Why You Should Steal Like an Artist

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I periodically flip through one of the better books about creativity, published last year by visual artist and author, Austin Kleon. It’s called "Steal like an Artist: 10 Things Nobody Told You about Being Creative." Everyone who creates anything could benefit from this guy’s advice.

The thin red line between plagiarism and originality has always been a bit puzzling. Kleon’s book demystifies the creative-theft process. Early on, he reminds us that nothing is original. Everything builds on what came before. It’s right there in the Bible: “There is nothing new under the sun.” (Ecclesiastes 1.9)

The first step, he writes, is to figure out what’s worth stealing, then selectively collect what you really love from many sources: magazine articles, books, poems, blogs, drawings and paintings. Once you’ve identified an artist whose works you love, study everything about that artist. Not just her style but what she loved. Research her work. Go deeper. Find out who inspired her, then research everything you can about those people. Don’t just copy one person to be original. Copy many.

To be truly original, he explains, you don’t want to really steal the style, but the thinking behind the style. He gives examples: Johnny Carson tried to be Jack Benny. David Letterman tried to be Johnny Carson. Paul McCartney tried to be Buddy Holly. On and on.

Once you’ve studied the artist’s thought process, ask yourself where you fall short. Then take your work, and transform them into something that’s uniquely you. Record, google, doodle.

Kleon promotes a concept called "productive procrastination." Have a lot of side projects going at once, and bounce back and forth between them. Don’t throw anything away. Do good work and share it with folks. Wonder at something, and invite others to do the same. Give secrets away, but don’t share everything.

Salvador Dali once wrote: “Those who do not want to imitate anything, produce nothing.” Call it stealing, copying or whatever, but to create truly original work, you need to imitate, then build on what you borrow. Take only what inspires you, forget the rest, then transform your copies into something that’s uniquely your own. To quote Kleon: “There really are no rules.”

Chris Ruys is passionate about helping organizations increase their visibility and build their credibility to reach their business goals and objectives. The firm, Chris Ruys Communications, does this through the development and implementation of communications strategies that include traditional and social media marketing channels. We operate in collaboration with a network of graphic designers, media & speaker training professionals, professional photographers, videographers and other specialists, as needed. Specialties: Strategic communications, written materials, media relations, social media strategies, special events.

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