Steal Like An Artist

Steal Like an Artist is a delightful little compendium of motivational ideas and mantras that will get you thinking about your art and its process in a different way than you might be used to. One of the main creeds it champions is the need to be yourself in your art. The author, Austin Kleon, is a young writer and artist who believes creativity is everywhere and for everyone. Aimed primarily at a new generation brought up in the digital age, Steal Like an Artist is a simplified visual guide filled with busy graphs, sketches and graphic charts that is geared to put readers directly in touch with their artistic side.



The book made The New York Times bestseller list and has been translated into more than 12 languages. Its origins go back to when Kleon was asked to address students at the Broome Community College in upstate New York. He shaped his talk around the 10 things he wished someone had told him when he was starting out. Afterwards, he posted the text and slides of the talk to his popular blog. This post then went viral, leading Kleon to dig deeper and expand it to create the book. It’s designed for anyone attempting to make things – art, a career, a life – in the digital age.

It’s been labelled in the press as an inspiring, practical and entertaining read and I tend to agree. It’s filled with interesting ideas about creativity. “Nothing is original, so embrace influence, collect ideas, and remix and re-imagine, discovering your own path. Follow your interests wherever they take you. Stay smart, stay out of debt, and risk being boring. To be creative you will need to make room to be wild and daring in your imagination.” It sounds a bit like the side of a cereal box initially but I think there is more to it than the single-line mottos and mantras at the start of the chapters. For example, “Being an artist over time, it’s easy to fall into similar process and repetitive traps” pushes readers out of their comfort zone. Even though youthful audiences will find the book attractive, older readers will be challenged to keep up to speed and think harder about their practice in a rapidly changing world.

Kleon describes himself as “a writer that draws”. He designed the book himself and his voice and style shine through. He says, “The reason to copy your heroes and their style is so that you might somehow get a glimpse into their minds”. Kleon reminds throughout his book that “nothing is original … all creative work builds on what came before”.

In a world of remix, this book advocates the broad idea that creativity isn’t a mystical flash of genius, but rather a combinatorial, collaborative process in which artists use their influences constructively and then build upon their direct experiences and passions. Each chapter is dedicated to one of the 10 principles, which are:

Steal-like-an-artist 1. Steal like an artist: The author cautions that he does not mean “steal” as in plagiarise, skim or rip off – but study, credit, remix, mash up and transform. Creative work builds on what came before, and thus nothing is completely original.

2. Don’t wait until you know who you are to start making things: You have to start doing the work you want to be doing, you have to immerse, internalise like the person you aspire to be. “You don’t have to look like your heroes, you want to see like your heroes,” Kleon urges. Go beyond imitation to emulation.

3. Write the book you want to read: It is important to do what you want to do, and insert your take on things of art.

4. Use your hands: It is important to step away from the screen and immerse yourself in actual physical work. “Computers have robbed us of the feeling that we’re actually making things,” Kleon cautions. “Involve your full body, and not just your brain.”

5. Side projects are important: Hobbies are important because they keep you happy.

“A hobby is something that gives but doesn’t take,” Kleon says.

6. Do good work and put it where people can see it: Sharing your work and even your thoughts about what you like can help you get good feedback and more ideas.

7. Geography is no longer our master: “Travel makes the world look new, and when the world looks new, our brains work harder,” Kleon explains. Constraints can also act favourably – bad winters or summers can force you to be indoors and work on your projects.

8. Be nice (the world is a small town): Stop fighting and channel your rage into a creative pursuit. Show appreciation for the good things you see around you.

9. Be boring (it’s the only way to get work done): You can’t be creative all the time, so set a routine. For example, with a regular day job which sets a fixed schedule and exposes you to new people and skills.

10. Creativity is subtraction: In an age of information overload and abundance, focus is important. Choose what you want to leave out of your key work. “Nothing is more paralysing than the idea of limitless possibilities. The best way to get over creative block is to simply place some constraints on yourself,” says Kleon.

Developing a good visual awareness is important in the ever-expanding art world, and anything that helps stem the overload of unaware mediocre art and artists can’t be all bad. Sometimes these fun offerings can ignite a little self awareness that helps one to be more attuned to what it takes to work more effectively and to get people to push their art further – a useful publication indeed!


Author: Austin Kleon
Workman publishing 2012
RRP: $24.95

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