Art as Life: How the 4 Stages of the Creative Process Inform Us

You were excited about the initial thought of the next project in your work, school, or personal life. You have ideas and desire to make the dream a reality, though find yourself getting blocked before it can fully form. It seems too difficult, like you are trying to force something to happen that doesn’t want to come together. 

It can be difficult to feel motivated when it feels as though there is a dead end at every turn. Many people have not been provided the experiences, strategies, or skills to know how to move through the sometimes challenging phases of bringing our inspirations into fruition. We either assume some people are gifted naturally, or we start to believe we must not be good enough in some way. If we happened to have had moments of “luck” and ability to achieve our inspirations, we assume they are fleeting coincidences based on timing, relationships, or other happenings outside of ourselves. Rarely, do we realize that there are phases to our process that help cultivate these moments. 

We all go through the 4 Stages of The Creative Process, though most of us have never been taught how to identify them, much less how to use them effectively. The creative types you see, who seem to be prolific at working through their blocks, have learned experientially how to move through these phases. They have learned how to trust their creative process to lead them where they need to go. This confidence only arrives through practice, knowledge of the process, and experience with it. The good news is that these are learnable phases and skills. We can cultivate them when we understand them.

The first step is to learn the 4 Stages of the Creative Process and then determine how this applies to your life.  Albert Rothenberg and Carl Hausman originally outlined these stages in their book The Creativity Question, which has inspired a variety of modern authors (1976). These stages include: preparation, incubation, illumination, and verification. Each will be broken down so that you can better identify and work with the stage in your life. 

Preparation

This stage is what I call the “research phase.”  It is fully conscious, tends to be more analytical, and is a practical look at possibilities. In an art process, this might be where I start to figure out what materials I’m going to use, set up a space in my home to create art, order initial supplies needed, or take a class on a type of technique I want to try. I may experiment a little bit as well with doodles or rough sketches. With other projects, I may be obtaining reference materials, researching how to write a blog, talk to someone about how to start a business, read a book on how to create a budget, or talk to a friend about their meal plan. I may not know what the final outcome will be yet. I have an initial start, am absorbing ideas, and experimenting with the different ideas that come to me. 

Incubation

In incubation, the process is more unconscious (or without focused attention on it/not forcing something to occur). Generally at the end of preparation we come to a natural stopping place, or what is sometimes perceived as a “block.” We have done enough initial research, now we let it “marinate.” To do this, we step away from the efforting part of the project. Usually, by focusing on some other work we need to do, or relaxing. It is different than the “giving up” described in the beginning of this article, as we are holding an intention of returning and see this phase as part of the process. This phase can be uncomfortable because we don’t have control over how, or when, the next insight will occur. But we keep trusting that it will sprout, the way seeds do when we keep watering them. In an art process, this would be when I’m at work or doing chores, but periodically my mind floats to an image or theme. I don’t do anything with it, other than observe it until the ideas start to become more developed. I think of terms, such as “allow, relax, arise” to describe how I try and create an internal environment for the next phase to emerge. 

Illumination

During Illumination we feel an increase in energy, something either starts to “click” or we have small “aha” moments. We may become excited, or feel possibility again. This can come as a single flash of insight that motivates us to the next stage, or it may come as a chain of smaller insights that string together. With art, I may see a clear theme arise that I feel connected with. In other projects, it may feel as though the floodgates have opened and possibilities are available again. It may even be different than I initially imagined it would be. Regardless, I feel hooked in and motivated to try it out. 

Verification

Verification is the stage of testing the idea, or inspiration, and putting it into form. It is a conscious and active stage, similar to the energy of the work put into the first stage. This time, there is a clear idea being formed from the illumination stage. During an art process, this is when I start to draw the figure I am imagining, problem solve the proportions, and layer paint. During other projects, this is when I start to make an implementation plan and try it out. I might start the new recipe, build the website, or begin implementing the project at work. Then, I make modifications as I see how the inspiration responds to the environment it lands in. This is the “manifestation” stage, where the process “comes to life.”

Applying The Creative Process to Your Life

As with most processes in life, moving through these stages is not always linear. It is nice to lay the stages out for our logical mind to digest, though in reality they tend to overlap or fold in on each other slightly. There can even be smaller cycles within each phase. It is important to track the felt sense of each stage in your own life. As you learn to identify them and feel where you are, you will learn how to ride your own cycles with greater ease. You will also learn when (and what type of) effort to apply to support the stage.

References

Rothenberg, A. & Hausman, C.R. (1975). The Creativity Question.Duram, North Carolina: Duke University Press.


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Aiya Staller is a Licensed Professional Counselor, Licensed Addiction Counselor, and Board Certified Art Therapist who sees private clients in Boulder, CO, while also working with various mental health organizations. She specializes in trauma treatment/resolution, body-based psychotherapy, art therapy, anxiety, and LGBTQ+ concerns. She is an artist, interested in inspiring others to connect more deeply with their authenticity and resilience. Please visit her website, at aiyastaller.com to learn more.