Steal Like an Artist

written by Sophie | Books

The other day I cyber-bumped into Austin Kleon on Facebook. As you do. Someone shared a video of Austin Kleon giving an inspirational talk and I was immediately hooked. I then found his book Steal Like an Artist. This guy talks to artists and he talks down-to-earth sense. No floaty deep down inner essence stuff, but grab a brush and get to work type of stuff. Totally my cup of Earl Grey tea. 

Of course I soon found out I am a bit slow. This guy has a gazillion followers and fans, published umpteen books and is basically super famous. In fact I visited his website with a slight deja-vu so I must have come across him before but clearly never bothered to read on.  Sorry Austin.

I hope that you are not reading this post with a 'duh, Sophie, I have been following Kleon for years!', and you, like me, didn't know about him until now. But even if you do, read on for my take on his  10 Things Nobody Told you About Being Creative.

Austin Kleon

He is a writer who draws. Well, that's how he describes himself. He writes poetry, he writes on his blog and he writes advice for creative people. That's us. Although he is not the typical artist-at-the-easel that we tend to take advice from, his words are very inspirational and useful for us artists-at-the-easel. 

Steal Like an Artist

Austin's book Steal like an Artist is great. It covers "10 things nobody told you about being creative", and generally offers practical working advice for people in the creative sector. I imagine the advice would apply to anyone whether a painter, a photographer, a writer, a poet, a designer, an illustrator and so forth. We all create things, find inspiration, get ideas, jot them down, work them out and create stuff that we subsequently throw out into the world to see if anyone bites, reacts, loves it or otherwise. We share, we create stories, we show and tell. 

But how? And what if you get artists' block? What if the inspiration dries up? What if you copy or steal  someone else's work, how to reach any fans or clients, how to figure out home -work balance? Kleon offers advice for all types of creatives, but I will try and interpret it from a painter's view. 

Austin's ten things are listed on his blog as well so I hope he's ok with me listing them here too, but with my own take on them. Of course you will have to read the book (£6.73 on Amazon) to read his (much better!) words on each 'thing'.

Austin Kleon Steal Like an Artist

Ten things


Steal like an Artist. Great advice for painters: steal, beg and borrow, chew on it, mess with it, spit it out and create something new. Kleon is a master at creating one-liners such as "Nothing is Original" and, very important, “Don't look like your heroes, Think like your heroes". He tells us to dive into your sources of inspiration, study your heroes and your examples, then do something that is yours alone.  Steal like an artist.

When someone asked him in an interview how far you can go with stealing from your heroes,  Kleon cleverly answered we should imagine ourselves in a broken down lift with our hero. Will he be angry with you for taking bits of his work, or will she love what you did with it and turned it into something new and totally yours? You must be able to get through the elevator test when you beg, borrow and steal.

Hmmm, not sure any Dutch old master would like what I do, but I don't think they'll be angry. So I should be ok.


Don’t wait until you know who you are to get started. This one so applies to many of us. I mean how many times have we not wondered what we should be painting, which style should we pursue, which medium is ours, which subject matter will be our signature work? Should we try and find 'our voice' or maybe, obviously, just get on with it and get painting. 


Write Paint the book painting you want to read paint. Don't paint what you know will work, don't paint what you know will sell; paint what you like. Paint the painting that you would want on your own wall. Paint that painting that nobody else has painted yet and you just don't understand why as it is so glaringly obvious to you that it needs to be painted.

A great tip I got from Kleon’s book was to write a sequel to a film or a book....we could perhaps paint a sequel to an inspirational painting. What would happen after Vermeer's Milk Maid finished with that milk?  Or how would Vermeer paint were he alive today? Oh well, you can take this as far as you like, or not.


Use your hands. Kleon encourages you to not do everything in front of a computer but make the creative process a bit more physical. At first I was a bit sceptical about this idea. I mean, my computer, the internet, the software I use, gives me loads. In fact it is information overload sometimes. But often it also gives me ideas, connections and references. So I wasn't so sure about what Kleon meant.

But soon I realised he even included working with sticky notes to organise your thoughts. Or just use a pen and paper instead of a keyboard. I write slower than I type, so I often write with a pen, so I have time to think.

Of course painting is a physical act as well. So yes, I do "use my hands" but I got to like the idea of adopting it in my writing as well. In fact, Kleon's idea of creating an analogue desk (no digital tools allowed) and a digital desk all of sudden sounds like a pretty good idea. Of course that would be the third work station as there's the easel as well.... 


Side Projects and Hobbies are important. Ugh, I don't think I have time for hobbies. Oh. That's what he said I would say.  Yeah, well, I do diversify a lot. I mean I am learning about painting, writing, blogging, marketing, photography, website  development and teaching to name just a few I have been learning about in the past year. Little time for hobbies. It's all fun though. But yeah. He might have a point.  


The Secret: do good work and share it with people. Love this one. In fact he has loads of content about sharing and getting your stuff out there. This balance between being cut off from the world now and then and focussing on yourself and your work, and at other times being connected with the whole world through the internet, getting your stuff out there, finding your clan, your groups where you meet people you connect with. Yeah. all this. great stuff.


Geography is no longer our master. Hey, the internet rules. My art world is online. If anyone I meet in my art world lives within 50 miles of me it would be sheer coincidence. 


Be nice. It never pays off to be nasty. That's obvious. Artists are generally warm hearted people that love to share. We recognise we all have chosen a similar path and appreciate the familiar difficulties we might encounter. I love that. I love the fact I can ask any artist online what varnish she uses, what his favourite paint is or what he thinks of my painting.  Hey, there is no such thing as the Master's Secret and we all win if we share what we know and love. 

I have come across some artists recently, who do not seem to subscribe to this philosophy. I have politely asked them some simple questions about stuff I am working on, and I was surprised how many simply did not respond or brushed me off with a one-liner.


 I believe in being nice. And researching and asking if you don't know something. It works when you do academic research, it works when you move to a different country with a different language and culture and it works when you need to learn something about your art business. You research and you ask others. Be nice and share.


Be boring. I know. I know we all love the bohemian artist who is covered in paint, a total leftie, with 5 boyfriends and only eats tofu.  I know. But she is probably too tired to paint anyway. I am a mum, married, the first grey hairs have appeared, and I cook dinner every night and walk the dog. Tjeez. How boring. Yep, that other artist is an IT specialist by day, and an artist by night if she doesn't get stuck in traffic on the way home. That's life. And it works. Bohemia is glamorous but it isn't very productive. Sitting at your easel every morning works much better.


Creativity is a subtraction. I'll leave this one for you to find out in the book. Really, it's worth having in your book case.

Steal like an Artist is not big, but it is FULL of little wisdoms to write on a post-it note and stick on the fridge. Actually that sounds a bit cheesy. It is not an album of clever catch phrases. It brings art and creativity down to earth. Not so much with a bang with but with a healthy dose of humour, sense and, well, creativity. Read it. And then get back to painting. 

How to Keep Going

Austin Kleon recently published a video in which he talks about "how to keep going" when motivation is low. It was posted by an artist on facebook in a thread about how to keep motivated when you lost your umph at the easel. It is a great talk and really worth a watch. It does help if you have seen Groundhog Day (the film) but who hasn't anyway.  

I hope you will look up Austin Kleon's work and find as much fun and use in his words as I have. 

Check him out at

Published: April 10, 2018

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  1. Really enjoyed the talk, and it struck home in several ways. I’m going to do some planting this afternoon before going to my studio, but first will order his book. Like so many others, I feel the frenzy of the current political world. When I’m out walking or doing errands, I’m sometimes a little surprised people around me aren’t more concerned that the world is going to hell. Which is real, I wonder?
    I pick up garbage along my route when I walk, and come home with mixed feelings: am I nuts to do it, or am I living in a cess pit? Good to know at least that others do it!
    Thanks for the posting.

  2. I’m kind of the bohemian-type, except I figured out having 5 boyfriends (or husbands) was too complex and took too much time away from my kids. Any man I had in my life interrupted so much and was more needy than an infant. When I realized how this was so consistently true, I had to, with great thanks, decline.

    Now the kids are well-rounded adults and I’m walking a lovely Maltese-crossed-with-something-cute. My life is peaceable and I’ve switched to oil of spike lavendar as she is with me so much when I paint.

    When you wrote “leftie” I thought you meant dominant-handed for too long. I draw with my left hand being right-dominant in order to get my drawings looking good so they’re more relaxed.

    I’m definitely more a “leftie” if that means getting the people in my country healthcare as a basic right and the social security that gets literally removed from the paycheck given back to you at the elder years—and not told you are being given an “entitlement” (ie; welfare—it’s money the govt borrowed from you).

    And yeah I’m not into reality tv stars being president bringing their crime families to help run the show and half the country or more being a bunch of bigots and haters and then the world probs thinking we’re all like that.

    No. I’m from the North Bay Area, Napa Valley—people paint it and stuff. The wine country. I’m a leftie.

    I live in a “blue” state that pays a lot of the buprenorphine and methadone and other services needed for the “red” states but people want to hate it and call it “left.” And call it left like that’s a “bad” thing.

    There is no “bad” and there is no “good.” It’s all imaginary anyway.

  3. As a writer I’ve been looking at this book for ages and wondering if it was worth a read. I’ll definitely get hold of a copy now I’ve read your review. I’m not keen on the floaty inner essence stuff either, but this sounds as if it’s full of good, practical advice.

  4. Boy, number two really applies to me. I definitely need to just get on with it. I have put aside my creative self for embarrassingly long partly chasing a career (need to keep the lights on and all) and partly being single takes a lot of time to keep things pulled together.

    Since I am off work now, My creative self is all but yelping for getting my paint box out. After I tend the yard this afternoon, Imwill be pulling out my stuff to see what is still usable and what needs replacement.

    Thanks for the virtual kickstart. I sure needed to hear the “just get on with it” speech. I will be visiting your blog for sure. 🙂

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