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Breaking Down the Creative Process

I’ve been thinking quite a bit lately about the creative process. When we talk about “creativity,” people generally end up putting themselves into one of two categories– creative or not creative. I’m always amused– and a bit leery– when people who consider themselves creative say that they have no creative process. That ideas “just come” to them. I’m not buying it. I can’t help but ask if ideas really do just come to them, or have they refined and streamlined their process to the point that they don’t even recognize it as a process? And if there really is a process, can someone who thinks they aren’t creative follow a series of steps that can help them become creative? The truth is, everyone has creative potential.

Graham Wallas (1858-1932) was an English social psychologist and co-founder of the London School of Economics. In Art of Thought – The Model of Creativity, written in 1926, Wallas broke down what we now refer to as the “creative process” into four distinct stages– Preparation, Incubation, Illumination, and Implementation. I’ve seen his approach described in several sources recently and over the years, but few ever seem to give any proper credit to the source material, espousing these thoughts and concepts as if they were original ideas. And so, Graham Wallas– this one’s for you, with my thanks.



It sounds simple, and maybe a bit obvious, but this first step really does lay the foundation for the entire process. Writers write, read, research, and revise. Musicians practice and rehearse. They listen to music– sometimes their own, sometimes that of their influences. Painters experiment with color and visit museums. They sketch. As a photographer, what are you doing to prepare? Do you have influences and inspiration? Do you look to other art forms? How will you nurture an idea once it’s formed? We all draw from different emotional resources, but one thing that every creative has in common at this stage in the process is that the steps can actually be pretty boring. We may enjoy walking through museums or scouting locations, and they may get the creative juices flowing,  but they are not the exciting part of the process. Preparation is, quite simply, evaluating your creative options and beginning to come up with a plan.


For me, this is where the fun begins– partially because half the time I don’t even realize it’s happening.  This is the stage where those first hints of a hopefully great idea are bouncing around in my head.  This is when I’m sitting in the car at a red light and happen to notice how the sun is hitting an object.  This is the stage when I’m flipping through a magazine  and an off-handed remark in an article brings the whole project into focus (no pun intended).  During the incubation step your conscious AND subconscious minds are working on the idea.  Wallas talked about the incubation stage being one where no real direct thought was given to the project or idea. Have you ever tried forcing an idea? It doesn’t usually work, right? Just like you sometimes have to take a break and clear your head, diverting your thoughts to other problems or projects– or to nothing at all– during the incubation stage may be just what you need for you to find yourself at…


This is the “A-hah!” moment.  When this moment hits, your creative urge is so strong that you just have to get the idea out of your head and into its medium (camera, canvas, paper, etc.)– usually to the point that you have no problem ignoring or losing track of everything else going on around you.  The biggest problem with my illumination moments is that they usually happen at the most inconvenient times (in the shower, driving, middle of the night, etc.). It’s going to happen when it happens. You’ve had all these preparatory elements bouncing around– incubating– inside your head that when they do finally snap into a coherent form, it’s almost like the wheels on a Vegas slot machine coming to rest in perfect alignment.


This is where your idea sees the light of day.  You’re taking conscious, positive steps towards executing your idea. Remember, though, that implementation in and of itself does not mean that your idea is going to be a success. This is also the point where a good creative begins to evaluate the idea and determine whether it was a good or bad idea.  Until you have something tangible to show for your idea, it’s almost impossible to decide whether this theoretical notion you’ve been nurturing through the process can be a success.  How many times has the idea or image in your head not matched the photo in your camera?  For every great idea, there are several I wish I’d never had.

Bringing it All Together

Obviously, we’re not talking about flow charts or checklists. Each of these “steps” is really more like part of a gradient– soft edges overlapping as you move from dark to light. As you know from your own experience, sometimes this process runs start-to-finish in the blink of an eye, but it can also take weeks. You just never know. While they may not always be clearly defined as you process each idea or project, it can be extremely helpful knowing what they are and how to identify them. Being able to recognize where you are on a creative journey can often be the confidence boost you need to see something through from preparation to implementation.

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Jeff Guyer
Jeff Guyer

is a commercial/portrait photographer based in Atlanta, GA. Still an avid street photographer and film shooter, Jeff also launched a kids photography class called: Digital Photo Challenges.

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