The 5 Phases of Creativity


“The creative process is a process of surrender, not control.” - Julie Cameron

As I’ve mentioned before, I’ve been working as a professional creative for 30 years, in many fields from illustration and graphic design, to music, performance, and theater set design, as well as being an art teacher.

In all the creative fields I’ve worked in, there’s been a consistent pattern I’ve noticed in the process of being creative, which I call The Five Phases of Creativity.

Within these five phases of creativity, there are certain elements that can affect how an artist or performer approaches, develops, alters, or even dismisses the creative process they’re trying to immerse into.

Without understanding the different phases of creativity, it’s easy for a creative person to become distracted, discouraged, disinterested, or simply give up when they’re unable to see the entire scope.

When I was a young artist, just starting out, I really wish someone had been introduced to these “phases of creativty” to me, as they would have been great stepping stones in getting from the starting point of a project to the endpoint – much faster – and to help maintain my progress with more focus and a less distraction.

Later in my career, I saw these phases, more, doing set design for theater. Time was crucial and set pieces had to be done in a specific order so the director could layout the scenery for actors to move in.

When I worked on the set of the musical, Grease, it was my job to produce the 1950’s car – an old jalopy – for the actors to work in, on, and around.

Myself, the director and the producer, discussed dozens of options on how to create a believable car, ranging from a flat wooden cutout to the front end of a real car that we could wheel onstage.

What we decided on was a small, working vehicle that could be driven or pushed onstage quickly, and taken offstage again, just as fast.

And what we finally landed on was… a golf cart.

It was a standard, old golf cart with the overhead roof and supports removed, leaving us with a body to work with. 

It was encased in thick, heavy-duty Marine foam to form the overall body of a 1950’s car.

Then, I began the unbelievable task of turning this awkward block of hard foam on wheels into a believable jalopy.

It was a daunting task and I had absolutely no idea how to approach the job.

That’s where the five phases of creativity came in. I took photos, began sketching, and had to get past the fear of failure that was creeping in, to get the job done.

Using tools to carve and sculpt the shapes of the vehicle and sanders to grind it down smooth, I eventually got it where it was smooth enough to paint the effects to make the car come to life.

I’d been doing set design for years, but this was a unique challenge I’d never come across before.

In the end, I was able to immerse and rely on my experience and skills, and use the five phases of creativity to get through the intimidation and find success to make it an elemental part of the show.

In the classroom, I began introducing these five phases to college level design students who needed checkpoints throughout their creative process, to help keep them on task.

Something I didn’t realize was that in teaching the phases to students, I would also refine my own checkpoints and maintain progress for my own projects.

From amateurs to professionals, all creative people go through phases of development. 

But, limiting them from, say, 10 to 5 can help eliminate a lot of wasted energy and time, and refocus on the more important elements of getting a project underway.

So, what are these 5 Phases of Creativity?

No matter what field of interest you have in, be it as an amateur watercolor painter, a professional graphic artist, or even a songwriter or playwright, the intent of this video is to provide a way to help creative people find ways to better manage their processes, to produce their best work, and not lose focus to all the distractions around us.

Trust me, it’s a challenge for me not to spend an hour on social media instead of creating this video.

So, what are these five phases I’m talking about? Well, the first phase of creativity is:

1. The Conception Phase: 

This is the initial phase that typically begins a project. It is the starting point when the job, the song, or the piece of art is introduced to the creator. Whether it’s a boss telling you to make signs for a coffee shop, a band trying to put together a new song, or a painter sitting before a blank canvas, anxious to paint.

This is where we step onto a path of direction without fully knowing what we’re getting into, exactly. There’s an idea, but the idea needs to be brought to life and seen all the way through to an endpoint.

This is where we draw from inspiration and collect our mental impressions of all the possible outcomes we can envision in our minds.

Conception is the dream stage, the part where we can linger in our most wildly fantastic imaginations of what the project will turn out to be. It’s where we strike the match of expectations and set limitless boundaries on how complex the end result will be, dismissing logic and reason in favor of excitement and thrill.

The second phase is:

2. The Development Phase:

This is where we have accepted our direction, isolated the tempo of the work we’re about to undertake, and where the passion for what we do begins to reveal itself.

There are several components to development, however, that every artist MUST go through to get to the next phase.

Preparing to immerse into the project and gathering all the tools and materials necessary to begin working. 

Taking all the inspiration and the mental impressions and sorting them out to a more useful, finished ideas of how we expect our progress to go.

It’s A lot like organizing a tool box or a garden. Sorting through all the tools and gear related to the project – keeping only what we need – that will be the most useful, and then laying them out in a way that makes sense, keeps us organized, and helps move us and the project forward.

This is also the sketching stage. Whether it’s a writer charting out the outline to a new story or a digital artist arranging the under-layers that contain pieces of what will go into the final piece.

The Development Phase is vital to tighten our focus and get us fully prepared to move into the next phase, which is:


The Execution phase is when an athlete goes from doing general, core conditioning to get in shape, to more regimented routines in preparing for a specific event. 

It’s a sprinter who’s spent months in the gym getting their muscles in shape, to now moving out to the track and becoming familiar with the RUN they’ll be doing.

Running the track – over and over – for weeks to get the footing down, the grip of the shoes on the track, and perfecting the timing and the stride. 

For an artist, this is the phase where we move from the conditioning stage of working out the hand muscles in the sketching phase and refine the lines to prepare for the final piece.

After spending hours or days figuring out the composition of a piece, this is when the artist goes onto the final board – carefully getting to know the tooth of the paper or canvas, the feel of the tools, and perfecting the drawing for the final treatment, which is the next phase, called:

4. The Finalization Phase:

So many of us, these days, want to start at this phase – whether hitting the record button without fully knowing the song or ripping open a new package of polymer clay to start sculpting without fully knowing what kind of figure will come from it.

The Finalization Phase, however, has no room for impatience, ambiguity, hesitation, or distraction. 

This is the phase where total commitment, immersion, confidence and a command of our abilities are essential to executing the final aspect of what we’ve been preparing for.

With some projects, it may only be a matter of hours from conception to finalization. For other projects, it may be days or weeks. 

It doesn’t matter the amount of time spent going through each phase, as long as each phase is given its diligence and due, which – of course – will only benefit the final results.

This is the time to weed out errors, drive toward perfection, and fully immerse in the creative experience, allowing the rest of the world to disappear leaving only us and our work to exist.

Painting happens here. Music is recorded here. And poems are written here – without changes, edits, or re-thinking. There are no more practices or dress rehearsals. This is the final “GO!”

And the final work then leads us to the final phase of creativity – the end point of our efforts:

5. The Presentation Phase:

Whether we’re creating for a class, and show, a client, or just for ourselves, the last and final phase of the creative process is the Presentation Phase.

After all the tiny details are in place and the Finalization is complete and the piece is done, it’s now time to present the work we’ve created.

In graphic design, it’s about packaging a project in Adobe InDesign, releasing a presentation, or formatting the artwork for the client’s needs – THIS is where we let go of the work and put it out, into the universe.

In creating a piece for ourselves, it’s good to view the artwork from a distance, to step away and see it as a viewer, not the creator, seeing it as a gallery piece not as a piece on our desk or our easel.

This is also where we find the true value of our efforts – the truth in our skills and abilities, and honest pride in our success.

It’s that sprinter launching off the starting blocks into the race at full speed; the musician belting out a new song to an audience, or the doll-maker sharing her newest creation in her Etsy shop.

The Presentation Phase brings a stranger range of emotions, stemming from the initial excitement & thrill of the conception phase to the frustration & chaos of the Development Phase. 

Often in the Execution and Finalization phases, there are intense emotions, from panic & exasperation to self-doubt & worthlessness, especially when things don’t go right.

But, as we find ourselves going into the Presentation Phase, that’s when those emotions simmer down and the numbness of letting go washes over, allowing us to release the work, unabandoned.

This sensitivity brings it all together to offer, perhaps, the greatest benefit over anything else: the experience gained from going through ALL five phases of creativity and succeeding.

I hope this blog has been entertaining or helpful for you with your own creative journey, whether you’re just starting out or been at it for years! I appreciate your time checking it out. Thank you and God bless!

~ Mark