How To Be An Artist

Steal Like An Artist and Show Your Work by Austin Kleon are two inspiring guides to unlocking your creativity and sharing your artistry with the world. Both books are made up of ten principles described in ten chapters. They are filled with Austin Kleon’s own experiences as a writer and artist and inspiring quotes from other artists. Both books are easy to read and can be finished fairly quickly which gives you time to reflect about how and if you can use the principles in your creative life.

For my part, the advice and principles he shares in these books have helped me understand new things and confirmed some of my own beliefs about creativity and being an artist. I will give you some examples from each book in the following.

Steal Like An Artist

In the first chapter, with the same title as the book, the main principle is that nothing is original. Everything builds on what others have created before.

“What a good artist understands is that nothing comes from nowhere. All creative work builds on what came before. Nothing is completely original.”

– Quote from page 7.

Most people do not realize this. All artists find inspiration in the world they live in and the people that surround them. Other artists’ work and lives inspire them, guide them and teaches them how to be artists. Realizing that creativity comes from somewhere makes you a better artist. It makes it easier for everyone to be creative.

“If we’re free from the burden of trying to be completely original, we can stop trying to make something out of nothing, and we can embrace influence instead of running away from it.”

– Quote from page 8.

The trick is to know what is worth stealing. That does not mean plagiarism but copying as chapter two talks about. Plagiarism is where you take someone else’s work and try and claim it as your own like when a singer does not give due credit to the songwriter, as many have been accused of in the last few decades.

When copying you understand the mechanisms behind an artwork but you will eventually find your own ways of doing things, your own processes.

Chapter three, Write The Book You What To Read, is probably one of my favourite chapters in the book. I love to write, have always loved it, and have many story ideas, but I have often felt hindered by the phrase “write what you know”, which probably why most of my story ideas are of the fantasy and fairy tale genres because there I do not feel bound to anything I know or hindered by things I do not know – I am not a library. I can write things that do not necessarily need to make sense in the real world.

I found it really interesting that Kleon calls all fiction for fan fiction. He admits that when Jurassic Park first came out, he wrote his own version of the sequel and when the real sequel came out it did not live up to the sequel in his head. I have often found myself coming up with, in my head, a better version of an episode from one of my favourite series or a different way of solving a problem in a movie. However, I always try to keep an open mind and think positively even about sequels.

Show Your Work

Chapter two, Think Process, Not Product, really spoke to me. I am one of those people who love watching the behind the scenes features on DVD’s, mostly deleted scenes, bloopers and special effects. How awesome would it be to get all the extras before the movie, without too much being revealed of course? I love watching speed paintings on YouTube to study how artists build their compositions and use layering to give their work depth. I learn more from the process than the finished product no matter how perfect it is.

By sharing your process, you can get people invested in an idea. One thing I have learned studying Multimedia Design and Concept Development, is that if you get your target group involved through testing at an early stage in the product development you can start to create a demand for the finished product. So why should that not apply to art as well?

That being said, you have to remember that “the Internet is a copy machine” (quoted on page 57 from Kevin Kelly). Which is why chapter three is important. Here I found one of my favourite quotes:

“Post as though everyone who can read it has the power to fire you.” – publicist Lauren Cerand

– As quoted on page 57

Do not over-share. You do not have to share every little detail, you are not writing a diary. Only share what you want feedback on or if there is something you think others might find helpful or entertaining. Kleon writes that if you are unsure if something is worth sharing, walk away for 24 hours and then ask yourself: “Is it helpful? Is it entertaining? Is it something I’d be comfortable with my boss or mother seeing?”

The last thing I want to mention that I found really helpful, and something I try to work on, is chapter seven, Don’t Turn Into Human Spam. Human spam is what Kleon calls people who focus on themselves and their work. They are not interested in listening only in being heard and exist in every profession. On the other hand, forward-thinking artists know “…that the experience of art is always a two-way street, incomplete without feedback.” (page 126) They interact with their audience and connect with their fans. They become reachable.

Kleon’s advice to all artists is:

“If you want fans, you have to be a fan first…If you’re only pointing to your own stuff online, you’re doing it wrong. You have to be a connector…I f you want to get, you have to give. If you want to be noticed, you have to notice. Shut up and listen once in a while. Be thoughtful. Be considerate. Don’t turn into human spam. Be an open node.”

– Quoted from page 127.


I hope you pick up these two books and find them as inspiring as I did.