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When we think about the definition of the creative process, what usually comes to mind is a completely subjective, nebulous series of wayward steps exclusively understood by gifted creatives. As if it is some sort of secret code that only the Van Goghs, the Banksys, the Picassos, The Warhols, and the Rodins of the world have access to.
Though a romantic way to think of it, the notion that the creative process is only bestowed to the “innately creative” among us is rather stifling. The reality is that everyone—including you—is creative. It’s really just a matter of understanding the stages of the creative process model and tapping into those juices.
Simply put, the creative process is the way ideas, art, or creative thinking comes about. Contrary to popular belief, this creative process does have structure. It always begins by gathering inspiration and ultimately culminates with the finished product. While the creative process steps in the middle are apt to change according to the person—we all have our unique approach and way we process creativity—helpful, guiding structure exists here, as well.
We believe that familiarizing yourself with stages of the creative process allows you to more easily unlock your best ideas. It gives you the creative elbow space to figure out what satisfies your spirit and what turns you off, and it provides you full permission to dive into the deepest corners of your imagination. It encourages you to scrap ideas that don’t work without damaging your ego and, most importantly, to bring you closer to yourself and create something you’re proud of.
The creative process model has traditionally been broken down into the following five stages of creativity: preparation, incubation, insight, evaluation, and elaboration (although creatives’ definition of each step, and occasionally the names, can vary). These terms themselves likely won’t do much for your creative spirit (they admittedly sound a bit sterile), but below we’ve broken each down to help you understand and relate to them more easily.
1. Preparation: The Inspiration Phase
So, what is the first step of the typical creative process? Preparation. While this might sound a bit like you’re cramming for an excruciating exam you’ve got to take in the morning, the first stage of the creative process is where your best ideas are born.
Think of it as if you’re taking an exciting journey into the creative space that appeals most to you. In today’s modern world, that might look like exploring a specific hashtag on Instagram—#gouache, #linedrawing, #classicalmusic, #ontheeasel, or #roughsketch. It could also look like deep diving into autobiographies of artists who inspire you, perusing artist websites and their virtual galleries, watching documentary films on the topic, listening to music, or reading through poetry.
In some cases, how you “prepare” may not even be directly related to your specific medium. Maybe it’s having coffee al fresco, lapping up the great outdoors, or people watching. Wherever this stage takes you, commit to it wholly and truly relish in it. Take notes. Observe what (and how) these other creatives have created, jot down ideas as they come to you, colors that inspire you, sounds that move you, and words that catch you by surprise.
2. Incubation: Absorbing and Processing
Now is the time to let all that information and inspiration you just breathed in soak into your very core. In this stage of the creative process, it may not even feel like you’re really doing anything since it’s your subconscious that’s actually doing all the work. In that sense, you can liken this step of the creative process to allowing a piece of steak marinate overnight in a juicy bath of flavors. To the naked eye, the meat is just sitting there, but in reality, a delicious transformation is occurring.
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Unlike your steak, this creative incubation period might take some time. Yes, for some a lightbulb might have instantly flickered on and catapulted them into action, but for many others it is often a matter of hours or days before that happens. In some cases, it might take you months or even years to fully absorb and process creativity. There’s no shame in the length of time you incubate, so don’t feel pressured. It’s very important not to rush this stage, and to give yourself time for the next step to occur.
3. Insight: The “Eureka” Moment
In the previous stage, we alluded to a lightbulb flickering on, sending a person into a full-fledged creative frenzy they couldn’t possibly suppress. This moment is traditionally referred to as the “insight” stage of the creative process, or what some have playfully dubbed the “Eureka!” moment. (It’s also occasionally called the illumination stage in the creative process.)
This is the step we’re arguably most all familiar with, and the one we wrongfully assume is step one. Perhaps it is this incorrect assumption that causes many to conclude that you must be an inherently gifted creative person in order to ever experience such a moment. As you now know, the reality is that it might have taken days, weeks, months, or even years for such inspiration to hit. This is true even of the greatest artists our world has seen.
Another false assumption is that this Eureka moment is always loud and gut-punchingly powerful. While it does sometimes hit as an unmistakable spark of inspiration-born direction, it is important to note that sometimes the illumination stage in the creative process is more of a quiet, contemplative whisper. It also might not happen quite as cinematically as we’d like to think. Many even say that such inspiration strikes or develops when they least expect it—while making dinner, having a conversation with a friend, or in the middle of folding a giant load of laundry. The argument is that doing something that doesn’t require much brain power gives your subconscious some time to churn.
In whatever way this “from the subconscious to the forefront” moment happens for you, it’s the quickest step in the creative development process and signals you’re ready to dive into stage four. And stage four might not be what you’d expect…
4. Evaluation: Putting Your Idea Through the Wringer
Not to be the bearer of bad news, but the creative development process would be remiss without acknowledging that not every creative idea is a great (or even good) idea worth pursuing. This is the phase where you really dig deep—as tricky and painful as it might be to your ego—and ask yourself if this is an idea that’s ultimately worth working on.
Instead of framing it as a potential way to squash your hopes and dreams, consider it an opportunity to put your creative process art idea to the ultimate test. Does it hold up against a flood of critical thinking, honest questions, and in some cases the scrutiny of your peers?
We’ve talked before about the most important questions an artist should ask before pursuing a project. Some of those questions include the following:
Questions to Ask Before Starting a Project
- Has this been done before?
- How will I do this in a way that hasn’t been done yet?
- Will I actually enjoy this?
- Why does this idea or project matter to me, specifically?
- Am I challenging myself?
In addition to looking inward, gathering some honest feedback from people you trust (creative or otherwise) can also prove insightful at this stage in the creative process. Collaboration often allows you to build upon your existing ideas in meaningful ways.
5. Elaboration: Putting Pen to Paper (So to Speak)
Onto the last of the stages of creativity: Once your project idea has passed the scrutiny test, it’s finally time to “elaborate.” Or in easier-to-understand terminology, it’s officially time to put pen to paper, ink to canvas, and clay to wheel. This is the phase where you’re actively creating something and bringing your idea to life.
For many, this final step of the creative process can take just as long as all the other four put together (or even longer). It typically involves many hours of brainstorming the best approach and experimenting in order to figure out what works and what doesn’t. You might nail it on the first try (and some really do!), but what’s more likely to happen is that you create something, dislike it, and either rewind a bit or start completely from scratch. You might do this over and over again until it’s perfect in your eyes.
Lest you find yourself discouraged during this stage, consider the many “failed” forerunner sketches, sculptures, and pages by greats that would ultimately lead to a masterpiece that’s cherished centuries later. Real sweat, real tears, and real joy is bred during this step 5 creative process stage. Embrace it.
Now that you better understand the five stages of the creative process, we hope that you feel less pressure to create something mind-blowingly transformative out of thin air. Art, no matter your medium, very rarely happens that way. When frustrated, remind yourself that the creative process is a slow and steady journey, and one that involves much more preparation, marination, and self-reflection than many realize. (Perhaps it should be called the “creative thinking process.”) Bask in inspiration, allow your mind and body to absorb, jump on that “aha!” moment, question even when it’s hard, and then throw yourself into your next creation.
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