What Does “Good Artists Borrow, Great Artists Steal” Actually Mean?

2015 Artwork Good artists borrow great artists steal sketch

There’s a famous quote that has been attributed to quite a few people (including T.S. Elliot and Pablo Picasso) and it goes something along the lines of “Good artists borrow, great artists steal“.

But what does this actually mean, and how can it be useful to us as artists?

Firstly, it shouldn’t be interpreted as permission to plagiarise things outright. I’m not a lawyer, but making an exact copy of an entire piece of art and passing it off as entirely your own work isn’t a very good idea – especially in the age of Google Image search and other tools like that.

The only times you should exactly copy entire works of art by other artists is when you’re practicing or when you’re making a study of an old out-of-copyright painting (even then, if you’re planning to sell your studies of old paintings, you need to make it fairly clear to your buyer that it’s a copy before you sell it – otherwise you could end up in trouble for art forgery.)

No, the “good artists borrow…” quote is about something a lot more subtle and clever than that. It’s about taking everything which made something else great and finding a way to create something even better with it. It’s about making something totally new, using ideas and elements from something else.

Rather than a quote that encourages theft and plagiarism, it’s actually a lot closer to Isaac Newton’s famous quote about “standing on the shoulders of giants”. In case you’ve never heard that quote before, it’s basically about how all new things (eg: scientific discoveries, in Newton’s case) build upon everything that has come before.

In other words, the “good artists borrow…” quote is a quote about the importance of being inspired by other things. And, yes, all artists are inspired by things that they’ve seen – even if they don’t realise it.

If you don’t believe me, then take a look at some of your most recent art – I can almost guarantee that something in it will be at least slightly based on either something you’ve seen in real life, on television, in a comic, in another painting, in a videogame, in a movie etc….

However, smart artists will use this fact to their advantage and actively be on the look out for things to be inspired by. But, this doesn’t mean that they do nothing but plagiarise other artists. No, what it means is that they’ll see something and they’ll think “that looks cool – how can I improve upon it or use it an interesting way?

If they spot a drawing technique that they really like, then they’ll study it closely and experiment with it until they can use it to make totally new things that look at least slightly different from what they originally saw the technique in (although, if it’s a fairly small or simple technique, then they might just incorporate it into their art). In other words, they will take something they see and try to find a way to put their own unique spin on it.

To give you an example from my own work, I’ve often started using concentric squares in tiled backgrounds in a lot of my recent work. They look really cool and they’re simple enough that you can fill an entire background with them in a few minutes. See what I mean:

They can be seen in the background of this panel from my "Dead Sector" comic.

They can be seen in the background of this panel from my “Dead Sector” comic.

But, where did I get this idea from? Well, I originally got the idea from seeing footage of parts of the Ennis House – specifically these wall tiles – in the movie “Blade Runner”. Of course, the actual tiles from the Ennis House have a much more complicated design which is also almost certainly copyrighted. So, copying it verbatim was out of the question.

But, by thinking about it for a bit, I was able to think of another – slightly more generic- design that was both reminiscent of these tiles, but also simple enough to be used in my daily comics and paintings. Although this isn’t really a visual improvement on the Ennis House tiles, it’s certainly a practical improvement from my own artistic perspective.

This kind of thing also extends to things that people might not initially recognise as part of a piece of art – such as colour schemes or compositions (eg: the layout of an image). Smart artists will spot these things and try to find a way to make them their own and add them to their own work.

Even when it comes to small details (eg: clothing designs, hairstyles etc..), a smart artist will usually take note of something that they see (either by memorising it or making a quick sketch) and then they’ll see what they can improve or change about it in order to make it look even better, before adding it to their own art.

In conclusion, the quote that “Good artists borrow and great artists steal” doesn’t mean that you can plagiarise things or break copyright rules. It means that it’s ok to be inspired – even heavily inspired- by other things, as long as you find a way to turn them into something new and interesting.

It means that you can’t just copy something verbatim and claim that it’s your own work, you have to study something and work out a way to take everything that makes this thing great and turn it into something different.


Anyway, I hope that this was interesting 🙂

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