Steal Like an Artist
Steal Like an Artist

Steal Like an Artist

Every artist gets asked the question, “Where do you get your ideas?” The honest artist answers: “I steal them.”

When you look at the world this way , you stop worrying about what’s “ good ” and what’s “ bad ” — there’s only stuff worth stealing , and stuff that’s not worth stealing .

What is originality? Undetected plagiarism.

Everything that needs to be said has already been said. But, since no one was listening, everything must be said again.

You are, in fact, a mashup of what you choose to let into your life. You are the sum of your influences. The German writer Goethe said:

“We are shaped and fashioned by what we love. We were kids without fathers... so we found our fathers on wax and on the streets and in history. We got to pick and choose the ancestors who would inspire the world we were going to make for ourselves.”

The artist is a collector. Not a hoarder, mind you, there’s a difference: Hoarders collect indiscriminately, artists collect selectively. They only collect things that they really love.

I hang pictures of my favorite artists in my studio. They’re like friendly ghosts. I can almost feel them pushing me forward as I’m hunched over my desk. The great thing about dead or remote masters is that they can’t refuse you as an apprentice.

Google everything. I mean everything. Google your dreams, Google your problems. Don’t ask a question before you Google it. You’ll either find the answer or you’ll come up with a better question.

Always be reading. Go to the library. There’s magic in being surrounded by books. Get lost in the stacks. Read bibliographies. It’s not the book you start with, it’s the book that book leads you to. Collect books, even if you don’t plan on reading them right away.

Carry a notebook and a pen with you wherever you go. Get used to pulling it out and jotting down your thoughts and observations. Copy your favorite passages out of books. Record overheard conversations.

Doodle when you’re on the phone. Go to whatever lengths necessary to make sure you always have paper on you. Artist David Hockney had all the inside pockets of his suit jackets tailored to fit a sketchbook. The musician Arthur Russell liked to wear shirts with two front pockets so he could fill them with scraps of score sheets.

Keep a swipe file. It’s just what it sounds like — a file to keep track of the stuff you’ve swiped from others . It can be digital or analog — it doesn’t matter what form it takes , as long as it works. You can keep a scrapbook and cut and paste things into it, or you can just take pictures of things with your camera phone. See something worth stealing? Put it in the swipe file. Need a little inspiration? Open up the swipe file.

Start copying what you love . Copy copy copy copy. At the end of the copy you will find your self.

Nobody is born with a style or a voice. We don’t come out of the womb knowing who we are. In the beginning, we learn by pretending to be our heroes. We learn by copying. We’re talking about practice here, not plagiarism — plagiarism is trying to pass someone else’s work off as your own. Copying is about reverse - engineering. It’s like a mechanic taking apart a car to see how it works.

We learn to write by copying down the alphabet. Musicians learn to play by practicing scales. Painters learn to paint by reproducing masterpieces. Remember: Even The Beatles started as a cover band. Paul McCartney has said, “I emulated Buddy Holly, Little Richard, Jerry Lee Lewis, Elvis . We all did. ”McCartney and his partner John Lennon became one of the greatest songwriting teams in history, but as McCartney recalls, they only started writing their own songs“ as a way to avoid other bands being able to play our set. ”As Salvador Dalí said, “Those who do not want to imitate anything , produce nothing.”

Take $ 10, go to the school supply aisle of your local store, and pick up some paper, pens, and sticky notes. When you get back to your analog station, pretend it’s craft time. Scribble on paper, cut it up, and tape the pieces back together. Stand up while you’re working. Pin things on the walls and look for patterns. Spread things around your space and sort through them . Once you start getting your ideas, then you can move over to your digital station and use the computer to help you execute and publish them. When you start to lose steam, head back to the analog station and play.

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

Get a calendar. Fill the boxes. Don’t break the chain.

The benefits of a side project

One thing I’ve learned in my brief career: It’s the side projects that really take off. By side projects I mean the stuff that you thought was just messing around. Stuff that’s just play. That’s actually the good stuff. That’s when the magic happens. I think it’s good to have a lot of projects going at once so you can bounce between them. When you get sick of one project, move over to another, and when you’re sick of that one, move back to the project you left. Practice productive procrastination.

Take time to be bored.

One time I heard a coworker say, “When I get busy, I get stupid.” Ain’t that the truth. Creative people need time to just sit around and do nothing. I get some of my best ideas when I’m bored, which is why I never take my shirts to the cleaners. I love ironing my shirts—it’s so boring, I almost always get good ideas. If you’re out of ideas, wash the dishes. Take a really long walk. Stare at a spot on the wall for as long as you can. As the artist Maira Kalman says, “Avoiding work is the way to focus my mind.”

You don’t put yourself online only because you have something to say—you can put yourself online to find something to say.

Learn to code.

Figure out how to make a website. Figure out blogging. Figure out Twitter and social media and all that other stuff. Find people on the Internet who love the same things as you and connect with them. Share things with them.

If you’re worried about giving your secrets away, you can share your dots without connecting them.

Surround yourself with books and objects that you love. Tape things up on the wall. Create your own world.

Your brain gets too comfortable in your everyday surroundings. You need to make it uncomfortable. You need to spend some time in another land, among people that do things differently than you. Travel makes the world look new, and when the world looks new, our brains work harder.

Find the most talented person in the room, and if it’s not you, go stand next to him. Hang out with him. Try to be helpful. If you ever find that you’re the most talented person in the room, you need to find another room.

Complain about the way other people make software by making software.

Write a blog post about someone’s work that you admire and link to their site. Make something and dedicate it to your hero. Answer a question they’ve asked, solve a problem for them, or improve on their work and share it online.

Ironically, really good work often appears to be effortless. People will say, “Why didn’t I think of that?” They won’t see the years of toil and sweat that went into it.  Not everybody will get it.

It takes a lot of energy to be creative. You don’t have that energy if you waste it on other stuff. It’s best to assume that you’ll be alive for a while. (It’s for this reason that Patti Smith tells young artists to go to the dentist.) Eat breakfast. Do some push-ups. Go for long walks. Get plenty of sleep.

Most people I know hate to think about money. Do yourself a favor: Learn about money as soon as you can.

Make yourself a budget. Live within your means. Pack your lunch. Pinch pennies. Save as much as you can. Get the education you need for as cheap as you can get it. The art of holding on to money is all about saying no to consumer culture. Saying no to takeout, $4 lattes, and that shiny new computer when the old one still works fine.

A day job gives you money, a connection to the world, and a routine. Freedom from financial stress also means freedom in your art.

I’ve tried to take jobs where I can learn things that I can use in my work later—my library job taught me how to do research, my Web design job taught me how to build websites, and my copywriting job taught me how to sell things with words.

The worst thing a day job does is take time away from you, but it makes up for that by giving you a daily routine in which you can schedule a regular time for your creative pursuits.

The solution is really simple: Figure out what time you can carve out, what time you can steal, and stick to your routine. Do the work every day, no matter what. No holidays, no sick days. Don’t stop. What you’ll probably find is that the corollary to Parkinson’s Law is usually true: Work gets done in the time available.

The trick is to find a day job that pays decently, doesn’t make you want to vomit, and leaves you with enough energy to make things in your spare time. Good day jobs aren’t necessarily easy to find, but they’re out there.

In this age of information abundance and overload, those who get ahead will be the folks who figure out what to leave out, so they can concentrate on what’s really important to them. Nothing is more paralyzing than the idea of limitless possibilities.

Paint a painting with only one color. Start a business without any start-up capital. Shoot a movie with your iPhone and a few of your friends. Build a machine out of spare parts.

What now?

Talk and walk

Start your your swipe file

Go to the library

Buy a notebook and use it

Get yourself a calendar

Start your logbook

Give a copy of this book away

Start a blog

Take a nap

Scattered Notes

Every artist gets asked the question, “Where do you get your ideas?” The honest artist answers, “I steal them.” (Location 38)

When you look at the world this way, you stop worrying about what’s “good” and what’s “bad”—there’s only stuff worth stealing, and stuff that’s not worth stealing. (Location 43)

As the French writer André Gide put it, “Everything that needs to be said has already been said. But, since no one was listening, everything must be said again.” (Location 53)

“What is originality? Undetected plagiarism.” (Location 57)

Tags: blue

You are, in fact, a mashup of what you choose to let into your life. You are the sum of your influences. The German writer Goethe said, “We are shaped and fashioned by what we love.” “We were kids without fathers . . . so we found our fathers on wax and on the streets and in history. We got to pick and choose the ancestors who would inspire the world we were going to make for ourselves.” (Location 69)

The artist is a collector. Not a hoarder, mind you, there’s a difference: Hoarders collect indiscriminately, artists collect selectively. They only collect things that they really love. (Location 76)

“Steal from anywhere that resonates with inspiration or fuels your imagination. Devour old films, new films, music, books, paintings, photographs, poems, dreams, random conversations, architecture, bridges, street signs, trees, clouds, bodies of water, light and shadows. Select only things to steal from that speak directly to your soul. If you do this, your work (and theft) will be authentic.” —Jim Jarmusch (Location 82)

I hang pictures of my favorite artists in my studio. They’re like friendly ghosts. I can almost feel them pushing me forward as I’m hunched over my desk. The great thing about dead or remote masters is that they can’t refuse you as an apprentice. (Location 93)

Google everything. I mean everything. Google your dreams, Google your problems. Don’t ask a question before you Google it. You’ll either find the answer or you’ll come up with a better question. (Location 101)

Always be reading. Go to the library. There’s magic in being surrounded by books. Get lost in the stacks. Read bibliographies. It’s not the book you start with, it’s the book that book leads you to. Collect books, even if you don’t plan on reading them right away. Filmmaker John Waters has said, “Nothing is more important than an unread library.” Don’t worry about doing research. Just search. “Whether I went to school or not, I would always study.” —RZA (Location 103)

Carry a notebook and a pen with you wherever you go. Get used to pulling it out and jotting down your thoughts and observations. Copy your favorite passages out of books. Record overheard conversations. (Location 109)

Doodle when you’re on the phone. Go to whatever lengths necessary to make sure you always have paper on you. Artist David Hockney had all the inside pockets of his suit jackets tailored to fit a sketchbook. The musician Arthur Russell liked to wear shirts with two front pockets so he could fill them with scraps of score sheets. (Location 111)

Keep a swipe file. It’s just what it sounds like—a file to keep track of the stuff you’ve swiped from others. It can be digital or analog—it doesn’t matter what form it takes, as long as it works. You can keep a scrapbook and cut and paste things into it, or you can just take pictures of things with your camera phone. See something worth stealing? Put it in the swipe file. Need a little inspiration? Open up the swipe file. (Location 114)

Tags: orange

I love both readings—you have to dress for the job you want, not the job you have, and you have to start doing the work you want to be doing. (Location 145)

“Start copying what you love. Copy copy copy copy. At the end of the copy you will find your self.” —Yohji Yamamoto Nobody is born with a style or a voice. We don’t come out of the womb knowing who we are. In the beginning, we learn by pretending to be our heroes. We learn by copying. We’re talking about practice here, not plagiarism—plagiarism is trying to pass someone else’s work off as your own. Copying is about reverse-engineering. It’s like a mechanic taking apart a car to see how it works. (Location 159)

We learn to write by copying down the alphabet. Musicians learn to play by practicing scales. Painters learn to paint by reproducing masterpieces. Remember: Even The Beatles started as a cover band. Paul McCartney has said, “I emulated Buddy Holly, Little Richard, Jerry Lee Lewis, Elvis. We all did.” McCartney and his partner John Lennon became one of the greatest songwriting teams in history, but as McCartney recalls, they only started writing their own songs “as a way to avoid other bands being able to play our set.” As Salvador Dalí said, “Those who do not want to imitate anything, produce nothing.” (Location 165)

Tags: pink

Take $10, go to the school supply aisle of your local store, and pick up some paper, pens, and sticky notes. When you get back to your analog station, pretend it’s craft time. Scribble on paper, cut it up, and tape the pieces back together. Stand up while you’re working. Pin things on the walls and look for patterns. Spread things around your space and sort through them. Once you start getting your ideas, then you can move over to your digital station and use the computer to help you execute and publish them. When you start to lose steam, head back to the analog station and play. (Location 275)

“The work you do while you procrastinate is probably the work you should be doing for the rest of your life.” —Jessica Hische (Location 282)

One thing I’ve learned in my brief career: It’s the side projects that really take off. By side projects I mean the stuff that you thought was just messing around. Stuff that’s just play. That’s actually the good stuff. That’s when the magic happens. (Location 285)

I think it’s good to have a lot of projects going at once so you can bounce between them. When you get sick of one project, move over to another, and when you’re sick of that one, move back to the project you left. Practice productive procrastination. (Location 287)

Tags: blue

Take time to be bored. One time I heard a coworker say, “When I get busy, I get stupid.” Ain’t that the truth. Creative people need time to just sit around and do nothing. I get some of my best ideas when I’m bored, which is why I never take my shirts to the cleaners. I love ironing my shirts—it’s so boring, I almost always get good ideas. If you’re out of ideas, wash the dishes. Take a really long walk. Stare at a spot on the wall for as long as you can. As the artist Maira Kalman says, “Avoiding work is the way to focus my mind.” (Location 290)

You don’t put yourself online only because you have something to say—you can put yourself online to find something to say. (Location 348)

Learn to code. Figure out how to make a website. Figure out blogging. Figure out Twitter and social media and all that other stuff. Find people on the Internet who love the same things as you and connect with them. Share things with them. (Location 357)

If you’re worried about giving your secrets away, you can share your dots without connecting them. (Location 362)

Surround yourself with books and objects that you love. Tape things up on the wall. Create your own world. (Location 378)

All you need is a little space and a little time—a place to work, and some time to do it; a little self-imposed solitude and temporary captivity. (Location 382)

“Distance and difference are the secret tonic of creativity. When we get home, home is still the same. But something in our mind has been changed, and that changes everything.” —Jonah Lehrer (Location 391)

Your brain gets too comfortable in your everyday surroundings. You need to make it uncomfortable. You need to spend some time in another land, among people that do things differently than you. Travel makes the world look new, and when the world looks new, our brains work harder. (Location 396)

“Find the most talented person in the room, and if it’s not you, go stand next to him. Hang out with him. Try to be helpful.” (Location 428)

If you ever find that you’re the most talented person in the room, you need to find another room. (Location 430)

So go on, get angry. But keep your mouth shut and go do your work. “Complain about the way other people make software by making software.” —Andre Torrez (Location 437)

Write a blog post about someone’s work that you admire and link to their site. Make something and dedicate it to your hero. Answer a question they’ve asked, solve a problem for them, or improve on their work and share it online. (Location 447)

“Modern art = I could do that + Yeah, but you didn’t.” —Craig Damrauer (Location 453)

Ironically, really good work often appears to be effortless. People will say, “Why didn’t I think of that?” They won’t see the years of toil and sweat that went into it. Not everybody will get it. (Location 457)

“Be regular and orderly in your life, so that you may be violent and original in your work.” —Gustave Flaubert (Location 472)

It takes a lot of energy to be creative. You don’t have that energy if you waste it on other stuff. It’s best to assume that you’ll be alive for a while. (It’s for this reason that Patti Smith tells young artists to go to the dentist.) Eat breakfast. Do some push-ups. Go for long walks. Get plenty of sleep. (Location 477)

Most people I know hate to think about money. Do yourself a favor: Learn about money as soon as you can. (Location 482)

Make yourself a budget. Live within your means. Pack your lunch. Pinch pennies. Save as much as you can. Get the education you need for as cheap as you can get it. The art of holding on to money is all about saying no to consumer culture. Saying no to takeout, $4 lattes, and that shiny new computer when the old one still works fine. (Location 484)

A day job gives you money, a connection to the world, and a routine. Freedom from financial stress also means freedom in your art. (Location 490)

I’ve tried to take jobs where I can learn things that I can use in my work later—my library job taught me how to do research, my Web design job taught me how to build websites, and my copywriting job taught me how to sell things with words. (Location 493)

The worst thing a day job does is take time away from you, but it makes up for that by giving you a daily routine in which you can schedule a regular time for your creative pursuits. (Location 495)

Tags: blue

The solution is really simple: Figure out what time you can carve out, what time you can steal, and stick to your routine. (Location 499)

Do the work every day, no matter what. No holidays, no sick days. Don’t stop. What you’ll probably find is that the corollary to Parkinson’s Law is usually true: Work gets done in the time available. (Location 499)

Tags: blue

Nobody’s saying it’s going to be fun. A lot of times it will feel as if you’re living a double life. (Location 501)

The trick is to find a day job that pays decently, doesn’t make you want to vomit, and leaves you with enough energy to make things in your spare time. Good day jobs aren’t necessarily easy to find, but they’re out there. (Location 503)

Tags: pink

Writing a page each day doesn’t seem like much, but do it for 365 days and you have enough to fill a novel. (Location 508)

Get a calendar. Fill the boxes. Don’t break the chain. (Location 515)

Just as you need a chart of future events, you also need a chart of past events. A logbook isn’t necessarily a diary or a journal, it’s just a little book in which you list the things you do every day. What project you worked on, where you went to lunch, what movie you saw. It’s much easier than keeping a detailed diary, and you’d be amazed at how helpful having a daily record like this can be, especially over several years. The small details will help you remember the big details. (Location 517)

“She rescued me. I’d be playing in a steak house right now if it wasn’t for her. I wouldn’t even be playing in a steak house. I’d be cooking in a steak house.” —Tom Waits, on his wife and collaborator, Kathleen Brennan (Location 530)

In this age of information abundance and overload, those who get ahead will be the folks who figure out what to leave out, so they can concentrate on what’s really important to them. (Location 542)

Nothing is more paralyzing than the idea of limitless possibilities. (Location 543)

Tags: pink

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. (Location 544)

Write a song on your lunch break. Paint a painting with only one color. Start a business without any start-up capital. Shoot a movie with your iPhone and a few of your friends. Build a machine out of spare parts. Don’t make excuses for not working—make things with the time, space, and materials you have, right now. (Location 545)

“Telling yourself you have all the time in the world, all the money in the world, all the colors in the palette, anything you want—that just kills creativity.” —Jack White (Location 551)

What Now? Talk a walk Start your swipe file Go to the library Buy a notebook and use it Get yourself a calendar Start your logbook Give a copy of this book away Start a blog Take a nap (Location 562)

Recommended Reading Linda Barry, What It Is Hugh MacLeod, Ignore Everybody Jason Fried + David Heinemeier Hansson, Rework Lewis Hyde, The Gift Jonathan Lethem, The Ecstasy of Influence David Shields, Reality Hunger Scott McCloud, Understanding Comics Anne Lamott, Bird by Bird Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi, Flow Ed Emberley, Make a World (Location 565)