Monday, April 11, 2011

How to steal like an artist...

This article by Austin Kleon was floating around the internet last week.  It gave me lots of food for thought.  Bear with me while I think out added notes are in red.


how to steal like an artist and 9 other things nobody told me
Note: This is a slightly edited version of a talk I gave yesterday at Broome Community College in Binghamton, New York. It’s a simple list of 10 things I wish I’d heard when I was in college.

all advice is autobiographical ymmv
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. This list is me talking to a previous version of myself.
Your mileage may vary.  (completely agree with this statement)
Steal like an artist

When I first see this opening line, I think "oh boy, this is going to be interesting...."

1. Steal like an artist.

Every artist gets asked the question, “Where do you get your ideas?”
The honest artist answers, “I steal them.”
Figure out what's worth stealing. Move on to the next thing.
I drew this cartoon a few years ago. There are two panels. Figure out what’s worth stealing. Move on to the next thing.
That’s about all there is to it.  Honesty time here.  In my previous life as a hobby crafter, everything I made was based on something someone else had done first.  Magazines, books on the subject I was currently interested in, Martha Stewart, the craft stores...they all gave me everything I needed to make whatever craft they were highlighting at the time.  

I've always been able to look at a made something and figure out how to make it myself.  It's my one super power.  (do you know what I mean?  that one odd thing you can naturally do well? :))  

So, this kinda hit me and I understood it completely.  I guess the revelation came for me when I realized that everybody does this.  Let's not lie to ourselves.  I think our brains just do it without us even realizing it.   

I admire lots of jewelers work.  When I look at it, sure enough, my brain zeros in on that one component, texture, shape, line, color, whatever that appeals to me and stores it away.  Then I move on to the next thing, and it begins all over again.  

Needless to say, this guy had me interested in reading the rest of his article:
Here’s what artists understand. It’s a three-word sentence that fills me with hope every time I read it:
Nothing is original.
It says it right there in the Bible. Ecclesiastes:
That which has been is what will be, That which is done is what will be done, And there is nothing new under the sun.
Every new idea is just a mashup or a remix of previous ideas.
1 + 1 = 3
Here’s a trick they teach you in art school. Draw two parallel lines on a piece of paper:
parallel lines
How 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.
Speaking of lines, here’s a good example of what I’m talking about: genetics. You have a mother and you have a father. You possess features from both of them, but the sum of you is bigger than their parts. You’re a remix of your mom and dad and all of your ancestors.
The genealogy of ideas
You don’t get to pick your family, but you can pick your teachers and you can pick your friends and you can pick the music you listen to and you can pick the books you read and you can pick the movies you see.
Jay-Z Decoded
Jay-Z talks about this in his book, Decoded:
We were kids without fathers…so we found our fathers on wax and on the streets and in history, and in a way, that was a gift. We got to pick and choose the ancestors who would inspire the world we were going to make for ourselves…Our fathers were gone, usually because they just bounced, but we took their old records and used them to build something fresh.
You are, in fact, a mashup of what you choose to let into your life. You are the sum of your influences. The German writer Goethe said, “We are shaped and fashioned by what we love.”

This is a subject that has been rolling around in my brain, trying to find a comfortable place to settle.  

I find the statement disturbing.  I don't want to think that nothing is new.  I want what I make to be new to me.  And that is my truth.  I want to know that it came from me and not from someone else.  When I put out my work, I don't want any lingering doubt as to where it came from.  

But it is inevitably there.  That question.  Self doubt maybe.  I guess it goes back to stealing like an artist.  

Before reading this article I felt I was on the cusp of the aha moment.  That quote by Goethe hits the nail on the head..."We are shaped and fashioned by what we love".
artist is a collector
An artist is a collector. Not a hoarder, mind you, there’s a difference: hoarders collect indiscriminately, the artist collects selectively. They only collect things that they really love.
There’s an economic theory out there that if you take the incomes of your five closest friends and average them, the resulting number will be pretty close to your own income.
I think the same thing is true of our idea incomes. You’re only going to be as good as the stuff you surround yourself with.
garbage in and garbage out
I love this.  So true.  I have become very conscious of this lately and am trying my best to keep the garbage from getting in...

My mom used to say to me, “Garbage in, garbage out.”
It used to drive me nuts. But now I know what she means.
Your job is to collect ideas. The best way to collect ideas is to read. Read, read, read, read, read. Read the newspaper. Read the weather. Read the signs on the road. Read the faces of strangers. The more you read, the more you can choose to be influenced by.
family tree of writers
Identify one writer you really love. Find everything they’ve ever written. Then find out what they read. And read all of that. Climb up your own family tree of writers.
Steal things and save them for later. Carry around a sketchpad. Write in your books. Tear things out of magazines and collage them in your scrapbook.
Steal like an artist.

I guess this just touches me because they are subjects I struggle with.  I feel like I've led the past years since I had children not really tuning into any other ideas than what pertained to the raising of my children.  In the past couple of years my mind has begun to open up and look for ideas everywhere.  I feel like there are so many ideas I let slip past me.  Not that I would give up the years I concentrated fully on my kids.  It was the best thing for them and for our family.  Now that they are a little older, I am grateful to still be able to put them first, and also dabble in my own little business adventure.  

I just identified so much with this article as an emerging artist.  It made me go a little easier on myself, and it encouraged me to keep collecting ideas from everywhere that they present themselves, and to keep the garbage out.

The rest of this article spoke to me too....I may just dissect another section in a future blog post...


  1. Great article, and I really enjoyed your input on there as well!

    Thank you so much for sharing!

    La Paix


  2. I saw that too, but didn't completely read it until I saw your post. I do think it's so true though- we are making totally new things, but they are really just mashups of parts and pieces from our influences. I think one of the most important parts of that whole presentation is to keep reading and reading and reading and reading. I've been thinking about that a lot lately with my Project Inspiration posts= If we stop looking, we stop being inspired.

  3. I enjoyed your interpretation ~ thank you for sharing it :-).

  4. It is definitely food for thoughts. I found it very interesting and provocative in a way that it makes you really look at who you are, what you do, where you come from and where you are heading.