scrapbook and cut and paste things into it, or you can just take pictures of things with your camera phone.

See something worth stealing? Put it in the swipe file. Need a little inspiration? Open up the swipe file.

“It is better to take what does not belong to you than to let it lie around neglected.” — Mark Twain, author

Nobody is born with a style or a voice. We don’t come out of the womb knowing who we are. In the beginning, we learn by pretending. We learn by copying. We’re talking about practice here, not plagiarism — plagiarism is trying to pass someone else’s work off as your own. Copying is about reverse-engineering. It’s like a mechanic taking apart a car to see how it works.

“Start copying what you love. Copy, copy, copy, copy. At the end of the copy you will find yourself.” —Yohji Yamamoto, fashion designer

We learn to write by copying down the alphabet. Musicians learn to play by practicing scales. Painters learn to paint by reproducing masterpieces. Even the Beatles started as a cover band playing Buddy Holly, Little Richard, Jerry Lee Lewis and Elvis.

“Those who do not want to imitate anything, produce nothing.” — Salvador Dali, artist

First, you have to figure out who to copy. Second, you have to figure out what to copy.

Who to copy is easy. You copy your heroes — the people you love, the people who inspire you, the people you want to be.

And you don’t just steal from one of your heroes; you steal from all of them. The writer Wilson Mizner said if you copy from one author, it’s plagiarism, but if you copy from many, it’s research.

What to copy is a little bit trickier. Don’t just steal the style, steal the thinking behind the style. You don’t want to look like your heroes, you want to see like your heroes. You want to glimpse into their minds. You want to internalize their way of viewing the world. If you just mimic the surface of somebody’s work without understanding where they’re coming from, your work will never be anything more than a knockoff, with no impact or merit of its own.

Adapted from Steal Like An Artist by Austin Kleon.