Tuesday, July 17, 2012

Steal Like An Artist


"The only art I'll ever study is stuff that I can steal from"

- David Bowie

I just read this book. It's a little gem, packed with lots of quality advice besides the titular nugget*, but it is said nugget that I want to talk about.

"What a good artist understands is that nothing comes from nowhere. All creative work builds on what came before. Nothing is completely original."
- Austin Kleon, "Steal Like An Artist"

If you ask a creative professional where they get their ideas, you'll often get a vague stock answer to the effect of "oh, you know, everywhere!" or "I don't know, they just pop into my head!"

I call bullshit. As the quote above says- we aren't working in a vacuum.

In the art and design worlds (at least, in the facets I have experience with) saying you "stole" an idea is horrifying. We're so worried about being accused of plagiarism or outright replication (things that are decidedly dishonorable) that some of us even deny being inspired by other creatives. "Oh, I never look at other people's designs, I don't want to be unconsciously influenced by them." Mmmhmm. And I'm sure you wear blinders every time you leave the house, lest you accidentally be exposed to fashion.

"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 his theft into a whole feeling which is unique, utterly different form that which it was torn."
- TS Eliot

The thing is, we do steal. We are inspired by others' works. We "unvent." Nothing is new, it's just tweaked and recombined and changed and made personal. And while I would never condone replication/counterfeiting/plagiarism, I think it's okay to admit that we do this. Heck, I have a giant folder of inspirational photos on my computer. I'm not going to dive in there and copy something outright, but I may browse through, analyze what elements attract me, pick and choose a few, and then use them in my own way to make something entirely new (and at the same time, not new at all.)

"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

Perhaps "borrow" would be a more polite term for this, but then, it's not really borrowing (unless, I guess, the artist you borrowed from takes from you in return, haha.) But I think it's sad that people get so scared of "ripping off" that they can't even admit to being (or in some cases let themselves be) inspired by others. You will not accidentally make a perfect replica of a thing you are looking at. People who do that are doing it on purpose (and even then will probably fall short from a "perfect" replica anyway, ha.)

“It’s not where you take things from—it’s where you take them to.”
-Jean-Luc Godard

Inspiration is everywhere, it's ok to soak it in, mush it up with some other stuff, spit a little of your extra-special "you"ness on it (ok that sounds gross) and whip up your masterpiece. And hey, maybe it'll be good enough for someone else to steal.

"Don't worry about people stealing your ideas. If your ideas are any good, you'll have to ram them down people's throats."
- Howard Aiken

*I wish that I had just won a bet by using the phrase "titular nugget" in a blog post.

Addendum: Kristen just pointed me to this awesome series by Emily Johnson about her Monami sweater, which was purposely influenced by another designer's design. If you've got any interest in this concept you'll love it (and it's an amazing sweater to boot.) Scroll to the bottom and start with post # 1 :-)


  1. Have you seen Emily Johnson's awesome series where she discusses inspiration and then deliberately makes a sweater inspired by a Kim Hargreaves sweater? It resulted in the Monami Cardigan, which is gorgeous, and I think it both pays tribute to the original sweater and is really special in its own right. The blog posts are linked from the pattern on Ravelry.

    1. Cool, I'll check that out. It's ballsy to admit that your design is inspired by someone else's, which is silly because it totally happens all the time and there's really nothing wrong with it as long as you're injecting yourself in there :-)

  2. Funny, I was just inspired by another designer's design and I was thinking to myself "oh, I wonder if that's an unethical thing to do?" Thanks for the timely blog post.

  3. Thanks for sharing this - I am adding the book to my reading list.

    Also, I bet you a blog comment that you can't use "titular nugget" in a post. (There, now you've retroactively won the bet. :)

  4. Well said! I've wondered about people I've heard say they don't read other people's patterns. I love looking at a great pattern and thinking "wow, that's amazing!" and feeling inspired to try out new things.

  5. Hear, hear. It's about time someone finally admitted to this! I always get annoyed when people claim to "not look at other people's work", too. I actively look at as much fashion-related stuff as I possibly can, and NO ONE lives in a vacuum.

  6. I love this! Its so true that people are inspired by everything around them!!! It is so hard to come up with something "original" anyway and then with people saying all the time to not reproduce their work, and I'm thinking "when do I ever follow a pattern, or recipe for that matter, word for word?" Thanks for the wonderfully inspirational article.



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