Steal like an artist

  • Only study art that you can steal from.
  • Spend your day looking for art you can steal from.
  • Since nothing is original, your job is to embrace as much influence as possible and repeat what has been said when no one was listening.
  • Be very intentional in building your own genealogy of influence (teachers, friends, books).
  • Be the mashup of your influences.
  • Your job is to selectively collect good ideas. The more good ideas you collect, the more you can choose from to be influenced by.
  • Climb your family tree by chewing on one thinker, studying everything there is to know about that thinker. Then, find the people that thinker loved and do the same. Climb as far as you can. Once you build your tree, start your own branch. See yourself as part of a creative lineage. Hang pictures of your heroes on your studio.
  • Go deep. Chase down every reference. Read bibliographies.
  • Save your thefts in a note-taking system. Open that system when you need inspiration.

Don’t wait until you know who you are to get started.

  • It’s in the act of making things and doing our work that we figure out who wwe are.
  • All artists don’t really know what they are doing. They just show up and wait for the good thing to come by doing the work.
  • Start doing the work you want to be doing until you find success.
  • Learn by pretending to be your heroes.
  • Figure out who to copy then what to copy. Copy from all your heroes. Copy their style but more importantly, the thinking behind their style.
  • Try to copy your heroes, but it is from your failure to do so that you will become yourself. Where you fail is where you become different. Amplify and transform that into your own work.

Write the book you want to read.

  • Whenever you’re at a loss for what move to make next, ask yourself: “What would make a better story?”
  • Once you have built a family tree, ask yourself: What did my heroes miss? What didn’t they make? What could’ve been made better? If they are still alive, what would they be making today? If all your favorite makers got together and collaborated, what would they make with you leading the crew?

Use your hands.

  • Find a way to bring your body into your work.
    • Stand up while working.
    • Use analog materials.
    • Have two desks: 1 analog and 1 electronic. Do your thinking in analog then editing or publishing in electronic.

Side projects and hobbies are important.

  • Have different projects you can bounce around for productive procrastination.
  • Take time to be bored.
  • Keep all your passions in your life. Let them talk together.
  • Don’t worry about a grand scheme or unified vision for your work. What unifies your work is you. You can only connect the dots by looking backwards not forwards.

The secret: Do good work and share it with people.

  • Enjoy your obscurity while it lasts, before you are popular and paid. Use it to experiment, play, and get better without the pressure of pleasing others.
  • Do the work every day. Embrace failure.
  • Wonder about the things that nobody is wondering about. Then invite others to wonder with you by giving away your secrets.
  • Share your search. Share ideas that aren’t fully formed. Use your website as an incubator, a place to fill up.
  • Share glimpses of your process that could be helpful to others (tips, links, book, sketches of your work). You don’t have to connect the dots.

Geography is no longer our master.

  • You can build your own world around you wherever you are now. Connect with mentors and peers online. Surround yourself with the books and objects that you love.
  • Self-impose solitude in a space and time and see the world come to you.
  • Leave home once in a while to break the monotony and rewire your brain.
  • Live around interesting people who don’t necessarily do what you do.
  • Find a place that feeds you creatively, socially, spiritually, and literally.

Be nice. The world is a small town.

  • Ignore enemies. Say nice things to friends.
  • Follow people online who are smarter than you and pay attention to what they’re talking about, doing, and linking to. Be helpful to them.
  • Quit picking fights. Use your anger by creating something that corrects what’s wrong.
  • Write a public fan letter (a blog post) about the work of someone you admire then link to their site.
    • Make something in dedication to them.
    • Answer their question.
    • Solve a problem for them.
    • Improve on their work and share online.
    • Do all of these without expecting anything in return.
  • Don’t ask for validation from external sources. You can’t control how people will react.
  • Be too busy doing your work that you don’t have time to listen to external negative feedback.
  • Keep a praise file that you reread sparingly when you need the lift.

Be boring. It’s the only way to get work done.

  • Take care of your health. Use your energy for creative work.
  • Live cheaply and stay out of debt.
  • Find a day job that:
    • connects you with the world
    • provides a constraint for your creative routine
    • pays decently
    • doesn’t make you vomit
    • leaves you with enough energy for your art
  • Use a calendar to track your reative habit ala Seinfield. Do not break the chain.
  • Use a logbook to list the things you do every day to keep track of how far you’ve sailed.
  • Marry well and build relationships that help you thrive in your creative pursuit.

Creativity is subtraction.

  • Figure out what to leave out so you can concentrate on what’s really important to you.
  • Get over creative block by putting constraints on yourself. Limitation means freedom.
  • What we leave out from our work is what makes it interesting. What we haven’t experienced makes us interesting.


Kleon, A. (2012). Steal Like an Artist: 10 Things Nobody Told You About Being Creative. Workman Publishing.