This article is based on my own theory about how creative ideas come in a cyclical flow. I first wrote it down in 2016 and I think it’s quite a resilient idea – I have not had to revise it substantially. I am going to write about my understanding of the creative cycle, how I define it and how I think it works. This is based on my own experience as an artist. The reason I think this idea is important is that understanding the undulating and repeating nature of this cycle could help artists (and anyone else who recognises it) sustain themselves as a creative person for this most demanding of work patterns.

What is the creative cycle?

I think creative work happens in an undulating cycle – as shown in the diagram above. Sometimes ideas just seem to flow, at other times things slow down, stop or even seem to go into reverse. I think this is natural and quite possibly universal. I believe it happens in all creative endeavours. I think it’s innate to being human. I am talking here about your energy, the supply of ideas and the drive you need to do your creative work. It’s what happens when you work on your own ideas probably because your own work is bound up with your sense of your self and the cycles of your state of mind. Most artists conceive their work to some degree as an expression of themselves, something unique to them at the same time as it may express universal or collective concerns for society as a whole.

You might have noticed various aspects of these cycles in your work. I know I do a lot of cleaning up in my precious studio time that on the face of it seems like time-wasting or messing about. I think I do this putting-off-till-later activity when I could or should be producing things probably in order to reflect and get back into sync with my own creative cycle. This is not really a conscious process, it is something I repeatedly find myself doing almost without actually deciding to. I have now begun to recognise the pattern so I am more at home with it and less likely to fight against it.

Here is a diagram showing the structure of the creative cycle as I see it.


As I hope you can see it is a sequence that revolves in a tumble and can repeat ad infinitum. Note that the main axis is not time in this case but progress and that for part of the cycle it appears to go into reverse.

In my view there are four phases in the creative cycle, I identify them as follows:


Aka: Inspiration, Excitement, Ideas, Flow, In the Zone, Progression, Germination, Invention.

The high is also probably everyone’s favourite part of the cycle, it’s fun, it’s exciting, it makes you feel vital and full of energy, ideas flow fast and effortlessly. This stage is marked by optimism and urgency. This is likely to be where ideas spark and possibly the start of a production phase of creative work. Here your idea is likely to seem strong, in need of rapid realisation and all the resources you can muster.


Aka: Loss, Fall, Decline, Slowing, Barriers, Roadblocks, Second thoughts, Problems, Diversions.

All good things come to an end, this is also the case with a creative high. In my view this is a natural waning of energy not unlike being out of breath after a run. This state can also be induced by a problem or a diversion of some kind that interrupts the flow of energy and requires a review, a re-think or a pause to take stock. This stage feels like someone rained on your parade, just when things were really motoring, along come these doubts and problems that are only going to get in the way. At this stage your enterprise is going to seem unsound to some degree which is likely to feel disappointing.


Aka: Confusion, Disintegration, Depression, Sadness, Disappointment, Stuck, Becalmed, Standstill, Struggle, Review, Re-assessment, Rest.

This state is the most difficult to process and maintain your momentum. At this juncture any problems will tend to be in the foreground so they are likely to come to your attention and seem overbearing. You may feel confused, indecisive or dissatisfied, so it’s important to be patient and not beat yourself up for being here. Waiting or resting may be the most important things to do now. Behind the scenes your mind has to process all the problems and questions and your feelings about them. It’s easy to feel things are falling apart in this phase and that the endeavour at hand is fatally flawed. This could, of course, be true, it does happen, we all have projects or parts of projects that fail, but the states of mind associated with this point in the story mean this may not be the best moment to make that decision. At this moment your plan is likely to seem ill-conceived or wide of the mark – so hang in there.

Patience and self-belief are the qualities you need to profit from this part of the cycle. The difficulties of the Low mask it’s purpose and usefulness. Your feelings about your project will probably have changed a lot and this may help you get a new perspective on it. You are also likely to loosen your attachment to and ego identification with your original concept and this may help free up your approach to it. This could get things moving. This section is difficult but it’s also rich in ideas, this is the shadow aspect of the creative cycle, going through this unmapped territory means you have a story to tell, could you use it in the work? This part of the process is most likely to make you wiser, and of course, everyone goes through something like this. In my opinion this is the hardest part of the process and it is important and integral to the whole sequence. The recognition that you are in the low part of the phase, is almost like a trigger for the next phase. You need to organise yourself now to leave this stage. Quite how you do that is completely up to you, there are no maps – well – except this one maybe.


Aka: Recovery, Gathering, Gain, Growth, Organisation, Building, Thinking, Relaxation, Problem Solving, Re-charge, Re-design, Restart.

This is where your ideas are consolidated or revised, where you gather the intentions, materials and resources that will allow you to move on. This is also when you solidify your ideas to the point they are ready to produce. From here your scheme is likely to look redeemable, with problems that can be solved.


This is a cycle so at this point it all goes round again …

Why is the creative cycle important?

The reason I think this is important is so you can remind yourself at any point in the cycle that each phase will come round, there is nothing unexpected about these four stages, however much you might like to linger in the high, knowing it will recur can be helpful in not only surviving the other parts of the cycle but getting value from them rather than thinking of them as a waste of time.

The improvised nature of a lot of creative work means it can be exciting but it can also use a lot of energy trying things that don’t work out, those failures are going to generate frustration, understanding the creative cycle could help you see that there is a pattern to this work, that there is progression even if it’s not obvious at every stage.

I would be interested to hear if my theory rings true for other artists and creatives in all media, please let me know your thoughts in the comments section.

Reference links:

Art & Fear
Observations on the Perils (and Rewards) of Artmaking by David Bayles, Ted Orland

My Failures by Jeremy Deller

The 4 stages of creativity (skip to the video)

Getting lost in the woods, creative work is non-linear.


This idea is an integral part of Artists insight individual sessions and workshops. This article © copyright Simon Fell  2016-2024 all rights reserved thanks


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