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Steal Your Way to Inspiration with This Trick from Austin Kleon

Being truly original is no easy feat. After all, what are we actually looking for when we talk about “originality?” Can uniqueness be learned and cultivated?
by Sarah Moriarty | Mar 11 2015

Steal Your Way to Inspiration with This Trick from Austin Kleon

If you set out to create something no one has ever seen before, you might as well stop right now, because everything we create is based on something else. No artist operates in a vacuum; we all, as they say, are standing on the shoulders of giants.

There’s no shame in this. It’s a natural part of creativity. In his new book, Steal Like an Artist!, Austin Kleon says that originality, as we commonly understand it, is a myth. No artist, he says, has ever been completely original, not even the great ones. The only difference between them and you is that they knew that.

That’s all well and good, you might be saying, but how does it help me? One way to do this is to embrace your all-too-human unoriginality and build what Austin Kleon calls a “family tree of influences.”

The family tree of influences

Good Theft vs. Bad Theft, from 'Steal Like an Artist'

Think about creativity like genetics: just as your DNA is a unique mix of your parents’ genetic material, your creative self is a unique mix of all of your influences. By mapping out a “family tree” of these creative influences, you can start pushing the bounds of your creativity. Here’s how to start:

First, pick an artist (or creator of any sort) whom you love, and study them as much as you can. Surround yourself with their work, their writing, and their loves. This should already be an inspiring experience. Then, pick three of their favorite artists and do the same with them, and so on, until you’ve created a family tree of related creators and immersed yourself in their work.

The end result is that you’ll have curated a substantial collection of inspiration that you can use as a starting point, imagining yourself as a natural continuation of a line of creators.

Imitate until you emulate

Imitate until you emulate

Once upon a time, there was a rock band in Hamburg who made a living playing covers of popular rock and roll songs. Over time, they honed their skills, until they started writing their own music. Who were they? A little band called The Beatles.

In his book, Austin Kleon cautions that you probably won’t be able to recreate your favorite artist’s work exactly. Despite yourself, you’ll bring a bit of your character into the mix – and that’s a good thing! Instead of being frustrated by this, embrace it: it’s the first sign of your very own style. Focus on these differences and imperfections until you’ve stopped creating copies and made something truly unique.

A family tree of influences is a catalogue of your artistic history

By creating this imaginary family of artists, you assemble a massive catalogue of the work that came before you. From your vantage point at the bottom of this inverted pyramid, you’ll be able to see how the each artist’s work relates to that of his predecessors.

So next time you’re starving for inspiration, try looking at the people who made you want to do what you do in the first place. By immersing yourself in their work, you can contextualize yourself in the history of your art—and steal like an artist!

Learn how to get inspired and create great art in Austin Klein’s new book, Steal Like an Artist!. You can also read the (12 minute!) book insight summary in blinks.

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