Steal Like an Artist: 10 Things Nobody Told You About Being Creative by Austin Kleon

Here’s the story behind this book.  A good friend recommended it over the summer.  I had trouble interloaning it from the library and forgot about it.  Another friend randomly bought me the book you see here.  What’s the connection?  Serendipity!

I’m calling 2013 the year of possibilities.  I’m also searching for my “style.”  This book has helped put it all in perspective.

Favorite quotes from this book:

“The only art I’ll ever study is stuff that I can steal from.”  –David Bowie

“Start copying what you love.  Copy copy copy copy.  At the end of the copy you will find your self.”  –Yohji Yamamoto

(I love Monet.  See my attempt at copying his style here.  But in the end, is it Monet or is it me?)

“The work you do while you procrastinate is probably the work you should be doing for the rest of your life.”  –Jessica Hische

“Avoiding work is the way to focus my mind.”  –Maira Kalman

(See the result of my procrastination here.)

If you’re an artist and unsure of yourself or just unsure of how to begin for the day, read this book.  I highly recommend studying the diagram on pg. 83 😉

I will leave you with a quote from author/illustrator Shaun Tan.  He was a keynote speaker at the SCBWI conference in NY this year, which I was unable to attend.  I would have loved to sit in on his session on “Developing A Personal Style.”  Luckily, someone tweeted about it.

“Your deep style is the intersection of all  the other styles you adopt.”  –Shaun Tan

Now it’s your turn.  Tell me about a “happy accident” you had either in art or in life. 

All Its Birds

brush and ink

“the universe takes care of all its birds.”
Wonder by R. J. Palacio

I recently read Wonder by R. J. Palacio, and I highly recommend it to everyone.  It’s the story of fifth grader Auggie, a boy who was born with a facial deformity, and how he faces the challenges of transitioning from home school to mainstream school.  As I said in my Goodreads review, I think reading this book will help humans learn how to be a little more humane.

When I attended the SCBWI summer conference in L.A. last summer, Gary Schmidt gave the last keynote speech.  He offered the writers in the room some serious advice, which has stuck with me to this day.  And yes, I’m going to quote him once again.  😉  He said, “Write stories to give kids more to be a human being with.”  I think Palacio has done that.  We can, too.

Getting back to the book, my favorite chapter is only one page and is titled, “The Universe.”  The narrator of this section is really questioning how the universe could allow kids like Auggie to exist in the world.  Why do some people get all the luck and others none at all?  I guess it depends on how you look at it and what you define as lucky.  Auggie is lucky enough to have a loving family and support network to protect him and serve as his nest.  He’s also learned to be very strong and brave in his own way.

Here is my favorite quote from the last lines of the chapter:  “maybe it is a lottery, but the universe makes it all even out in the end.  the universe takes care of all its birds.”

This can be a hard concept to accept sometimes.  But I think the more that we believe this and strive to embody this in our world, the more we can make it a reality.  It is our choice.  We all have a responsibility to take care of each other.

“The Terrified Eye”

brush and ink

I’ve been curious about “the terrified eye” (which I kept calling “the terrible eye” and “the terrific eye” by mistake– Don’t you just love “eggcorns” ?) ever since I read Gary Schmidt’s book Okay for Now.  How can you not be concerned with the outcome of this eye?  Which in this case belongs to 8th grade narrator Doug Swieteck, who’s having trouble at home with an abusive father.  He finds solace in art, particularly in viewing Audubon’s illustrations for The Birds of America.  “The terrified eye” both represents the main character’s own situation and that of one of the pictured birds: The Arctic Tern ( Plate CCL).

What is even more interesting is that Schmidt seems to have been fixated on this eye for quite a while now.  It shows up in several of his other books!  In the aforementioned book’s predecessor, The Wednesday Wars, 7th grader Holling Hoodhood is constantly getting the evil eye from his teacher.  She has the habit of rolling her eyes at him, which is not a very teacherly thing to do.  😉  Our other narrator, good old Doug Swieteck, shows up in this book with a BLACK EYE.  And then there are the rats, which just happen to be named after two characters from Shakespeare’s play The Tempest.  I love this line: “I looked back, and there were the demon rats, racing with their scabby paws toward me, their eyes filled with the big M–Murder!–and their pointy heads bobbing up and down with each leap.”  How’s that for imagery?

But we’re not done yet.  The eye shows up in an even earlier work, Lizzie Bright and the Buckminster Boy In this book, 13-year-old Turner Buckminster, a minister’s son mind you, starts out in a new town by getting into a fight.  An elderly neighbor, Mrs. Hurd, gives him some advice on how to handle someone bigger.  “You were supposed to hit that boy in the eye.”  Later on, Turner comes face to face with a whale while out in a boat.  Schmidt not only describes the whale, but also highlights the main character’s deep connection to it.  “Its great fins slapping the water.  and its eye…its eye.”

I decided to study my own “terrified eye” for this sumi-e painting.  I’m drawn to this eye.  Aren’t you?

“Friday Evening Experiments”

brush and ink

One of the most intriguing parts in the book I’m reading, Uncertainty by Jonathan Fields, is about frog levitation.  “What?” you say.  You heard right.

Scientist Andre Geim was conducting such experiments.  He and his colleague Konstantin Novoselov conducted all kinds of improbable experiments, which they called “Friday Evening Experiments.”  Did they really hope to make frogs levitate?  Maybe.  But what they were actually pursuing was creative abandon.  The genius that comes from asking a lot of questions and letting go of  preconceived notions and the need for particular outcomes.  Not all of their experiments were successful, in fact some failed wildly, but at least one of the “Friday Evening Experiments” resulted in the two researchers winning the 2010 Nobel Prize.

So here’s your task.  Start a few “Friday Evening Experiments” of your own.  See where they take you.  Don’t be afraid to take chances.  You never know what you might discover about a character, subject, or idea…  And who knows, you might even make a frog levitate.  I know I just did 😉


brush and ink

The inspiration for this picture was actually a line from the book The Writer’s Journey under the section titled, “The Wisdom of the Body.”

“In fact,the secret of drama may come down to control of the audience’s breathing, for  through the breath all the other organs of the body can be regulated.”

The fish I drew is in a complete tailspin, which can be defined quite literally as a “rapid descent…in a steep spiral.”  A tailspin might also refer to a “loss of emotional control.”

But to me, this sumi-e painting is not meant to be dramatic.  After all, this move is second nature to the fish.  The loss of control is symbolic of freedom.

You might feel like the fish is spinning out of control, but what you don’t know is that the fish is actually leaning into the spin.

According to, “Zen means being in the flow of the universe.”  Therefore this fish is experiencing a moment of pure zen.

Self-control is defined as “the ability to exercise restraint or control over one’s feelings, emotions, reactions, etc.”

We cannot control what happens to us, but we can control how we react to it.

Every time we create something new we experience uncertainty.  But according to Jonathan Fields, author of Uncertainty, we need that element to create anything truly unique or innovative.  “Your ability not only to live with but lean into and proactively seek out risk, judgment, and uncertainty…will play a huge role in your ability to create genius in every aspect of your work….”

So keep the drama in your creations.  Let the audience feel it.

Want less drama in your life?  Don’t forget to breathe 😉  Flow with the universe and let everything else go!

Happy Valentine’s Day!

brush and ink

“Trust the Path”

The Writer’s Journey: Mythic Structure for Writers by Christopher Vogler

One of my writing critique partners recommended this book to me, which I received as a Christmas present.  Somehow I decided to read the last chapter first, and boy am I glad I did.  The author relates a personal story about getting lost at Big Sur while on a journey to find himself.  The story suggests that we need to stop looking for the “right path” and instead trust the path that we are on.  I was just discussing this in my guest post on my friend’s photography blog.

Taking a look at the cover image, a labyrinth, makes me see the idea of the path in a whole new way.  We’re always worried about ending up on the wrong path.  But perhaps there is only one.  If all paths are connected and intertwine, then we don’t have to be concerned with being stuck somewhere we don’t want to be.  We can simply go in a new direction.  Or better yet, we can trust that by moving forward, taking action, and staying in the present moment, that we’ll end up where we need to be regardless of the path we take.

I’m reminded of the fantasy movie “The Labyrinth” with David Bowie.  The main character feels like the path she is on continues forever without leading her anywhere.  She gets a little help from a tiny worm who suggests that things aren’t always what they seem.  Why not walk through walls?  Maybe there’s an opening.  But even when she does, she still has a choice to make: left or right.  The tiny worm sends her in the opposite direction, which, unbeknownst to her, actually leads her away from the castle.  Is she on the wrong path?  OR does she need to make this journey.  The best part for viewers is watching her overcome obstacles while discovering herself.  Making it to the castle is just a reflection of all her hard work and how far she’s come.

So I encourage each of you to TRUST YOUR OWN PATH.  And who knows, perhaps we will see each other along the way.

Walking the labyrinth in Grace Cathedral, San Francisco, CA

Highlighting the Journey

I’m reporting live from the trenches!  Today we focus on action. Today we take a step towards our destiny. We choose a path and our journey begins. Where will your journey take you? I’m not talking about the destination. I’m talking about the places you fell down and first learned about yourself along the way.  Here are some highlights from my journey.  Keep digging!

calligraphy ink on rice paper

calligraphy ink on rice paper

This is the Japanese kanji character for zen.  I took my first Japanese language class last year, and we practiced calligraphy for the final session.  Everyone had to choose a subject.  Most people started out with something simple like “tree.”  My sensei said I chose a complicated one.  Of course!  What better way to learn than by failing from the start.  This is a zen practice, although I’m not sure I was feeling zen at the time.  We only got 3 attempts.  No pressure 😉  I chose to share this one with you because of its overall feeling.  I actually see it as two entities reaching out to each other, trying to grasp something intangible.  The best part of the class was when our sensei told us that the school was donating the calligraphy kits to us.  I got a stone and a stick of ink.  Now all I needed were brushes!

The biggest calligraphy brush ever!

The biggest calligraphy brush ever!

You can see where I’m going with this 😉  The next stop on my journey was to a brush shop at a temple in Japan.  I actually didn’t buy my brushes here, but I did find a brush stand and another unexpected treasure.  Colored inksticks!

Painting of Horses at Senjokaku Shrine

Painting of Horses at Senjokaku Shrine

Painting of Horse at Senjokaku Shrine

Painting of Horse at Senjokaku Shrine

These are photos I took of paintings I saw while visiting The Hall of a Thousand Tatami Mats, which I mentioned in a previous post.  I became really inspired by these horses in particular.  I couldn’t wait to get home and start painting some of my own!  Just remember, you only get this kind of inspiration off the beaten path.  So get going!  See where your journey takes you….

The Four Noble Ones

So I’ve officially taken up sumi-e painting. “Sumi” means “ink” and “e” means “picture” or “painting.”  I first became interested in this art form, which has its roots in Chinese calligraphy, when I was in Japan for the New Year. While visiting my husband’s obaasan (his grandmother), at her house, I couldn’t stop staring at some of the Japanese-style drawings hanging on her walls. They were so simplistic, by this I mean they used very few brushstrokes, and yet they captured the essence of the subject, in this case a bird, perfectly. She noticed me staring and told me that her husband was the artist and that he even had a special artist name, kind of like a pen name. The artist’s signature is called a seal, as it is a character stamped on the drawing. I’m not sure yet what my seal will be, but for now I’m using the stamp given to me on my wedding day, which has the character for my husband’s surname.

I also had the honor of going to Miyajima, an island off the coast of Hiroshima. There is a shrine there featuring a beautiful gate in the water. We also visited The Hall of One Thousand Tatami Mats, a wooden structure created to pray for fallen soldiers. I was drawn to the artwork displayed in the hall, especially the paintings of horses. The simplistic brush strokes used to draw their features, particularly the movement of their legs, made me see this majestic animal, and painting in general, in a whole new way. Needless to say, I couldn’t stop thinking about those horses.

I came home and using my new colored ink. I tried my hand at drawing these horses, only mine were blue. You can see that in a previous post. I actually used chopsticks instead of a traditional brush. But this dabbling wasn’t enough. I decided to research this kind of drawing, and what do you know, I discovered a whole new art form.

Susan Frame offers a great introduction to sumi-e painting. You can view an interview with her conducted by Jeanne Emrich here. I was amazed to discover that sumi-e painting is compared to the style characteristic of Impressionism. Some of my favorite artists, including Monet and Van Gogh, came from this period. Ironically, there is a story suggesting that some of these artists, including Van Gogh, actually became influenced by sumi-e. It seems to me, with my limited knowledge of both types of painting, that the main difference in the two styles is that Impressionist paintings try to capture something transitory while sumi-e paintings try to express the eternal. Also, pure Impressionists avoided the use of black while pure sumi-e painters only used black, but in such a way as to bring out all the colors of the rainbow through tone.

I was lucky enough to find Susan Frame’s book as well as one by Naomi Okamoto on sumi-e painting at the library. It is interesting to note that this art form was originally practiced by Zen monks. I like how Susan Frame refers to it as a meditative practice, especially grinding the ink. According to her, you have to clear your mind before you start, and then try to become your subject. What a great concept!

Something else from Frame’s book grabbed my attention. She said, “The vigor and strength in each stroke contribute to the overall life force of the painting. Strong strokes make a vibrant painting, and indecisive strokes make a weak one.” Where had I heard this concept before? Ah, yes. Picture book author and illustrator Lisa Jahn-Clough discussed this very thing in Illustrating Children’s Picture Books by Withrow. She’s a mostly self-taught artist and she talked about having a “confident line.” This concept stuck with me. In fact, I’m still thinking about it….

So now we get to the heart of this post and the reason for its title: “The Four Noble Ones” (also referred to as “The Four Gentlemen,” but speaking as a gentlewoman artist you can perhaps see why I’d choose the former.) This term refers to the four subjects painted by beginning sumi-e artists, who are taught all the basic brush strokes using these subjects. The subjects are: the the wild orchid, bamboo, the chrysanthemum, and the plum blossom. These subjects also symbolize the four seasons respectively: spring, summer, fall, and winter. The desired personality traits attributed to each are what give these subjects their identity. The wild orchid represents grace, bamboo represents strength and flexibility, the chrysanthemum represents righteousness, and the plum blossom represents austerity.

Here is my first foray with these subjects. I do not know when or if I will master them. But I’m looking forward to the process of sumi-e painting. May it be a lifelong journey and time well spent.