Collaboration in Visual Art

Introducing a series on collaboration in the visual arts

Every time I add wood to the stove I’m reminded of the same thing. For in early attempts to ration my wood use, I added a single log on the smoldering embers with the inevitable result of a cold house. It’s not that the energy from a single log couldn’t throw off enough heat. It’s that the potential heat of that single log is never realized. When I add a second log beside the first, the small fire has something else to feed off of. It finds a path to follow and creates an air current between the gaps in the logs. These currents feed the force and direction of the flame. Add a third log and the air flows and flame lengths increase. All three logs are fostering the flame and before long you are in a warm house.

I love the concept of collaboration. I’m intrigued by the possibilities. The flame of creativity burns bright in artists. And it often burns the brightest when two or more work side by side. Still, art is such a personal thing. Can collaboration work?

We have to ask this question because many times it simply does not work. When you bring two or more artists together that have different styles, methods and motives, success is far from guaranteed. And beyond the success of the final product, consider how to make the experience succeed. For in addition to bringing two styles together, you’re bringing two egos together. And if the process is important, you may want to consider how the whole thing is going to be carried out.

Give up control

“Without consultation, plans are frustrated,
But with many counselors they succeed.”
—Proverbs 15:22

There are methods you’ve found that work. You’ve proven them in your creations. And despite your aversion to the methods your collaborator is presenting, you have to trust them. It’s not unlike marriage. No matter how certain you are that you have the best solution, you need to be gracious and willingly try another route. Many times you’ll find your method was subpar after all.

Share the spotlight

If art is your livelihood, one of your goals—let’s be honest—is to make your name known. In that sense, sharing the spotlight is great publicity and is rarely a bad thing. And apart from the marketing angle, anytime an artist spends energy doing something that is not just about them, it’s going to be a good thing and a stretching experience. Still, we are selfish in our hearts and sharing the spotlight is something we tend not to initiate. This tendency—most easily seen in young children—never quite leaves our hearts. I knew one singer who was constantly praised for the one album on which he totally handed off production duties. He saw this as a slight and there has been basically no collaboration from him since. And that’s unfortunate. A mature artist should even go beyond sharing the spotlight and use their position and resources to actively shine the spotlight on others, while seeking to encourage them and foster their abilities.

Choose wisely

Once the collaboration has begun, bailing will rarely be a palatable option. Make sure you know your collaborator. If you’re putting your name to this as a serious work of art and it’s going to be in the public arena, only work with people whose abilities you truly admire and whose beliefs you respect. Otherwise you’re going to end up with a knot in your stomach as you watch the project turn south. That being said, there are times to collaborate for fun, for the experience, or to encourage another artist. It’s not always about a quality end product. These can be amazing experiences.

Stay connected

Artists tend to isolate themselves. How can that be a good thing? It’s comparable to the Christian who refuses to attend church. Little to no growth will happen as they feed off their own narrow thoughts, studies and inspirations. Growth comes from being stretched and challenged. And what’s more challenging than collaboration? There’s a whole network of artists out there. And if you’re worried about being made to feel inferior by the talents of others, join the club. We need to learn to appreciate, encourage and inspire one another!

Consider this an introduction as I prepare a series of articles highlighting a number of collaborative methods I’ve personally used and experienced over the past ten years. My focus will be on collaboration between visual artists, though I will eventually extend beyond that. There’s not a right way and a wrong way—but certain methods work better with certain situations, people, and goals.

Articles in this series on collaboration

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