Six Phases of Creativity

Worktable with 3 “Drafts” for Larger Paintings, Saltworkstudio

Where am I now?  What’s next?

I’ve been incubating this Dionysian series for a while. I have three 2 foot by 4 foot canvases waiting for paint to develop these themes, colors, and forms.  The starts shown above are meant to act as “thumbnails’ for the next phase of larger paintings on canvas.

I have the best luck with my finished pieces when I am purposely experimental, uncontrolled, and unfinished in my draft paintings. I’m groping in my own darkness when I paint.  I don’t want the whole process to happen even before I hit the canvas.  I don’t want  to pre-paint it in my head, my notebook, or anywhere else.

I found a useful new metaphor for thinking about any creative project, whether it’s painting or cleaning out the junk room. These ideas are from The Path of the Everyday Hero,  a book about mythic themes played out in life.  The six phases of creativity are preparation, frustration, incubation, strategizing, illumination, and verification (or manifestation).

Dignified, precise language allows us to reframe creative pauses or lapses. It’s interesting that frustration comes immediately after preparation, right at the start.  Frustration is the failure stage, the belly of the whale, the so-called “block”. What now?

My friend Karina Nishi Marcus is very clear on the idea that “block” should be eliminated from the artist’s vocabulary.  She says creativity is more related to nature metaphors, like “low tide” for the ocean, or “fallow” for the land.  It is a necessary part of the creative process.

“Noble Bull”, acrylic combined media, Suzanne Edminster

Frustration stops us from action, and makes us incubate our ideas, like an egg.  It’s on the back burner, in the nest, warming, passive on the surface but active underneath, mysterious, the seed under the ground.  To incubate properly we also need to strategize, to try things that might nourish or warm the invisible idea.   Some might work, some not.  But the passive time is needed, yin to the yang of action. Paintings can stay successfully in this stage for a long time, even years.

“The Great Ones”, acrylic combined media, Suzanne Edminster

The painter or artist may have to go back and forth in the frustration–incubation–strategy realm for a while, then illumination, the “aha moment” strikes, and elevates the venture to a different level, perhaps to completion.  The creative round, like the phases of the moon, will start again with a new idea.

“We Have Purposely Kept It”, acrylic combined media, Suzanne Edminster

These paintings are not done, but after some months of incubating, I am strategizing.  The notebook helps keep me on track.  When you find your way through an art dilemna, the solution often seems absurdly simple.  Still, it took time to get there.  The cycle may play out in one painting, or in series spanning decades.

The Dionysian metaphor is one of unbounded spring growth and ceremonial theatre, among other things.  Perhaps I should drink a glass of wine to Dionysios, and return to the paintings.    A flash of lightning,  a sprouting vine, or a Greek chorus might illumine the way to the next act of painting.

Mythic notes:  The Dionysian mystery cults tried to loosen the bonds between the worlds through sacred intoxication, theatre, dance and ritual.  The Pompeii Murals, with their glowing Pompeii red, were thought to have depicted aspects of this.

Pompeii Murals, probably showing Dionysian cult ritual

5 thoughts on “Six Phases of Creativity

  1. Put in the perspectives you’ve offered here, I heave a sigh of immense relief at this natural, albeit at times uncomfortable unfurling of the creative act. “Spring growth and ceremonial theatre”. . .makes me want more of the ceremony part. . .I look forward to toasting to this Dionysian season with our glasses of wine, dear painting partner!


  2. First of all, thank you for the link to my website. I do feel that thinking in terms of “block” only and always serves to solidify and make matters much worse – and that term renders it outside of circumstances and control.

    Incubation is also a natural process – but I do not see the link to “frustration” – a bird does not worry nor is frustrated in the brooding process – it is already manifesting its innate destiny.

    I personally would disagree with the set sequence of steps – I do not see the actual and most primary phase of creativity: work.

    And I would place “frustration” further along in the phasing – since the primacy of work, by necessity, never proceeds according to any method of planning, preparation or practicality. At some point one come up to a point where you do not know what to do next (which is also the fun of creation.) I think the “ah-ha” moment arrives during the act of painting.

    And I would put “verification/manifestation” before “illumination” which I feel is the over-riding impulse, you might even hint destination, of creation.

    Just a couple of reflections……


    1. Yes, I had some problem with the both the word “frustration” and the placing of it. I think that “work”, in this metaphoric scheme, must invisibly initiate the “phases.” The book attempts to correlate these “6 Phases” with the Heroic Journey cycle. It’s a bit of a stretch, but it’s an elastic metaphor. Thanks for your elegant feedback!


  3. This is a fantastic post ! Just came out of the studio in frustration, battling it out, so to speak, with an abstract I’m working on, I just realized after reading your post that the best idea is effectively to incubate for the night and start afresh tomorrow.Even though I know “being lost” and a tad frustrated is almost always a part of the creative process, I somehow always think maybe I’ll just skip that bit ! I’ll look up the book you mention. I love your beautiful work and your insightful prose ! Thanks so much for sharing


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