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How Artists Tap Into Their Elusive Creative Process

creative process

Considering scientists have had the human genome mapped since 2003, it’s a bit peculiar creativity still remains a relatively elusive process. By pure dictionary standards, creativity is explained as the ability to come up with new and useful ideas. However, creativity lives on a spectrum. It’s something we all use daily, whether in the familiar Tetris game that is fitting everything into an already full dishwasher, or picking out what to wear after pushing laundry day another week. But creativity also belongs to the artistic mavericks, from sculptors and painters of the 14th century to freestyle rappers of present day.

There have been several studies on which methods boost creativity. In this regard, science says you should drink tea, embrace a chaotic or messy work environment, and work in a busy coffee shop for the background noise. Yet these are merely topical fixes and certainly will not make you a more innately creative thinker, which is where the real magic happens.

Why is it that some people seem to be more creative than others?

A relatively new study published in early 2019 by Harvard University suggests creative professionals—individuals who work in creative endeavors—tend to use different brain networks for any given task. Throughout the experiment, researchers found these exceptional creatives simultaneously activated brain systems that typically work in silos. For example, the “default network” is typically in play when we daydream, recall memories, think about the future, or are generally letting our thoughts wander without a specific task or goal in mind. This is usually deactivated when the “executive control network” switches on, when you need to pay close attention and focus on something in front of you. Those in the experiment who produced more creative ideas showed default network and executive control activity concurrently, whereas Joe Not-Creative-At-All Smith only activated each network separately. (See fMRI scan imaging, here.)

Simply put, people who rank high in creativity are able to engage brain regions that don’t typically work together, and it’s this act of network collaboration that appears to manifest creative insights.

How do these creative professionals do it? Is there a common ritual creative people partake in to rev these brain systems’ engines? (Asking for a friend.) I talked to different artists about how they tap into their creative process to find out:

“All of my pieces begin with either an emotion I want to convey, or a vision of what the final piece will look like and how I hope it makes you feel,” says glass artist Anna Curnes. Working with hot glass requires precision, patience and sometimes an acknowledgement that the glass often has its own agenda. Rather than worry about manifesting her next “big idea,” Curnes takes a more be-one-with-the-present approach to art, and finds when she chases beauty and adventure, and appreciates the “little things that make life absurd and fascinating,” artistic inspiration comes naturally.

“Because inspiration is essentially everywhere, I feel creativity is just wrangling an intangible glimmer of magic into a physical form, whatever form that takes,” Curnes explains. Her ideal creative environment consists of “encouraging distraction.” She works alongside three other glassblowers who take turns selecting upbeat music and converse (or occasionally dance break) to keep the creative spark twirling. (If you’re unfamiliar with the process of glassblowing, Netflix released a new series Blown Away that will make you want to grab a punty.)

However, other artists like Paige, international electronic artist and DJ, work along a more methodological path. “In a competitive field, a checklist of specific to-dos that help you tap into your creative superpower is the way to go,” Paige says. “For me, there are a few MUST-dos in order to create the best music possible.”

This includes everything from prioritizing a good night’s sleep, to morning coffee, to listening to happy music or a self-help podcast while walking around the block to put him in a relaxed, inspired, energetic and mindful state where his creativity thrives. And if his beats just aren’t dropping right? “I will instantly walk away for a small break, likely outside or somewhere with natural light—a dark room is a creativity crusher.”

His formula seems to be working; his remake of “Land Down Under” has earned 12 million streams and counting. Holly Hatam, the #1 New York Times best-selling illustrator of Dear Girl, also has a winning morning ritual she follows religiously. “When I miss a day, my creativity doesn’t flow as smoothly,” Hatam confesses. She wakes up daily around 5:30 a.m., meditates and writes in a gratitude journal, with a cup of tea nearby. Sounds like they’ve both read the most recent creativity boosting studies.

Nonetheless, Paige also emphasizes, “I don’t think there is a set routine for everyone. The most important part is identifying which things make you the best version of yourself, and then try to find a way to fit them into your day or week, because that is when you can truly be creative.”

Chicago-based architect and founder of DMAC Architecture, Dwayne MacEwen, has a similar theory on creativity. “There is no ‘bag of tricks,’ but rather a trust in the creative process.” MacEwen’s creativity can be quite spontaneous and immediate, so he must be present and observant at all times. But that doesn’t mean he waits around for inspiration to strike. “When I am willing to put the work in and trust the process—to sit down and draw and become immersed in the project—then wonderful, creative solutions are the reward.”

Does anything in particular zap creativity? Perhaps the key is in avoiding certain things, like a dark room as Paige suggested.

Several of the artists I interviewed mentioned turning the sound off of their phone, not checking emails and eliminating distractions from the task at hand. However, muralist and abstract painter Colton Seager may have articulated it best. “Art can’t be about the “likes,” how many followers the work will get me, the money from the sale, or even if others will be pleased by it. These thoughts are always tempting, but they disrupt the creative process. The most important aspect of my creative process is that the work must be a reflection of my true self.”

The value of art is universally understood to be quite subjective, but it appears, at least among artists, the value of creativity is rather steadfast. Its process was described by these artists as “surprising” and “inspired,” often by nature or other forms of art. Yet ultimately, many called creativity a way of life.

“Creativity is not just something artists do,” author Heddi Goodrich said. “It’s everything, the creative force of the universe, from the Big Bang and the first life forms bubbling up; it’s what we humans are made of and what drives us.”

Goodrich found her creative inspiration in what some may consider a fairly routine activity: speaking a second language. Bilingual in both English (her native language) and Italian, she wrote her first novel Lost in the Spanish Quarter (soon to be released in English) entirely in Italian, as she discovered only in Italian does she reach that special creative flow. A flow she described as, “where beautiful sentences will come to me, as if from outside myself, and I just write them down.”

It’s a concept several others have articulated; the idea that a work of art reveals itself to you, rather than an individual imagines art seemingly from scratch. As a writer, I’ve experience it myself. When I’m particularly inspired (and it’s not always at convenient times, mind you) sentences, or even full paragraphs, slip in my ear already dressed for the party. I have dozens of Notes saved on my phone in my attempt to capture the phrases before they’re gone. Author of Eat, Pray, Love Elizabeth Gilbert spoke in a 2009 TED Talk about this very feeling and how she jokingly tells ideas that present themselves as she’s trying to sleep to, “come back tomorrow.”

It appears these creative professionals, though they employ vastly different processes for reaching and producing their peak art, all hold a similar respect for the intangibility of creativity—viewing it more as an extension of themselves, like glasses that help you see the world more clearly, rather than something you turn on or off. Perhaps this is why their brain networks never deactivate. There seems not to be an exact science to tapping into your creativity, but that’s precisely what gives it a certain je ne e sais quoi. Michelangelo famously said, “I saw an angel in the marble and carved until I set him free.” Perhaps the key to creativity is simply giving in to your process until you emerge with your own pair of magic-tinted glasses.

Related: DJ Steve Aoki May Be the Most Creative Artist in the World

Photo by Mikhail Zahranichny / Shutterstock.com

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Megan Nicole O’Neal is a UCLA alum and public relations specialist with a passion for storytelling and a firm belief that only the right photo is worth 1,000 words. An avid adventurist, she’s traveled to five different continents, all on an endless quest to find the world’s greatest cup of coffee. Megan currently works at in the PR department for the National Multiple Sclerosis Society in Los Angeles. Connect with Megan on Twitter at @megan_n_oneal or her website mnoneal.com.

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