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Good artists Copy, Great artists Steal

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Pablo Picasso, one of the most famous artists of the 20th century influenced the artistic world in a unique and original way. So why is he known for saying “Good Artists Copy, Great Artists Steal”?

Picasso: Good Artists Copy, Great Artists Steal

Why would someone as original as Picasso say something as ironic? And what did he mean?

Designer Jeff Veen’s interpretation of this quote is that Picasso talked a lot about inspiration when he talked about theft: “He would look at things like African tribal masks and literally steal those principles and bring that into his work when he was experiencing cubism and developing cubism at the beginning of the last century.”


Jeff Veen talked about this in a fun and entertaining ignite talk on the subject of copycat design:

Great Designers Steal Watch this video on YouTube

"The key here is to be intentional with what we steal, to look at what the principles are behind the things that are successful, and steal those, rather than just a superficial copy.”, Jeff Veen explains.

Steve Jobs also used Picassos quote in the documentary Triumph of the Nerds, in reference to Apple’s own early principles:

Steve Jobs: Good artists copy great artists steal Watch this video on YouTube

“It comes down to trying to expose yourself to the best things that humans have done – and then try to bring those things in to what you’re doing. Picasso had a saying: Good artists copy, Great artists steal – and we have always been shameless about stealing great ideas.” – Steve Jobs

So “stealing” in this context is an intellectual activity. You must be able to understand the principles why something works and then be able to apply this knowledge in new original ways. This is related to the Japanese martial arts concept of Shuhari that explains how people learn skills in a 3-stage progression: Shu: Follow (Learn a technique) / Ha: Break away (Collect techniques) / Ri: Fluent (Blend techniques).

It is very ironic in this context that Pablo Picasso very likely stole this quote from T.S. Eliot who said: “Immature poets imitate; mature poets steal; bad poets deface what they take, and good poets make it into something better, or at least something different.”

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