Stages in the Creative Process

Aug 2 / Fruzsina Iszáj

The Flow of the Creative Process

If you plan to apply to a university or are already a student related to arts, psychology or even philosophy, you may need to understand theories around the creative process. Creativity and the creative process, though, are also parts of our everyday lives, too. This post considers two of the main theories about the flow of the creative process.    

What is Creativity?

Creativity is one of the higher mental processes of the human mind. It is an innate characteristic that we all possess and use in everyday life to e.g. solve problems or create novel things, like a new meal. Artists’ professions requires them to live in the creative process on a daily basis, but how does the artistic creative process work?   

Numerous scientists have wondered about this notion, starting from Sigmund Freud and Carl Jung to social psychologists like Graham Wallas. There are differences among these theories but one element is common in all of them - the process consists of the fluctuation of conscious and unconscious energies. 

The Theories

Graham Wallas: Four Stages of the Creative Process

The first theoretical approach was formed by the social psychologist, Graham Wallas in 1926.

His model can be thought as a primary one as it is the basis of much recent research as well as practical implications, e.g. creative problem solving. According to his view, four stages of the creative process can be listed:

(1) The stage of preparation is a conscious process during which ideas and thoughts are discovered with such ego functions as attention, or planning. This stage gives the basis of the artwork or solution of a problem.  
(2) The incubation phase is more of an unconscious part, here, no conscious intention is present. Artists either deal with another artwork or they simply take a break.  
(3) The illumination stage is defined as the sudden appearance of the solution, a kind of ‘aha moment’. Although the solution discovered for the first time might not be the key but the final solution appears in this stage through associations.  
(4) In the verification stage, the evaluation of the solution is performed by conscious effort. The product or idea originating from unconsciousness achieves its’ eventual, organised form. 

During these four stages, both conscious and unconscious thought processes are used and the stages are in continuous interaction with each other. This means that the stages do not follow each other necessarily in this order; they are rather intertwined with each other. This is how they constitute the artistic creative process.

Ernst Kris: Two Stages of the Creative Process

Besides Freud and Jung, Ernst Kris dealt with the artistic creative process from a psychodynamic point of view. As Kris’s model is a very practical and useful one, it will be introduced from the psychodynamic theories. In the Psychoanalytic Explorations in Art (1952) only two phases are described in contrast with Wallace’s four.

The first is the inspirational phase.  Here, the artist is passively present in the process; this phase is highly similar to regressive processes, i.e. such impulses and drives are used which are difficult to reach in normal circumstances.

The content of the artwork is born during the inspirational phase which is dominated by unconscious and preconscious functioning. According to artists’ reports, the subjective experience is pictured as thoughts and ideas are suddenly appearing from the unknown. An artists feels driven; a strong sense of passivity is felt.

The second phase is called elaborational, where such ego functions are used as the analysis of reality so it can be stated that this is more of a consciously constructed phase. The following skills are in use: concentration, planning, or problem solving.

The content created during the first phase i.e. the raw material, is regenerated in the second one; this way, the artwork will be more understandable to the audience. Similarly to Wallace’s case, the two phases might follow each other linearly; they might also alternate and combine with each other.

Final Thoughts

Although, at present, there is no real consensus regarding how the creative process works, these two theories might shed light upon the complex nature of the creative energies and help understand certain aspects of our mental world. 

Fruzsina Iszáj

Fruzsina Iszáj is a researcher of the human mind and various mental processes, holding a PhD in health and personality psychology. Her academic interests involve conscious and unconscious processes, creativity, the process of artistic creation, psychoactive substance use and complementary therapies, like yoga and meditation. She also works as a freelance writer and a home office consultant. She is passionate about helping people to live a healthy, happy life and to find emotional balance.
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