The creative cycle
Cycles and seasons
Do you make art in a creative cycle? Social media posts suggest that new art is made every day in a frenzy of creativity. However, the impression that it’s possible to churn out new art like a machine is a bit misleading.
People naturally move through cycles of days, months and seasons. It makes sense to me that making art also moves in cycles from rest to inspiration and then creating finished work. Making the most of our natural rhythms (rather than resisting them) seems like a great way to make good art that connects with others and getting the best from our time and energy.
My creative cycle
Rounding up and reviewing past work
When I complete a piece of art or a series of works I like to pause and reflect before diving into the next. It’s a chance to enjoy completing something and it’s helpful to take stock of previous work and make notes. I usually write in my journal and like to use prompts to get me started.
- What do I like about this work?
- What do I dislike?
- What was challenging?
- What did I learn?
- What would I like to do more of or expand on?
The answers can help me to reflect on successes and give me a starting point for what’s next.
Taking rest is significant. Not just to recharge but because creative work also happens during this downtime. Did you ever get a great idea when you were washing up or just dropping off to sleep? It’s in these moments when our minds wander that connections are made and new ideas form. Artists and makers need fallow times to rest and wonder.
For this restful period to be particularly helpful we also need to be exposed to life. We benefit from the stimulation of all our senses and being a part of new things. Whatever our inspiration, creativity works when it has something to play with. That might be beautiful views, music or travel. It could also be reading, taking a course or meeting with a mentor. Whatever opens you up, notice it and use it. We need to give our minds something to play with.
When I have filled my senses and soul I can begin to experiment. This phase is essential and making bad art is (uncomfortably) a part of that. I make messes and mistakes in sketchbooks and on scraps of paper that pile up on tables and floors. This phase is sometimes referred to as play as we let loose and try new things without the pressure of a finished piece.
I like to review my sketchbooks and journals, scroll through photos and skim favourite books. I take sparks from different sources and pull them together. This part of the process takes previous work and weaves in a thread or two of something I haven’t tried yet. It can also take a long time while I flip between ideas and resist the temptation to just start something without a clear idea of where I’m going. I don’t need a detailed plan but I do need enough to keep me on track.
We long to dive into this phase with excitement. At some point our actions become more intentional and we know what we want to create. I have usually identified some boundaries for myself in my experiments. It could be a colour palette, tools or techniques. I know what I want to do and how I think I can get there. This part can be so rewarding but it can also be challenging. A huge part of creation is solving problems, analysing and editing. It’s a rare but thrilling piece that comes together easily and just works straight away.
This phase can take its time to arrive and feeling stuck or blocked is common. It can feel like a part of your creative cycle if you feel this way often but there are lots of ways to approach a creative block.
Completing the creative cycle
I can skip backwards and forwards through these steps many times before I finish something. The final stages of a painting or series can be long and challenging. Some paintings might not even make it and end up ignored against a wall. I also need to know I can change my mind about something if needed. I like to have a process but I also want flexibility.
When making art is your job
I think about this a lot. I have had a few roles where creative work was required for me to get paid. For me this pressure changed how I worked, what I created and how I valued it. The joy could quickly disappear even for work I had been excited about, especially if I had deadlines that felt impossible to meet.
What helped was understanding that creative work didn’t mean just cranking out results on demand. It was okay to engage with the whole process and enjoy my job. Doing my research, taking in ideas and giving my mind space to wander is a part of creating something new. That time isn’t lazy or wasteful, it is essential and without it, my art just gets worse. Knowing that about myself really helps to keep me going.
The creative process
How does a process like this help you or hold you back?
I come back to these questions and this process frequently. It helps me to move forward when I feel stuck, keeps me on track when I’m distracted and allows me to work with my natural energy levels without shame. Do you work in cycles, either deliberately or naturally?
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