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 then creating the 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.

(On a side note, if you’re using your art to pay the bills you almost certainly have deadlines and a need to create work for your financial security. I have a thought about that too.)

I tend towards periods of intense making followed by a tired and frustrating downtime. When I’m rested I’m keen to get stuck into a new project but I’m often unsure of what to do. This is why I like to understand my creative cycle.

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 also helpful to take a moment to enjoy the achievement of completing something. It’s helpful to take stock of previous work and make notes. I usually write in my journal using questions like these-

  • 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.

Sketchbook close up


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 mindlessly washing up or mulling things over in the shower? 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 walking new streets. 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 with expressing myself. Experimentation is essential and making bad art is (uncomfortably) a part of that. This is where I make messes and mistakes in sketchbooks and on scraps of paper that pile up on tables and floors. This phase is sometimes called play as we let loose and try new things.

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.

Using a sketchbook in the creative cycle


The creation is surely the part we all crave and we long to dive into this phase. 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.

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 fun could quickly dissipate even for work I had been excited about.

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.

The creative process

How does a process like this help you or hold you back? Does it keep you on track or tie you down?

I come back to these questions frequently. I can be inconsistent by nature even though I’m self-disciplined.  It works for me to review my creative cycle and see what’s working for me right now. It can help me to move forward when I feel stuck, keep me on track when I’m distracted and allow me to work with my natural energy levels without shame. Do you work in cycles, either deliberately or naturally? 

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