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Steal Like an Artist

Book Review: Steal Like an Artist: 10 things nobody told you about being creative by Austin Kleon published by Workman.
This is a neat little book that I recommend to all my students. I found it on a blog I follow and when I read it I thought yes this makes sense, everyone who has a creative pulse should read it. I believe it is particularly useful to those just starting out on their creative career especially if it involves being asked to do research, for example during an OCA course.
Steal Like an Artist is written by a young American writer, he opens his book with ‘all advice is autobiographical.’ What he is saying is that we learn from each other’s experiences and this book is what he learnt about creativity. It’s therefore not a wordy academic book; it feels fresher and less full of its own self-importance. Nonetheless I think it is full of important easily digestible information. Its main theme is that no one creates in a vacuum that all creative people learn from each other. Austin Kleon with the help of many quotes from fellow artists explores the way creative ideas develop and makes suggestions on how to give structure to developing your own creativity.
The title of the book is a bit miss leading I think, we all understand that stealing or copying someone else’s work is wrong. But this of course is not what the author means. His point is that no one is born with a style or a voice so we start by emulating those we admire. He illustrates this by explaining that The Beatles started out as a cover band, playing the music of their artistic hero’s. Only writing their own songs to be different from their contemporaries. In the music world this is an accepted way of developing your own style. No one batted an eyelid when Oasis claimed to be influenced by The Beatles and it could be heard in their music. This is what the author of Steal Like an Artist means. It’s about exploring what excites you in someone else’s work and adding it to your own. This goes for all creative disciplines; whether it is literature, music, sculpture, textiles, photography, etc. etc.
One of the tips the author shares is to start a swipe file, a collection of images or cuttings that you find inspiring. Something like Pinterest works well for this in the visual arts. An OCA student would use their learning log, making the collection more meaningful and useful by adding their own thoughts and comments. This record of your ideas improves your understanding of the work and informs your tutor/assessor what you are thinking. It is this thinking along with drawing and sample making that leads to new and exciting art.
“Good artists copy, great artists steal,”  Pablo Picasso

Posted by author: Rebecca Fairley
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10 thoughts on “Steal Like an Artist

  • I agree that the book is great. I read a copy of my brother’s. He’s a furniture designer, (Matthew Hilton), I’m very proud of him. You can buy it at the Tate, I noticed when I was there in the summer.

  • Excellent stuff. I’ve been telling students to go and see exhibitions and work out – even if they don’t like the work – what can be stolen. It could be a composition, a range of colours, the kind of marks used, an approach to using materials, or even the way a show is hung or written about.
    I interviewed an artist / writer called Simon Morris last year (he’s a reader in Fine Art at Middlesbrough) and he copied out a page Jack Kerouac’s ‘On The Road’ every day until it was completed. He blogged the text and eventually published a book of the blog. By simply copying (and though he tried to make a perfect copy there are errors in the text) he managed to learn an astounding amount about the text (there are hyphens all over it, like the white lines on the road and all the characters lean forward all the time, for example) as well as make a new work.
    Even this act of near-plagiarism is generative.

  • I haven’t read the book, so hopefully this question isn’t completely out of context, but it relates to the incorporation of published/printed material in collage. We’re encouraged to collect images for sketchbook experimentation, but then regarding copyright we’re advised not to include copyright material in our own creative work, and I can appreciate the difference between these 2 aspects of initial exploration to creating finished pieces.
    But then in the case of collage how far is it permissible to use scraps of images torn from old books/magazines/wrapping paper? I guess there is some factor to do with transformation of the original image? For example in John Piper’s ‘Beach with starfish’ (1933-34, ink and gouache with collage) he is documented as having included newspaper clippings and images cut out of catalogues. So is it a situation that whereas an established artist might do that, as a student we’re encouraged to find our own voice without including distinct printed elements that someone else has produced? Or is it solely down to whether the source material is marked as copyrighted? I haven’t done any collage work yet, but would obviously like to keep on the right side of what is acceptable while feeling free to experiment, so any advice would be helpful.

    • I’d simply get stuck in if I were you. Passing off someone else’s work as your own would be a problem, especially if you were getting paid for their intellectual endeavour, but appropriating bits of the world and including them in your work is different. Peter Blake uses images of Elvis, The Beatles, and others in his work. Warhol caused a fuss with his Brillo boxes, but he made them into an art work.
      If anything you have more leeway as a student than as a professional artist.
      Richard Prince recently published The Catcher in the Rye as a ‘Richard Prince’ art work, even though the content (bar some colophon and cover material identifying it as a Prince work) was the same as J D Salinger’s book.
      I recommend that students borrow / steal stuff. The Beatles tried to sound like a Motown group or Little Richard. They tried really hard, but couldn’t pull it off, but their attempt meant that something else was made.
      I’m not saying that you should submit a perfect facsimile of The Haywain for your ‘sketchbook walk’, but what if your walk was round the National Gallery and you drew a part of it?

      • I want to add a caveat to the post above. The Richard Prince work (more about it here : http://www.poetryfoundation.org/harriet/2012/04/richard-princes-latest-act-of-appropriation-the-catcher-in-the-rye/) is made within the context of a mature and provocative ongoing art practice. If you’re studying on Drawing 1, for example, the rules are a bit different.
        The following is my opinion (as a tutor/assessor on Drawing 1 + 2, Painting 1 + 3), and if anyone wants to correct me, I’d be happy to listen:
        There is a long tradition of appropriation in art (it goes back beyond Duchamp) and incorporating fragments of the world into art works is a perfectly reasonable strategy. It’s complicated, but I would encourage you to be cavalier at this stage. No-one will sue you for including a printed out Matisse stuck into a collage for an undergraduate piece. If however you simply paint your version of a Matisse, don’t expect many points for creativity.

  • I really enjoyed this book. I downloaded it to my Ipad and I often use it as inspiration when I am creatively ‘stuck’ or just use his ideas as a prompt to get me moving when I am procrastinating. Its not a new idea, many artists, including Picasso stole or copied ideas /concepts /colour schemes / methods, but still managed to make the outcome their own.

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