“Steal Like An Artist”


select subject and materials

The book “Steal Like an Artist” is a great and inspiring volume. You can read it in an hour and a half, and should, many times.

Here are a few of artist/author Austin Kleon’s liberating and clarifying concepts:

  1. “Nobody is born with a style or a voice… We learn by copying.”
  2. Copy your heroes.
  3. Copy from more than one source.
  4. “You don’t want to look like your heroes, you want to see like your heroes.”

In that vein, today I celebrate a cloth face put together in preparation for an upcoming children’s quilting workshop that I’ll be teaching at the Boston Center for the Arts.*  This exercise served two purposes. One, it acquainted me with the project on the tactile level – obviously important when teaching. Two, it gave me a chance to express something, so there is less chance I will insert myself into my students’ work – always a peril for teachers, particularly of young people.


tacking ear down

So, from whom do I steal here? At least three artists.

One, Jude Hill. Jude is a master quilter whose techniques and philosophy I have been studying (and copying) for quite some time now. Her teaching style is completely geared to Number 4, above — in other words, she isn’t trying to show her students how to make work like hers. Rather, she is openly and consciously trying to get her students to SEE like she does. Philosophy and process instead of recipes. (her blog: Spirit Cloth on sidebar)

How is her influence present? This time, primarily in technique and a quality of attention:

  1. The attention to the materials themselves (selecting fabrics with a nice hand, easily penetrable by a needle).
  2. The use of invisible basting to adhere the layers.
  3. Managing the layers by carefully inserting batting under face only.
  4. Hand sewing some components together prior to basting the entire piece – eliminating need for numerous pins or glue.
assembling eye BEFORE all-over basting

assembling eye BEFORE all-over basting

Who else?  Susan Carlson – the wonderfully talented pictorial quilter from Maine, whose collage-style technique I learned in 2001.  Her influence:

  1. An illustration approach to rendering the subject.
  2. Building layers from the bottom up.
  3. A liberal combination of patterns.
couching a single strand of satin cord

couching a single strand of satin cord

The third and perhaps most important artist:  the sculptor of the mask. Unknown. Gbi artist, Liberia, early twentieth century.

side by side - eyes not finished

side by side – eyes not finished

I would like to try this again, because I missed on the proportions – that lovely length to the face and the broad, regal forehead got a little squashed in my version. I needle-sculpted the cheeks a little, but next time I would want to use color to add light around the nose and on one-half of the forehead.

Apropos of ‘missing’ (I don’t really like the final product all that much, in fact) – I’d like to add how critical being able to screw up and try again is for creative endeavor. My most favorite spokesman on this is Ken Robinson, the English education specialist. Clearly other people find him worth listening to as well — the last time I posted this link, it had been viewed 7MM times. It is up to 16MM views now!


All layers together, with some embellishment

*  I will be teaching “Patchwork Faces” – a workshop for children, on May 18, 2013 from 10:30 to 12:00. You can register here:


Then, on June 1, from 10:30 until 1:00, I will teach a class for adults called, “Sew What? Improv Quilting”


Both class are offered through the Boston Center for the Arts
539 Tremont Street, Boston, MA

17 thoughts on ““Steal Like An Artist”

  1. Julie Mackinder

    We were just talking about this very subject of learning from and through others today so this post was really intersting to me. I love the face and I know the children will love it. I had a go at a self portrait in fabric a while ago and it’s now my profile photo. It is a wonderfully freeing way to work. Jude Hill has influenced many people, myself included. There are so many artists to explore these days, even more so with the internet. The fourth point above is the most telling. I will be following up your other links, thank you.

  2. deedeemallon

    Hi Julie – thanks for commenting. The issue of copying always comes up when one is a student. It is something we all wrestle with. It’s part of why this book is so refreshing. Regarding Jude Hill’s teaching style – I think it is partly because she is asking us to SEE rather than to copy, that makes her such a compelling and inspired teacher. And STILL, the copies roll out. This is when I realize that the time component really matters. Stuff takes time to sink in and then re-emerge as ‘one’s own’.

  3. Mo Crow

    one thing that I really love about taking a class with a good teacher is seeing all the variations on the theme, look forward to seeing what your students come up with!

    1. deedeemallon

      I will remember to bring my camera… first class is for 5 to 10 year olds… really great ages.

  4. handstories

    Really appreciated this post. When working w/children, I find what I most want to do, aside from the teaching the skill, is to share the passion I have for the process, hoping to inspire them to find theirs- which is what Jude & others do for me. I’m still waiting on that book from the library….

  5. deedeemallon

    Hi Cindy – kids are such great teachers, too – I find their color sense and abandon really something.

    and what book? did I forget something?

  6. manhandledinmt

    i recently picked this book up off my shelves and read it again as well. it is a wonderful tome and, in my opinion, should be required reading for any/all new (or established) artist!

    love your mask…even though you don’t! it is filled with expression and life and story!!!

    best of luck on your class. sounds like you all should have quite a bit of fun that day!!

  7. deedeemallon

    Hi Joe – I went on to discover Kleon’s blog and website and got pretty excited… and by the way I must’ve listened to Chastity Brown sing I Left Home six or seven times yesterday, trying to draw her as I watched/listened.

  8. deedeemallon

    thanks, Saskia… here’s another great tidbit from that little book —

    “You don’t put yourself online only because you have something to say – you can put yourself online to find something to say. ” [Austin Kleon]

    internet as incubator vs. internet as gallery

  9. deedeemallon

    Beth – thanks for sharing. It was a good way to get me over to your blog, too, which I will certainly be back to!

    Elisa – my brother gave me the copy of Kleon’s book, so I beat your 1.27 (that’s pretty great, though, I have to say!)

  10. debgorr

    Catching up with your posts Dee… I found a copy of this book a couple months ago but haven’t done more than skim it a bit…enough to know I liked what was there. I’ll have to spend more time with it this weekend. Like how you’ve pulled your thoughts together here.


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