Stealing or Borrowing?


A young Picasso sitting among what was a tiny portion of his huge collection of African Art. It’s quite clear now, that a lot of his “inventiveness” surrounding cubism and abstraction, came about from the influence of ancient tribal art, of which Picasso was a huge collector and appropriator. (photo credit: Réunion des Musées Nationaux)

In Robert McKean’s wonderful little book, Steal like an artist, he explores the issue of taking ideas and techniques from others. Is it disrespectful? Theft? Or just a plain lack of originality? It’s been a debate for artists throughout history this issue of authenticity and ownership. The reality is, everyone’s ideas come from somewhere else. It’s the nature of the word inspiration.

Here is the Webster dictionary definition of what inspiration is:

: something that makes someone want to do something or that gives someone an idea about what to do or create : a force or influence that inspires someone

: a person, place, experience, etc., that makes someone want to do or create something

: a good idea

Now, given that definition, how can anyone claim ‘complete’ ownership of an idea? It brings up the issue of companies today patenting every single thing out there, both in science and the arts. What is the fair and proper arrangement between investors of creative art, the creators themselves, and the consuming public? It makes one ask, what is art? What is science? And more (or less) importantly, who does it belong to?


This famous portrait, of Adele Bloch-Bauer I by Gustav Klimt, was previously stolen and most recently returned. It’s ‘valued’ at $135,000,000.

The sporadic and unplanned nature of creative and inspirational work is such that it needs to come from something from which to be born, bounce off of or leap forward from. Therefore, claiming “ownership” is a strange concept, much like us humans claiming ownership over nature and the world around us – it’s not ours to claim. We are, at best, stewards of what’s been given to us. Ideas are no different.

“… things of greatest merit are public property. ” – Seneca

It’s a fine line that separates science and art. A good example lies in the works and studies of Leonardo Da Vinci. One thing is clear however, and that is, his works should be available for everyone to see and experience.

What about originality? Here’s what Robert Henri has to say:

“Don’t worry about your originality. You couldn’t get rid of it even if you wanted to. It will stick with you and show up for better or worse in spite of all you or anyone else can do.”

I used to worry about originality far too much, and by doing so, it made me even less original. As artists, it’s all too easy to try so hard for uniqueness that you end up closing your eyes to what’s already there – thereby reducing your visual vocabulary and shutting off things that could inspire you and influence you in a positive, even impactful way. A limited exposure creates less originality not more. The truth is, your path will naturally take you to where you need to go, as long as you don’t fight it too hard. Be at ease to let your influences show because  it doesn’t mean that you’re a flake or a hack. Find what you love, and let it be a part of you – it’s kind of like knowing that you have little choice but to be influenced also by your family and friends – so why not let your heroes influence you? Work hard, but allow “yourself” to become what it will. This is harder advice to take than you’d think.


Keith Haring’s remarkably simple, yet magical art, doesn’t try to be anything special – it just is. Great art doesn’t have to be complex or intellectual – it has to be personal.

I’ve always liked the idea that artists and scientists are merely agents for change and discovery. Proprietorship is not the goal. Our role is to develop attentiveness to innovation and creativity, raising our abilities to make something from our discoveries, and then share it with the world. It is only in that way, by doing our jobs as deliverers of some good, do we have any hope of parlaying some insight, beauty and further inspiration for others to follow in the future.


Toulouse lautrec’s artistry has left a huge imprint on graphic designers, painters and artists world over including the author of this blog.

How do we know when inspiration arrives? Like life,  creative discoveries and growth seldom arrive on schedule – so you’ve got to be ready and open with a notepad nearby. My best ideas can come during the grind of work or sometimes while just lying in bed reading, looking at pictures,  or listening to music – a state opposite of a frenzied search for answers. Be open to that. Be open to anything.

“Finished persons are very common – people who are closed  up, quite satisfied that there is little more to learn.” – Robert Henri

Be open, also, to copying. I spent years studying and copying the drawings and timing of animators like Milt Kahl, Frank Thomas, Glen Keane and James Baxter. There is nothing wrong with direct copying, if you’re doing it to learn. But if you’re deriving from the works of others, acknowledge the source, and show your appreciation. That is, remember to give thanks.

Captain Hook by Frank Thomas, from Walt Disney’s 1953 classic, Peter Pan. I loved the design and animation of Captain Hook so much that I made piles of sketches copying his work, analyzing deeply the lines, shapes, timing, and acting choices.

By studying the works of others, you get to be more original not less. And it’s sometimes nice to let your influences show. It’s inevitable, that you become a bit like your heroes. Don’t be afraid of that. There’s no such thing as pure originality. There’s only things that work.

“Don’t try to be original, just try to be good.” – Paul Rand

A short but inspiring video, by Imaginary Forces, on the work and words of Paul Rand, legendary graphic designer and logo creator extraordinaire.