This book by Austin Kleon has been recommended on the OCA Facebook Level 1 group quite frequently. The book opens with two quotes: “Art is theft” (Pablo Picasso) and “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 this theft into a whole of feeling which s unique,utterly different from that from which it was torn” (T.S. Eliot). Those two statements alone are food for thought.
There is a lot of good common sense advice in this little book. I really liked the simple down-to-earth writing style. No frills, just the facts, it’s definitely worth having on one’s library shelf. I have briefly highlighted some salient points from each chapter below.
The first piece of advice that Austin Kleon gives is to ‘Steal like an artist’. There is basically nothing original to create – it has all be done before. The best thing a budding artist can do it to take a good idea and build from it. All art is just a mashup of what came before. Having recently been to the Mashup – The Birth of Modern Culture exhibition in Vancouver where the entire exhibition was based on this principle, really brought this statement home to me. We should only collect good ideas that will feed our inspiration.
A really good piece of advice that stood out for me in this section was to pick one artist/photographer and study that person in depth, learn everything there is to learn about him/her. Then pick three people who influenced that person and in turn study them. Repeat the process with these three people and try and add yourself into the mix. This will help to forge a place of where you belong. Do lots of research, carry a notebook and fill it with ideas, overhead conversations, doodles, pictures, whatever comes to mind. This will be a repository for future inspirations.
Chapter two: Don’t wait until you know who you are to get started. It is by making art that we will figure out who we are. Kleon mentions the “imposter syndrome”, which is by definition is “a psychological phenomenon in which people are unable to internalize their accomplishments” (2012: 28). This is something all artists suffer from. Indeed we have had a few discussions on the OCA Level 1 Photography Facebook Group about this very topic. The solution to this problem, Kleon states is to just get out there and go and do your art – every day.
Copy something by unpacking the idea and concept to see what parts work. Copy from the artists that you admire. Importantly Kleon states (2012: 36) “Don’t just steal the style, steal the thinking behind the style. In other words try and get inside their heads and try to understand their way of thinking.
“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 (2012: 37)
We can only copy the artists we admire up to a certain point. We will never achieve their standard, because that standard is not a reflection of ourselves. But it is this space where we fall short that is important to analyse, because this is what makes our work different, and by analysing the difference will enable us to hear our own voice.
Chapter three: Write the book you want to read. Contrary to the usual advice given to authors to write about what they know, Kleon maintains this makes for boring, uninteresting work. His advice is to write (or in the case of photography) photograph what you like.
Chapter four: Use your hands. The biggest take away from this chapter was to get away from the computer screen. Kleon has an interesting way of working. He has an “analogue” desk and a “digital” desk. On the analogue desk he creates collages, uses his sketchbook, diary etc and then will later transfer those ideas to the digital desk. He stresses the importance of using all five senses when creating something.
Chapter five: Side projects and hobbies are important. Having side projects can be very productive especially when a block occurs. In this way one can move from the one project to the other. Kleon calls this ‘practicing productive procrastination’ (2012: 65). Having hobbies can also feed one’s creativity.
Chapter six: The secret: do good work and share it with people. Kleon advises that one should not be in a hurry to be “discovered”. Obscurity allows one to grow and make mistakes without having any undue pressure. His secret for becoming know is to do good work and then to share it with people and he uses the example of Martha Stewart here, giving away her housekeeping secrets. By sharing one’s work with others a dialogue will follow and one will learn from this.
Chapter seven: Geography is no longer our master. The world has become a small place with the advent of the internet. Make full use of this. Create art relationships across the internet. Travel is good for releasing the creative juices too.
Chapter eight: Be nice. (The world is a small town). Be careful to only say nice things about someone on the internet. If you like someone’s work, write about it and link to their website. Show your appreciation without expecting anything in return. Keep a file of any email compliments received (praise file) and refer to it on those days when self-doubt kicks in.
Chapter nine: Be boring (it’s the only way to get work done). Don’t get too carried away. Stay out of debt and keep the day job. It helps pay for all the artistic paraphernalia one needs. Stay on track by using a calendar. Use a daily log book. Jot down briefly whatever you did or what happened during the day.
Chapter ten: Creativity is subtraction. The quote below really sums up the whole of this chapter.
The way to get over creative block is to simply place some constraints on yourself. It seems contradictory, but when it comes to creative work, limitations mean freedom. … Creativity isn’t just the things we choose to put in, it’s the things we choose to leave out.
(Kleon 2012: 137, 140)
Kleon, Austin (2012). Steal like an artist | 10 things nobody told you about being creative. New York: Workman Publishing Company, Inc.