What I Learned From Steal Like An Artist by Austin Kleon

I wanted to read Steal Like An Artist by Austin Kleon ever since Julian Blanc once mentioned it in a YouTube video. It’s not like the content was anything new to me but hearing it from (or rather reading it from) an artist helps to embrace our non-originality.

I’ve always struggled with copying others. When I was younger, if a friend of mine bought something that I liked, I was either too embarresed to buy the same thing for myself or if I did convince myself to buy it anyways, I made sure that it remained my secret. Bought the same handbag that my friend had? Only wore that bag when I knew that I would hang out with people who don’t know my friend.

But as I started to do video animations for my channel or more recently started sketchnoting, I realized that copying others is unavoidable if I want to get better. So I decided to make peace with the fact that not every idea of mine is original or unique – truth be told nothing that we do is original – and reading Steal Like An Artist by Austin Kleon taught me how to deal with that knowledge.

Ironically, Nadine Roßa – one of my mentors when it comes to sketchnoting- posted a doodle illustrating a thief. So I thought it was meant for me to “steal” for my book summary sketches. (Instagram post from Nadine Roßa on the left, my “stolen” sketch on the right)

My life is currently very chaotic and it’s hard for me to find the time to publish a new video. Rather than letting all the lessons that I learned get lost in my bullet journal, I decided to summarize my top 7 lessons in this blog post.

1. WE DISCOVER OUR STYLE BY FAILING TO COPY OUR HEROS

This seems so obvious when you think about it but I still needed to read this book for this to sink in. The women I look up to including Rachel Hollis, Mel Robbins, and most recently Nadine Roßa, all have their own heroes who inspired them to be the exceptional human beings they are today. Without trying to copy their heroes they never would have become my heroes. And this is the exact way you and I will follow their lead. Or whoever your heroes are.

So rather than being ashamed of not having your own style as an artist YET. Embrace the fact that you can “steal” from other artists until you find your own style. And by having many artists you steal from, you can pick and choose the things you like and incorporate it into your work.

As Conan O’Brien put it comedians try to emulate their heroes, fall short, and then end up doing their own thing.

“It is our failure in becoming our perceived ideal that defines us and makes us unique.”

– Conen o’brien

2. COPY ONE – PLAGIARISM, COPY MANY – RESEARCH

Once again, it makes sense. But oh boy, I had to hear this from Kleon. Coming back to my pursuit of getting better at sketchnoting and eventually doing live graphic recording at huge events like TEDx, I had this fear of drawing people like Nadine Roßa or using the same colors like Benjamin Felis.

But here’s the deal if you have many different sources for your art, the way you mix different styles together already made that artwork your style. It’s that simple!

“If you copy from one author it is plagiarism, if you copy from many it is research!”

– Wilson Mizner

The same applies to books. I have read hundreds of books over the last couple of years. And guess what? They repeat many of the same concepts. But the way they combine the same concept and apply it to their own unique experiences makes their book “original”.

3. DON’T BE AFRAID TO GET BORED

I have my best ideas on the tram. Why? Because I love looking out the window while the tram is moving. And there are always some new impulses, people on the street, a new store that I have not discovered before that brings me new ideas.

I talked about this in my first animation but it is worth repeating. A study conducted by Stanford University shows that walking, for example, boosts creativity as opposed to sitting.

So get bored, get moving and create something!

4. PRODUCTIVE PROCRASTINATION IS GOOD

According to Kleon side projects and hobbies are important.

“The work you do while you procrastinate is probably the work you should be doing for the rest of your life.”

– Jessica Hische

5. KEEP A SWIPE FILE

Contrary to common (mis)conception, nobody is born with a style or a voice. We learn by copying others. It’s about reverse-engineering. Kleon gives the analogy of a mechanic taking apart a car to see how it works. The same applies to art. According to Mike Rohde to learn how to draw you only need to know 5 basic elements: circle, square, triangle, line and dot. That’s it, guys!

Kleon suggests keeping a swipe file for the purpose of keeping track of the stuff you have swiped from others. Did you find something worth stealing? Put it in you swipe file (I call mine design collection). Whenever you need some inspiration just open up the swipe file and start working. Newspaper reporters call this a “morgue file”. Your morgue file is where you collect the dead things that you can later reanimate in your work.

6. CONNECT THE DOTS

I found this really interesting especially after reading The One Thing and Essentialism. Kleon suggests that if you have two or three real passions, you don’t have to pick and choose between them.

This is contrary to many books I have read before, however, I don’t think that one advice is better than the other. Depending on what stage of your life you are in you might benefit from focusing on one thing or doing many things. At the end of the day, you should do whatever works for you!

“You can’t connect the dots looking forward, you can only connect them looking backwards.”

– Steve Jobs

7. HAVE A SPECIAL FOLDER

And lastly, have a special folder. This was really helpful advice for me. If you have a YouTube Channel, a blog, a website or anything where people can review you, you probably understand why this could be helpful for you.

Put every really nice e-mail you get in a special folder. When those dark days roll around where you don’t know why you’re going this, or a bad comment brings you down. A special folder can remind you that good days are coming, that you have made an impact. When those days arrive. open that folder and read through a couple of e-mails. Then get back to work.

“Use it sparingly—don’t get lost in past glory—but keep it around for when you need the lift.”

– Austin Kleon

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