How To Define Your Creative Process

The creative process can be quite hard to summarise. Whether you’re an artist or a writer, there’s a lot more that goes into a piece than what’s seen in the finished work. In fact, a large part of my creative process, and I’m sure yours too, has very little to do with creating and more with thinking.

For me, this initial stage of thinking is the best and the worst time all at once. Why? Well it’s simple: I can paint anything I want to. Absolutely anything that comes to mind. So how on earth do I decide what I want to paint?

  • I might pick up an idea that’s been rattling around in my head for a few days/weeks…
  • I might decide to re-visit an older theme or collection for inspiration…
Icelandic horses and cosmic skies…
  • I might be watching a documentary (oh, so often!) and be hit by a sudden moment of inspiration that I simply must paint…
  • I might listen to a particular piece of music (more on this in a later blog, I think) and dwell on a particular feeling or moment.

This is where I’ll start to form an idea. I’ll take plenty of notes, perhaps I’ll take down a few colour combinations or jot down a few starting points such as key elements of the composition.

This is when things can get messy, as it’s at this stage that things can go in two different directions. Sometimes, I’ll keep chewing on the same idea and get started with some rough sketching, or perhaps even create some mock-ups digitally. These sketches, drawings and notes are definitely rough and can be very haphazard, but it’s enough to start forming an idea. I’m sure Picasso’s early sketches and scribbles were just as bad!


A thumbnail sketch is the way many paintings start life

Other times, for whatever reason, I can go off an idea as quickly as it came to me. It will get tossed aside and I’ll have to start all over again. This can happen at almost any stage in the creative process, though thankfully it rarely happens after paint has been put to canvas. I’ve learned not to get distracted or disheartened by the near misses, as they all help to free the creative block and to get my mind wandering again.


If successful, I’ll move onto the next stage of the process. This is the phase that I can’t wait to jump into. Creating the little thumbnail drawings, testing colours, writing and thinking can take days or even weeks, but then once I’m ready, it’s usually when the art shops are closed for the weekend and I’m missing some supplies – just like today! So I  have to have a little more patience, and I’ll try not to overthink at this point because I could end up over analysing my idea or finding faults with it and having to start again.

  • Tip: go with your gut! If it feels right, paint it. If it doesn’t, don’t. You can always come back to that idea later.
Choosing colours – a step which should be handled with care

So, once I’ve successfully acquired a canvas (hopefully no more than a day or two later) I’m itching to get painting. It’s a mad dash to select the colours, get them on the palette and create my underpainting. Yay!

life at last light 2
If the underpainting looks good – I’m happy!

Once all the prepping is done, it’s time to get to the really fun part! I’m a fairly fast painter, but I’m constantly aware of the need to slow down. Choice of music is very important at this stage: something too upbeat and too heavy will be a) distracting and b) will encourage me too move around too fast. I tend to listen to the same songs or playlist on repeat for a calm and distraction-free painting process.

I’ll frequently get up and step a good few feet away from the canvas so I can look at the overall painting, and jot down any tweaks or errors I need to fix later. I’ve noticed how different a painting can look in a photograph than in real life: the camera highlights certain angles and other elements that you won’t see until you’re looking at the 2D image.

The often messy but exciting middle stage

As for the painting itself, the length of time I’ll spend at the easel varies depending on the method I use and the subject I’m painting. I’m not going to get lost in painting for 8 solid hours, that’s not my style. I’ll usually do up to 3 hours in one go, then maybe come back to it for another hour or so later on in the day. The length of time a painting can take to completion is also very variable, and I don’t really keep that much track of how many days it takes. Sometimes it can sit in the studio for a week or more while I debate the next step or simply while I wait for the layers of oil to dry.

What a finished painting should look like!

Most creatives have a specific time of day that they’re most productive, and a rigid routine. I’m a little bit more flexible than that and never really set aside a fixed time for painting: it’s more when I’m in the mood and adequately supplied with tea. I’m a mid-morning, late-afternoon or early-evening painter, but I’m itching to do an early-morning session and watch the sun come up.

What’s your creative process? I’d love to know what a typical day in your studio is like. Let me know in the comments!

Here are some more blogs where I talk about the creative process and share the creative journeys of specific paintings:

Art Diaries: Life At Last Light (the painting featured at the end of this post)
Cosmic Thoughts – Blooms
Art Diaries: A Trip To Rome

If you like what you see, you can follow me on Facebook or Instagram  to keep up with the latest in my studio. Hit the little ‘follow’ button on the bottom to subscribe to my blog. Thanks for reading! 🙂

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