Top 10 lessons Austin Kleon has taught me about art and creativity

Intro

If you do any kind of art or creative work, then I really really really really recommend you to check out his three books: Steal Like an Artist; Show Your Work!; Keep Going.

By creative work, I mean anything where you don’t have a map and aren’t just following instructions (being an entrepreneur is creative work).

He focuses on creativity and the challenges artists face.

Austin Kleon inspired me so much that he’s one of the reasons I started blogging in addition to taking pictures. Those three books have helped me a lot in overcoming many doubts I had about creative work. They are a quick read, and compared to the small amount of time you invest; they will pay massive dividends.

Here are ten things I have personally gotten out of his books. I hope this concentrated knowledge will be of help to you as well.

#1. Imitate, steal, borrow, mix and copy

“Every new idea is just a mashup or a remix of one or more previous ideas.”

Austin Kleon, Steal Like an Artist

I was reluctant to share my ideas and images thinking that they’re not original enough and that people might point out that this or that is already done and said before.

It’s true! Nothing is original, and everything has been done before by someone somewhere. All art builds on something. The Sistine Chapel ceiling is not original. Michelangelo did not invent the colors, compositions, etc. He borrowed a lot and mixed it and created something unique in the process.

The idea is that when you borrow things from different sources and mix them together to make something different, you create art.

This is not plagiarism, as you don’t copy from one source and produce the exact same thing. Instead, you copy from a lot of sources and mix them.

I stopped worrying about being original and started borrowing everything I liked and imitating artists I admire.

At first, the result might be a bit awkward and perhaps a little too obvious, but it doesn’t matter. This is learning. First, you imitate, and once you get the hang of it, you start to change it into to your thing.

“Those who do not want to imitate anything, produce nothing.”

Salvador Dali

Don’t think you can’t start because you have no original ideas. You can start immediately. Just start playing around with the ideas of others you like and see what comes out of it. It’s about the process, not about the result.

#2. Get a notebook

Having a notebook is absolutely necessary if you deal with any creative work.

Sometimes ideas come to you suddenly. If you don’t write them down, you’ll forget about them. So you need to mark them down somewhere.

I personally use a big fat ca 300-page notebook to write down my thoughts and ideas. Some of them turn into blog posts; some do not. When I don’t have access to my notebook, which would be the case when I’m e.g., walking on the street, I use a notepad app on my phone.

Why not just use a phone app then, you might ask.

I always prefer paper to digital, because you can express yourself on a paper so much more freely. You can draw pictures, underline, draw circles, mandalas, diagrams and whatnot.

Don’t think you can keep the idea on your mind. You might a little bit, but you risk losing it. So, it’s better to write it down immediately. Also, writing down an idea frees up your mental RAM. Our brains can only hold about four different units of data simultaneously. Yes, more recent research debunks the previously thought number seven.

#3. Start now

“If I’d waited to know who I was or what I was about before I started “being creative,” well, I’d still be sitting around trying to figure myself out instead of making things. In my experience, it’s in the act of making things and doing our work that we figure out who we are.”

Austin Kleon, Steal Like an Artist

You can start making art right now. If you think that’ll you start once your ready, I got news for you. You’ll never be ready.

Nobody knows in the beginning what they’re doing and where does it lead. You need to trust that you’ll find the way in the process.

I wrote an article “What do homing pigeons and humans have in common?” where I talk about this. Check it out!

#4. Keep all of your hobbies

“If you love different things, let them keep talking to each other. Something will happen.”

Austin Kleon, Steal Like an Artist

I always thought that me linking (too) many different things is a bad thing. That if I would be interested in one specific thing, everything would be easier.

Austin recommends keeping all of your hobbies.

The thing is, we can never see how some things just come together in a way we can’t predict. As he says, we should keep the things we like, and maybe they will connect with each other in some way.

In this blog, I like to write a bit about photography but mostly about things not directly at least related to photography, like e.g., marketing.

I write about the things I enjoy writing about and trust that over time, everything falls into place. And even if it doesn’t, it’s okay as well. Let things follow their natural course.

#5. Share your work

“Amateurs know that contributing something is better than contributing nothing.”

Austin Kleon, Show Your Work!

The key takeaway is this: don’t be afraid to share your work. Don’t be afraid to be criticized. To paraphrase Casey Neistat, this is a new world where nobody knows anything.

That doesn’t mean to share any random crap. As Austin says: “Don’t show your lunch or your latte; show your work.”

This is also covered in my article “Share your work.”

#6. Forget the noun, do the verb

Forget the noun; do the verb. Don’t worry about whether to call yourself a photographer, street photographer, writer, science fiction writer, painter, artist, entrepreneur… Leave that to others to figure out, you just do the work.

Don’t focus on what you want to be; focus on what you want to do.

I see many photographers and artists on Instagram chasing the likes and followers, thinking this is the way. They only do the photos that they know will get them loads of likes and cheers.

This is not the way. It’s twisted. If you lose the reason why you started doing what yo do in the first place, you’ll burn out. It’s not sustainable. Because you’re not doing what you want to do, you do what the Instagram algorithm tells you to do.

Besides, imagine you get all the accolades, everyone’s cheering on you, you have 10 million followers and likes. Imagine that! Would you really feel you’ve made it and be happy and content forever? Would that make you a better artist? How long do you think the high will last?

It’ll last about as long as the high you get from getting a new phone/car/pair of shoes.

If you don’t want to do the verb, perhaps find something else.

#7. Every day is a Groundhog Day

“The creative life is not linear. It’s not a straight line from point A to point B. It’s more like a loop, or a spiral, in which you keep coming back to a new starting point after every project. No matter how successful you get, no matter what level of achievement you reach, you will never really “arrive.””

Austin Kleon, Keep Going

Being an artist is like being Sisyphos. You do the same thing without ever arriving. You start all over again every day from scratch.

Even though creating art is not about reaching a destination, that it’s a journey, this “journey” is nevertheless not something effortless and happy and magical. Not most of the time.

As Kleon writes in his book Keep Going: “The only creative journey I seem to go on is the ten-foot commute from the back door of my house to the studio in my garage. I sit down at my desk and stare at a blank piece of paper and think, “Didn’t I just do this yesterday?””

Steven Pressfield talks about a similar thing in his book The War of Art.

I also wrote an article “Why it’s good to be process-oriented not goal-oriented” that relates to this. Check this one out as well.

#8. Teach what you know

“Teaching people doesn’t subtract value from what you do, it actually adds to it. When you teach someone how to do your work, you are, in effect, generating more interest in your work. People feel closer to your work because you’re letting them in on what you know.”

Austin Kleon, Show Your Work!

Many artists, such as photographers don’t want to give their secrets away. They fear that if they share their knowledge, they lose their competitive edge.

This mindset is based on scarcity. You think that success is a scarce resource. To paraphrase Grant Cardone: Success is infinite! You can have as much success as you want.

Teach everything you know. Don’t hold anything back. Just because a chef gives away his best recipes, doesn’t mean that everyone will be able to make the same dishes.

Besides, in this world, everything is available online anyway.

Learn > teach > repeat!

#9. Your platform is not a self promotion machine

“Don’t think of your website as a self-promotion machine, think of it as a self-invention machine.”

Austin Kleon, Show Your Work!

I had always thought that artists have websites to simply promote their work , and this is why I first started my site as well.

I started blogging and realized that the main point is not to show my work. Its purpose is for me to reinvent myself over and over again.

Just as I don’t take the photos I took a year ago, I’m not going to write articles the same way a year from now. I even write slightly different than I wrote a month ago!

“Whenever Picasso learned how to do something, he abandoned it.”

Milton Glaser

But you need a platform to reinvent yourself — your own platform.

This is why I think to have my blog on a platform for which I pay money for, is the best kind of platform ever. I own it!

I have removed the comments and likes. I can do that here, but I can’t do that on Instagram. I can’t choose anything on Instagram.

My own platform, however, offers so much more freedom, and I don’t need anyone to tell me if my stuff is good or not. I don’t need any external metrics such as likes or comments. I can fully concentrate on doing my own thing without any distractions.

#10. Stick around

“The people who get what they’re after are very often the ones who just stick around long enough.”

Austin Kleon, Show Your Work!

This is definitely one of the biggest sticking point in my life. There are some things I’ve gotten to a decent level, and then I just quit and find something new. Therefore never really mastering anything.

I’ve also noticed that usually before we get better at something, we get worse. We have to survive that dip when it feels that everything gets worse and worse and we have doubts on continuing.

It’s as if there’s a rule. Every time you want to reach to the next level, you have to suck for some time again. If you follow through, you’ve made it.

I guess the universe is testing us if we really deserve it – and – how badly do we want it?

This is the question I’ve been asking myself a lot lately – and you should ask yourself too: How bad do you want it?

“Whatever you do, don’t quit your show.”

Dave Chapelle

Austin writes that even if you’ve created something, like publish a book, it doesn’t guarantee your next success. The opposite is also true: even if you fail big, it doesn’t mean your next thing will fail as well.

Either way, your last piece of art is not going to create your next one. You need to keep going. Every day! You finish one thing, and on the same day, you start the next thing.

There’s a story in The War of Art by Steven Pressfield that illustrates this perfectly:

“I remember rolling the last page out and adding it to the stack that was the finished manuscript. Nobody knew I was done. Nobody cared. But I knew. I felt like a dragon I’ve been fighting all my life had just dropped dead at my feet and gasped out its last sulfuric breath. Rest in peace, motherfucker.”

The next morning he went over to his friend Paul’s house to tell him he’d finally finished [writing the book]…

“Good for you” said Paul,

“start the next one today.”

KRISTJAN