Book Review: Think Like an Artist – and lead a more creative, productive life by Will Gompertz

Human beings are distinctively creative species. We all have limitless imagination. It is a natural gift. However, not all of us can exploit this innate talent and have it flourished – no matter to become an artist as a profession or simply to vivify our everyday lives. How to do it? How can we we think like an artist and lead a more creative and rewarding life? These are the questions that Will Gompertz, an arts editor at BBC, aims to answer in his book.

9 ways to think like an artist

First of all, we need to be aware that creativity is more about attitude and behaviour. Gompertz has listed 9 ways that artists think and do. Some of them may contradict our preconception!

During the creative process, failure is inevitable and “part of the very fabric of making and pursue of perfection, which is unobtainable”. Therefore, there is no such thing as failure, but the feeling of failure.

You cannot produce something interesting if you are not interested in it. Therefore, a great artist has to be curious about and committed to what he/she’s doing.

“Good artists copy, great artists steal,” said Pablo Picasso.

“Creativity is a constant process of call and response taking place inside our heads.” And questioning is essential as it forces us to think and imagine.

Artists have to think the macro and micro concurrently.

“Our point of view is our signature.” Our life is fun only when we have an opinion. Otherwise, we are no different from a robot.

Courage is needed for one to stand up and express own ideas in public. And humility, in this sense, only “applies the handbrake” to our creativity.

There is always a chair in an artist’s studio. When the artist sits down in the chair, he/she becomes a critic.

It’s nothing wrong to be money-minded

Image from pixabay

It is our traditional, romantic view of artists that they are courageous, noble and determined to follow their own ideas and do their own things, regardless of circumstances or consequences. However, Gompertz points out that there are exceptions. Andy Warhol, for example, was “extremely enterprising”. He had a famous saying, “Making money is art and working is art and good business is the best art.”

The bread-and-butter issue is something no one can avoid. Even Vincent Van Gogh, a romanticized bohemian artist, commented “It is absolutely my duty to try to make money by my work.”

According to Gompertz, the term artist businessman is not a paradox. To make things happen and turn nothing into something is “the artist’s way”. They do it by acting like an entrepreneur. “They are willing to stake everything for the chance to go it alone and make the work they feel compelled to create.”

Originality doesn’t exist in complete and pure form

“If I have seen further, it is by standing on the shoulders of giants.”

Isaac Newton

Another bold idea put forward by Gompertz and may go against our general perception is: pure originality does not exist at all! What a great artist does is actually to evolve from “copying” to “stealing”.

Image from pixabay

Gompertz explains that during a creative process, we usually start by copying. This is a form of apprenticeship and how we learn and grow. “You have to imitate before you can emulate.” He argues that even great inventors, like Issac Newton or Albert Einstein, needed something upon which they could build.

“Creativity is knowing how to hide your sources.”

Albert Einstein

According to Gompertz, copying requires some skills – but not imagination. Stealing, on the other hand, is different. To steal is to possess and this is “a much bigger undertaking”. The resulted item “becomes your responsibility” and very likely you will move towards a different direction of your predecessors. This involves your own invention to redevelop something new.

Gompertz concludes that there is no such thing as a wholly original idea, but a “unique combination” resulted from reinvention and hard work.

All schools should be art schools; all offices should be artists’ studios

Image from pixabay

“All schools should be art schools” is a painting by a British artist who trades under the pseudonym Bob and Roberta Smith. The artist put forward this idea, based on his own experience in an art school, which, as a centre for creativity and self-discovery, had taught him “how to think, not what to think.” In contrast, in a conventional classroom, students are taught about the great achievements of great heads, no matter Einstein, Galileo, Shakespeare or Napoleon, but not at all “the far more valuable lesson of how they did it.”

Even worse, the current exam system only “exposes what a young person doesn’t know, as opposed to providing an opportunity for them to show off what they do know.” Gompertz further argues that “rewarding New and Interesting rather than Right or Wrong” could be far more meaningful for development of the skills required by today’s creative economy.

As a final remark, Gompertz adds that a creative economy needs “independently minded individuals” who are given the freedom and capacity to think imaginatively. Therefore, the work environment should be more collaborative and less hierarchical. The traditional system, which is based on a vertical chain of command, would suppress human imagination, and probably only work for running an army!

Think like an artist in a city of art

Thanks to Gompertz for reminding us our gifted talent. We are all born artists, but the problem is not all of us can remain artists when we grow up. This book gives us some hints on how we can revitalise our mind, bringing back and turning on our imagination by referring to the common traits of some of the world’s greatest artists. Let’s think more like an artist and act more creatively to enjoy our lives in Oxford – one of the most exciting arts and cultural destinations in the UK!

Here are some more book reviews you may be interested in:
Stolen Focus: Why you can’t pay attention by Johann Hari

How to Sleep Well by Dr Neil Stanley