Exploring Creativity | How to Steal Like an Artist without plagiarizing

Unlock your Creativity | Start Copying

As I explore creativity in my own life, I have been reading Steal Like an Artist: 10 Things Nobody Told You about Being Creative by Austin Kleon. In this book, Kleon isn’t suggesting that we plagiarize or break the law, but he does give us permission to look at the work of others for inspiration and education.

All creative work builds on what came before. Nothing is completely original.“(pg.7)

We learn by copying. Educate yourself by copying the work of your favourite artists. Discover what they were thinking, start to see things from their perspective. Surround yourself with things that inspire you. Mashup and reimagine the work of several artists to discover your own path.

Choosing our Essential Words

At the same time I’ve been attending Andrea Bird’s Connect and Create Sessions, the same group of artists meet once a month. Andrea sends us a monthly focus that guides our discussions before and after we paint.

Andrea had us choose our essential list (read Andrea’s post about this exercise here). I’ve done this exercise before to find a list of salient words to speak to my inner critic. But this time I found it difficult to narrow down my list without a focus.

Self-imposed Creative Constraints

“It seems contradictory, but when it comes to creative work, limitations mean freedom.” (pg 137)

Before choosing my essential words I decided to constrain my focus. I decided to create a Pinterest board and then compile my list of words by looking at that board. Why did I pin that painting? What drew my eye? What inspires me? What do I want to steal?

(If you aren’t familiar with Pinterest read What is Pinterest? and Why You Should use it.)

Pinterest Inspiration Board

“The artist is a collector…. artists collect selectively. They only collect things that they really love… You’re only going to be as good as the stuff you surround yourself with.” (pg 13)

“Keep a swipe file. See something worth stealing? Put it in the swipe file. Need a little inspiration? Open up the swipe file.” (pg 22)

I created a private Pinterest board called Steal Like an Artist. When you Pin an image Pinterest suggests other similar images that you may also want to pin. Before I knew it I had a very narrow focus. I had pinned abstract landscapes and seascapes (see the renamed and now public board here). As I then looked at the board and analyzed why I had pinned the image, it was very easy to select my essential words from the provided list.

My Essentials List

  1. Abstractness
  2. Wow
  3. Movement
  4. Interplay of Light/Dark
  5. Texture
  6. Contrast
  7. Juxtaposition of diverse elements
  8. Surprise
  9. Colour
  10. Strength

Below is the painting I completed during the open studio following this exercise

"Horizon" Encaustic painting by Ruth Martin-Maude
“Horizon” 16″ x 20″ by Ruth Maude – Encaustic on panel

I invite you to try this creativity exercise yourself:

  1. Create a Pinterest board of paintings that inspire you.
  2. Ask yourself—Why did I pin that painting? What drew my eye? What inspires me? What do I want to steal?
  3. Create a list of ten words and rank them in order of importance
  4. Now go and make art.

You’ll find that as you paint you aren’t copying one single painting but you are creating something that is your own work.

Please add a comment. I would love to hear if this creativity exercise was helpful for you. And pick up a copy of Steal Like an Artist: 10 Things Nobody Told You about Being Creative by Austin Kleon.

About Ruth Maude

I'm an artist from Toronto working in Encaustic. My day-job is as a WordPress web designer, developer and instructor. I started All Things Encaustic to document what I learn and to explore encaustic art.

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4 thoughts on “Exploring Creativity | How to Steal Like an Artist without plagiarizing

  1. Thank you for your post as it validates what I’ve already been doing. I have an extensive Pintrest collection of other encaustic artists that I peruse when I need an inspiration in the studio. Mostly it will be to try a new technique but sometimes a particular composition is so striking I need to try my own version of it. I am very diligent to make sure the work is my own though. I use other artists work in only the broadest of strokes.

    1. Hi Cynthia,

      Thanks for commenting. It’s nice to know that someone is reading my posts 🙂

      If you haven’t already read Steal Like an Artist: 10 Things Nobody Told You about Being Creative by Austin Kleon, I suggest you pick up a copy. I keep picking it up over and over again.

  2. Thank you for this. I’ve just recently discovered Encaustics and I’m yet to paint my first piece. I’ve finally got what I need to get going and your article has given me somewhere to start.

    1. That’s nice to hear. I suggest that you read the FAQ post first. And if you have any other questions feel free to add comments to any post. There are amazing teachers running workshops too.

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