The Creative Process: Exploration

Exploration is the stage of the creative process that requires the most courage. Some even skip incubation and preparation and surrender themselves to exploring. In art therapy, the therapist often prepares the space and the materials so that the client may start exploring immediately. Some artists also keep fuss-free materials at the ready in order to get right to the exploration stage. However there’s nothing wrong with incubation and preparation if they get you where you want to be; and they also serve a meditative purpose.

Try this mindfulness exercise if you’re feeling stuck or unsure what to do:

Think or write down the 5 senses: seeing, hearing, smelling, tasting, touching.

Look at your materials or creative efforts and notice color, shape, line, texture, etc. Try making as many marks or brush strokes etc as you can.

Listen for the sounds the tools you are using make as they engage with the other materials.

Smell anything either pleasant or unpleasant?

While tasting art materials is generally not encouraged, you may want to have a cup of your favorite coffee or a special tea or something nearby as you work.

Touch the tools and materials you are using. How do they feel in your hands? Are there any tactile sensations you particularly like or dislike?

By engaging the senses, you can start to explore materials in a very mindful way. This can be anxiety reducing. It may also be helpful to remind yourself not to make the work too precious. While sometimes costly, art materials are still replaceable. Even if you feel attached to a piece you are making, perhaps you keep a practice piece close by. That way you can experiment as needed. Another tip before working on a piece, especially a preconceived idea, is to do a practice piece, or a rough sketch. This is a technique many artists use. On the flip side, completely spontaneous art can be breathtakingly liberating.

Mistakes are part of the creative process and can often enhance the work. They become the problem solving element. You might for example ask yourself, how can I use this? Do I change it, or change direction completely? What feels right? Sometimes the work becomes centered around the mistake in astonishing and wonderful ways. Other times, a mistake dictates a new course. You get to decide. 

* Some of the ideas re: the creative process come from:

Seiden, Don and Davis, Amy. Art Works: How Making Art Illuminates Your Life. Chicago, IL: Ganesha Books. 2013

Csikszentmihalyi, Mihayly. Creativity: Flow and the Psychology of Discovery and Invention. New York, NY: Harper Collins. 1996

Disclaimer: The information in this article should not be used in lieu of professional medical advice, assessment, diagnosis or treatment (including art therapy). The use of this website does not imply or establish any type of therapeutic relationship. Further, the links in this article are for referential or informational purposes only.


The Creative Process: Preparation

Preparing to create may take different forms for different people. I find it helpful to conceptualize it in terms of physical and mental preparation. Further, there’s prepping the environment or space, materials and most importantly the spirit.

Environment: What type of space is your preferred work space? Note: outsider artists have created in the most abysmal of spaces: asylums and prisons to name a few, but if you have the luxury to choose, envision a space conducive to creative work. What’s your vision? Plan on re-visioning or re-designing your space from time to time. I just cleared out my easel because I realized I am not currently painting on a large scale that requires a standing easel. My studio feels so much more spacious and breathable with the easel stored against a wall. This redesign also increased my motivation to tackle new materials and ideas. Even if you just have a kitchen table to work on, clear as much out of the way as you can to give yourself space.

Materials: As mentioned above, your materials need to work in your space. If you have a small room or small surface area, you probably won’t be creating large scale works in that space. Think about what materials you want to use or try out, and what will be easy for you to access. If you can’t get to the materials, or it will take a lot of effort to prepare them, that may be problematic in terms of lowering motivation. Keep current project materials grouped together in a way that works for you and allows you easy access and clean up. Storage ideas include: carts, organizing boxes, suitcases, trays, etc. Handling and sorting materials can help set the mood and focus for creating.

Spirit: I’m including motivation and passion under spirit. This is the somewhat intangible piece of creativity. Motivation is about energy and drive, priorities, beliefs and values. If you love making things, or simply have the desire to find a creative outlet, that may be all the passion you need. A little confidence, openness/willingness to explore and make mistakes helps too. Ritual may be useful as well: perhaps you light a candle or make a cup of tea before you begin. There are lots of affirmations and quotes for creativity too. Reading one before starting may help.




A word on time, energy and muscle memory: I once attended a time management workshop. The biggest take away for me was that there’s always 24 hours in a day. That’s a constant. The key is how you manage time and energy. This is a daily struggle for me while others are more self-disciplined. Think about it: we use, spend, waste and try to save money, time and energy. If all your energy goes into relationships for example, how much is left over to nurture your creativity?Bottom line is how you allocate your precious resources. See if you can carve out 25-60 minutes once, twice (or however many times a week you want) to create. Then do it. In order to make something a practice you have to make it a habit. Research has shown this takes approximately 2.5 weeks. The more you do it, the more it will become muscle memory. It won’t always be good or satisfying (although hopefully most of the time it will be), but the times it’s not will still help you establish a consistent creative practice that will feed your spirit.

* Some of the ideas re: the creative process come from:

Seiden, Don and Davis, Amy. Art Works: How Making Art Illuminates Your Life. Chicago, IL: Ganesha Books. 2013

Csikszentmihalyi, Mihayly. Creativity: Flow and the Psychology of Discovery and Invention. New York, NY: Harper Collins. 1996