“Lesser artists borrow, great artists steal.”
~ Igor Stravinsky
The above quote, or a variation of it, has also been attributed to Lionel Trilling and Pablo Picasso, and more recently quoted by Steve Jobs:
No matter who first came up with this saying, the message is the same. If you want to be a successful artist, you need to emulate successful artists.
It’s widely held that one of the keys to success in any field is to focus not on avoiding the mistakes others have made, but on replicating the actions of those who have achieved success. In other words, look at what successful people do, and do that.
Nothing is Original
As Austin Kleon points out in his book, How to Steal Like An Artist, there are no new ideas (it says it in the Bible, so it must be true!)
“Every new idea is just a mashup or a remix of previous ideas.”
So every idea we have comes from something else we have seen and interpreted in our own way. We can put our own unique spin on an idea, but ultimately we are the sum of our experiences.
There is a quote I like (the source escapes me at the moment):
“Art is reality filtered through the imagination.”
Only Steal Great Stuff
The key to stealing like an artist is to only steal the stuff that you really love. You need to filter out the crap, and emulate the people you really admire.
If there’s an artist you love, collect as much of their work as you can and study their technique.
Not only that, but to really get an insight into their success, find out what artists they admire, and study them too. Find out what books they read and read them too.
Copying From the Old Masters
This idea of emulating successful people is actually a key part of classical art training. If you study in a classical art atelier, the first stage of your drawing study will be copying the works of master artists.
This practice is not widely taught in more modern art schools, where the emphasis is on developing the artist’s own personal vision, but by examining the techniques used by great artists, we can gain valuable insight into the way they worked, and we can learn from master painters the lessons that they in turn learned from great artists before them.
For a great insight into the value of master copy drawing and other atelier techniques, you should read Juliette Aristides’ Classical Drawing Atelier.
In the chapter on master copy drawing, she quotes Sir Joshua Reynolds:
“On whom then can [the artist] rely, or who shall show him the path that leads to excellence? The answer is obvious: those great masters, who have traveled the same road with success, are the most likely to conduct others.”
What Not to Steal
There is a difference between emulating someone’s techniques to create your own art, and making a carbon copy of someone’s art and passing it off as your own.
Steal knowledge, steal insight, steal technique, but don’t steal someone else’s work. That is plagiarism, and simply put, it’s not cool.
I know a lot of great caricature artists, and all too often, their work can be found printed out and hung up on display outside the stalls of those street caricature artists you see in Leicester Square.
These crooks are passing off the work of great artists as their own in an attempt to sell more of their crappy drawings. The original artist gets no credit for their work, and the customer is no doubt disappointed that their caricature is not of the same high quality as the ones on display.
So when we talk about stealing from successful artists, what we are really talking about is learning from them. We can then use what we have learned to create our own unique works of art, and hopefully, in future, young artists will in turn steal from us!
Over to you. What do you think about stealing ideas and techniques from successful artists? Tell us about it in the comments below.