Steal Like An Artist | Notes & Review

Posted on January 1, 2014


Austin Kleon. Steal Like An Artist. Workman Publishing, 2012. (660 Locations)

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Art is theft. – Pablo Picasso

Immature poets imitate; mature poets steal; bad poets deface what they take, and good poets make it into something better, or at least something different. The good poet welds his theft into a whole of feeling which is unique, utterly different from that from which it was torn. – T. S. Eliot

All Advice is Autobiographical

It’s one of my theories that when people give you advice, they’re really just talking to themselves in the past.

1 Steal Like An Artist

Screen Shot 2014-01-01 at 10.32.14 PMNothing is Original.

What is originality? Undetected plagiarism. – William Ralph Inge

Screen Shot 2014-01-01 at 10.35.36 PMHow many lines are there? There’s the first line, the second line, but then there’s a line of negative space that runs between them. See it? 1 + 1 = 3.

Garbage in, Garbage out.

Climb Your Own Family Tree.

…chew on one thinker — writer, artist, activist, role model — you really love. Study everything there is not know about that thinker. Then find three people that thinker loved, and find out everything about them. Repeat this as many times as you can. Climb up the tree as far as you can go. Once you build your tree, it’s time to start your own branch.

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School Yourself.

Don’t ask a question before you Google it. You’ll either find the answer or you’ll come up with a better question.

Read bibliographies. It’s not the book you start with, it’s the book that book leads you to.

Save Your Thefts For Later.

It is better to take what does not belong to you than to let it lie around neglected. – Mark Twain

2 Don’t Wait Until You Know Who You Are To Get Started

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Make Things, Know Thyself.

Fake It ‘Til You Make It.

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Start Copying.

Start copying what you love. Copy copy copy copy. At the end of the copy you will find your self. – Yohji Yamamoto

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.

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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.

Imitation Is Not Flattery.

We want you to take from us. We want you, at first, to steal from us, because you can’t steal. You will take what we give you and you will put it in your own voice and that’s how you will find your voice. And that’s how you begin. And then one day someone will steal from you. —Francis Ford Coppola

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In the end, merely imitating your heroes is not flattering them. Transforming their work into something of your own is how you flatter them. Adding something to the world that only you can add.

3 Write The Book You Want To Read.

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Write What You Know Like.

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4 Use Your Hands.

We don’t know where we get our ideas from. What we do know is that we do not get them from our laptops. — John Cleese

Step Away From The Screen.

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5 Side Projects and Hobbies Are Important

The work you do while you procrastinate is probably the work you should be doing for the rest of your life. — Jessica Hische

Practice Productive Procrastination.

Don’t Throw Any Of Yourself Away.

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6 The Secret: Do Good Work and Share It With People.

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In the Beginning Obscurity is Good.

The Not-So-Secret Formula

Step one, “do good work,” is incredibly hard. There are no shortcuts. Make stuff every day. Know you’re going to suck for a while. Fail. Get better. Step two, “share it with people,” was really  hard up until about ten years ago or so. Now, it’s very simple: “Put your stuff on the Internet.”

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7 Geography Is No Longer Our Master.

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Build Your Own World.

It isn’t necessary that you leave home. Sit at your desk and listen. Don’t even listen, just wait. Don’t wait, be still and alone. The whole world will offer itself to you. – Franz Kafka

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Leave Home.

Distance and difference are the secret tonic of creativity. When we get home, home is still the same. But something in our mind has been changed, and that changes everything. — Jonah Lehrer

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8 Be Nice. (The World is a Small Town.)

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Make Friends, Ignore Enemies.

Stand Next To The Talent.

Remember “garbage in, garbage out”? You’re only going to be as good as the people you surround yourself with. In the digital space, that means following the best people online—the people who are way smarter and better than you, the people who are doing the really interesting work. Pay attention to what they’re talking about, what they’re doing, what they’re linking to.

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“Quite Picking Fights and Go Make Something.”

Complain about the way other people make software by making software. — Andre Torrez

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Write Fan Letters.

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Validation is for Parking.

Modern art = I could do that + Yeah, but you didn’t. — Craig Damrauer

Keep a Praise File.

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9 Be Boring. (It’s the Only Way To Get Work Done.)

Be regular and orderly in your life, so that you may be violent and original in your work. — Gustave Flaubert

Take Care of Yourself.

Stay Out of Debt.

Keep Your Day Job.

Get Yourself a Calendar.

Keep A Logbook.

If you ask yourself ‘What’s the best thing that happened today?’ it actually forces a certain kind of cheerful retrospection that pulls up from the recent past things to write about that you wouldn’t otherwise think about. If you ask yourself ‘What happened today?’ it’s very likely that you’re going to remember the worst thing, because you’ve had to deal with it—you’ve had to rush somewhere or somebody said something mean to you—that’s what you’re going to remember. But if you ask what the best thing is, it’s going to be some particular slant of light, or some wonderful expression somebody had, or some particularly delicious salad. — Nicholson Baker

Marry Well.

Who you marry is the most important decision you’ll ever make. And “marry well” doesn’t just mean your life partner—it also means who you do business with, who you befriend, who you choose to be around. Relationships are hard enough, but it takes a real champion of a person to be married to someone who’s obsessed with a creative pursuit. Lots of times you have to be a maid, a cook, a motivational speaker, a mother, and an editor—all at once. A good partner keeps you grounded.

10 Creativity is Subtraction.

Choose What To Leave Out.

Dr. Seuss wrote The Cat in the Hat with only 236 different words, so his editor bet him he couldn’t write a book with only 50 different words. Dr. Seuss came back and won the bet with Green Eggs and Ham, one of the bestselling children’s books of all time.

What we respond to in any work of art is the artist’s struggle against his or her limitations. – Saul Steinberg

What Now?

  • Talk a walk
  • Start your swipe file
  • Go to the library
  • Buy a notebook and use it
  • Get yourself a calendar
  • Start your logbook
  • Give a copy of this book away
  • Start a blog
  • Take a nap

Recommended Reading

Linda Barry, What It Is

Hugh MacLeod, Ignore Everybody

Jason Fried + David Heinemeier Hansson, Rework

Lewis Hyde, The Gift

Jonathan Lethem, The Ecstasy of Influence

David Shields, Reality Hunger

Scott McCloud, Understanding Comics

Anne Lamott, Bird by Bird

Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi, Flow

Ed Emberley, Make a World

Y.M.M.V.! (Your Mileage May Vary!)

Some advice can be a vice. Feel free to take what you can use, and leave the rest. There are no rules. Tell me what you think or say hello at:

— VIA —

Reading this is inspiring. In many ways, it felt descriptive of the work that I’ve been doing for many years, and it’s nice and helpful to have new language, vocabulary, and imagery for my own understanding. Creative work is so frequently misunderstood as some unique and esoteric skill delineated to a few. Reading Steal Like An Artist is confirmation again that creativity is more akin to discipline and hard work than special gifting. It is energizing to consider the possibilities, and hopefully that energy will now be put to good work.

Posted in: Life