Four Characteristics of Creativity


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  Research has identified the following four behaviors as being relevant to identifying and defining creative activity.
  • Fluency

  • Flexibility

  • Originality

  • Elaboration

(Guilford, 1968)

One of the biggest problems I have encountered in teaching art is the notion that being creative is doing whatever you want without restrictions and without effort.  Students will complain about the restrictive parameters of the objectives of assignments and want to make one drawing and go on to the final project without giving the problem a second thought. They often argue that it has been their experience that even when they do make 8-10 sketches it is always the first idea that they usually use. I have found through reading research and personal experience that it is through the struggle with possibilities and exploration of design possibilities and material that the creative mind is engaged. Creative thinking is, after all, divergent. The creative mind poses the question, “what if?” Without a thorough investigation of possibilities how does one ponder “what if?”

Getzels & Csikszentmihalyi (1976) described “problem-finding” as an essential aspect to the creative process where the longer the individual worked in the process or problem-finding stage, the more they manipulated or churned over visual ideas. The results of their research into this process of problem finding were that the final products of students that stayed in the process stage longer were of higher quality and higher originality. They also found that, after ten years, those students who spent more time engaged in the process part of the assignment were still practicing artists while those who rushed to finish the assignment were not. When you think about it this is logical. Those who love making art for the making are the ones who will continue and those who rush to finish will be finished with art in a short period of time.

Creativity is not a rejection of the restrictive objectives of an assignment to “do what I want to do” but rather an embracing the limitations to find the personal solution within its restrictions. Orson Wells was reported to have said, “The greatest enemy of art is a lack of limitations.” I believe what he meant was that, without some restrictions, you won’t have to think, problem solve, or go outside of yourself but rather use the same old bag of tricks you have developed and used over and over again. Restrictions or limitations cause you to stretch yourself. It is the very restrictions that force a person to be creative in order to solve the problem in a unique and personal way.

Wilson and Wilson (1976) have indicated that boredom is a necessary condition for creativity. They reason that creative people become creative and engage in creative activity to escape boredom. I had an opportunity to observe this in my experience teaching Advanced Placement Studio Art for over ten years. Students would pick a theme or idea with which to work and after about two weeks they would come to me and want to change their idea or theme. I would not let them because they had gotten to the point that they were bored and could not see a way out. It was at that point that they would have to start doing things to their idea to keep themselves interested. That is the point at which they would start becoming creative and the work became rich. Professional artists historically have imposed restrictions on themselves to bring about this type of creative behavior and more deeply investigate an area of interest. One of the most well known artists of the modern era is Monet and the hay stacks or the Rouen Cathedral. One of my favorite examples is Stuart Davis who made a still life of a rubber glove, an iron, and an egg beater. He worked with those three objects every day for a year (Rose 1975).

Many people misguidedly believe creative thinking is freeform, undisciplined, spontaneous thought that springs out of nowhere. The fact is that creative thinking is rigorous, focused, disciplined, thought. It is divergent and nonlinear to be sure, but it is not without form, substance, or rigor.  Marzano (1988) has indicated that creative thinking is critical thinking. They are both linked as a similar modality of thought.

Single solutions without exploration of possibilities do not exhibit any of the characteristics of creativity.  Creativity seeks multiple solutions. The creative mind goes through 20, 40, or 100 possibilities before choosing a final solution. Making many drawings to play with ideas and discover problems and possibilities is an example of fluency.

Being willing to alter an idea when time, materials, or a chance happening in process suggests another path is an example of flexibility. Eisner (1978) describes “flexible purposing” as a shifting of the purpose in the process of art making when the artist chooses to explore an unexpected opportunity. Flexible thinkers see “mistakes” not as a door closing but and opportunity to explore a path not yet considered.

Embellishing, adding detail, adding extra marks or texture, developing form, are examples of elaboration.

Originality results from being yourself and drawing on personal experience and a myriad of influences (rather than one or two) to come up with a solution to a problem that is personally meaningful. Originality results from this and an engagement in the other three aspects of creative behavior.

My assignments always start with thumbnail sketches and rough-outs before beginning work on the project. Portfolios always consist of process and product work. Students are encouraged to keep all work done during the unit especially the false starts and drawings deemed too bad to show anyone. These works show evidence of creative and critical thinking; overt signs of covert activity. Rubrics always give equal weight to process and product. Typically portfolios with numerous richly developed thumbnails and rough-outs have also been the portfolios with the richest and most well developed final products.


Eisner, E. (1978). What do children learn when they paint? Art Education,
31 (3) 6-10.

Getzels, J.W. and Csikszenthmihalyi, M. (1976). The creative vision: A
longitudinal study of problem finding in art.
New York: Wiley.

Guilford, J. P. (1968). Intelligence, creativity and their educational implications. San Diego, CA: Robert A Knapp, Publisher.

Marzano R. J. (1988). In J.G. Kurfus Critical thinking: Theory, research, practice, and
possibilities. ASHE-ERIC Higher Education Report no. 2, Washington D.C.:
Association for the Study of Higher Education.

Rose, B. (1975). American art since 1900. New York: Praeger Publishers.

Torrence, E. P. (1974). Torrance tests of creative thinking. Bensenville,IL:
Scholastic Testing Service.

Wilson, B. & Wilson, M. Visual narrative and the artistically gifted. Gifted Child
20 (4) 432-447.