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The Creative Spiral: Create.

Updated: Oct 2, 2023

When you’re in the habit of creating, the way you work will start to take a distinct shape. I never thought I could describe my own process in a way that encompasses many different projects, but as I reflect, the rungs on my “creative ladder” (let’s call it) are placed in relatively similar places across all my work. Even if you’re not an illustrator, if my process gets you thinking about your own, it’s worth sharing.

Infancy. I do my preliminary work in silence. For me this is research, thumbnails, and color comps. Each task demands focus and energy that I can’t afford to scatter by listening to lyrics or conversations. I am usually at a desk with my sketchbook, or on a couch with my iPad. At this point, the project is like a newborn baby. It could grow up to be anything in the world– the possibilities are endless– so no idea is bad. I throw it all on the page, and never settle on the first image.

I once participated in a creative exercise demonstrating the importance of the infancy stage. The exercise had tight constraints: pick any three objects, and create fifty thumbnails of them, never repeating the same composition twice. I chose a telephone pole, a house, and a tree. In the first ten thumbnails, I drew all the obvious compositions. Things displayed straight on, from above...etc. In the next ten thumbnails, I started finding ways to push the viewpoint, show as little as possible, or change the scene’s framing. By the twentieth thumbnail, things got interesting. Since all the cliches were out of my system, my brain was forced to work with the constraints to create compositions my brain didn’t readily serve up. I started pushing scale in otherworldly ways, and experimenting with angles. My most interesting ideas weren’t my first twenty, or even first thirty. Out of my fifty thumbnails, my favorites were towards the end (right before I ran out of steam). By completing fifty thumbnails, I proved to myself that I could create interesting compositions out of anything, and that good ideas come when you work for them.

Much of our life’s trajectory is determined by the quality of care we receive as an infant, and in this same way, our piece’s visual trajectory is largely determined by the quality of effort we put into the thumbnail stage.
A selection from my 50 thumbnails:

Much like caring for a newborn, this is a mentally exhausting phase. Thumb-nailing requires a lot of effort, and isn’t romantic or celebrated. When a child announces they want to be an artist when they’re older, they don’t mean they want to thumbnail. Despite this, I’ve grown to really like the arduousness of the thumbnail stage.

Adolescence. I’m not a parent, but I know raising teenagers is hard. They develop a rebellious streak, get acne, try on different identities, and look totally different from one week to the next. Often after planning a piece, I feel like my project becomes a teenager. The composition that seemed to work so well in black and white just doesn’t want to cooperate in color. The mediums I’m using get rebellious and interact in unpredictable ways. Painters often call this step the “ugly stage.” This is the point when things are developing but haven’t yet snapped into place.

Try experimenting in your sketchbook, far away from your unruly teenager. Fudge around with medium and color before settling on a palette. Develop your thumbnails with colors inspired by the four yearly seasons. Try out different lighting scenarios. Answer as many questions as possible while leaving room for spontaneity, then confidently return to your piece.

Before starting my master’s program I felt like a dandelion in the breeze, never quite knowing where I’d land in my work. This was because I hadn’t answered enough questions in the adolescent stage, and the resulting uncertainty showed in my art. It was only recently that I discovered the true value of experimenting in my sketchbook; I was thinking and developing and tweaking, rather than thoughtlessly rushing through the beginning and middle just so I could get to the end. My work started feeling more authentic to me because there was more of me in it.

Don’t hate the teenager stage.


This is when the fun starts. Depending on your art style, finishing could take twenty minutes, or twenty hours. Either way, if you’ve done a good job in the previous steps, you can trust your piece will reach its full adult potential.

Adults don’t need quite as much attention as children. They’re independent and able to stand on their own two feet. As a result, the work do in this stage will feel more relaxing. You might turn on a podcast, converse with your family, or find your mind wandering. With the hardest work behind you, you can coast to the finish, improvising here and there when spontaneity calls.

When you’ve given proper care and attention to the beginning and middle, a pleasant ending awaits– I promise.

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