An art collaboration is a beautiful and elusive creature.
Many stars need to align in order for two artists to end up working together. Art is an intensely private process and most artists are pretty tightly married to their practices and workflow – adding another person in there is an intimate and scary endeavor. You probably have had many conversations with your artist friends where one of you had said ‘we should make something together one of these days’, and 90% of those collaborations probably never happened.
If you’ve blamed yourself for this, don’t. It’s just a difficult thing to bring about.
There are a few different types of artist collaborations, and only one of those types has ever worked out for me. But every time it has, the result was not just something I was proud of, but something I was enchanted with.
Here is the list:
1. One person supplies the idea, and the other person does the art. This has a few sub-categories and can go wrong in many different ways.
a) DRAW MY THING – The person supplying the idea lacks the artistic skill to make it happen, so they’re attempting to ‘piggyback’ on the artist who can. Generally ideas are a dime a dozen (good ideas are a different matter though), and usually the idea person will be more into the collaboration, and the artist person will accept out of goodwill more than out of genuine excitement. These collaborations will often either not even get off the ground, or peter out before completion. The problem is that the artist needs to be fired up about what he/she is making, and it’s hard to get fired up about other people’s concepts. Unless they are awesome. Which brings us to….
b) TELL ME WHAT TO DRAW – There are artists with great technical skill but clever concepts just aren’t their thing. They welcome partnering up with someone who has a solid concept and a clear vision of how it should be executed. Or they have great ideas of their own but feel excited to work on a joint project with someone once in a while. There are also people who lack drawing skills but really have incredibly sharp wits and are brimming with great concepts for other people to turn into fantastic art. There are a few pretty famous Idea Guys in the Threadless Community, for instance, and everyone who’s anyone has done a collab with them at some point or another. These collaborations turn out some really stunning art.
I’ve been on both sides of that equation – I’ve played the role of Idea Person, getting some incredible artists to illustrate a few of my ideas that I didn’t think I had the skills for, and I’ve been the Artist too, bringing someone else’s concept to life. As the Idea Person I always felt like the Artist was doing me a favor, even though both of the guys seemed to really enjoy the process, the pieces turned out great and I really wasn’t very demanding in terms of execution details. As the Artist I always fretted over whether I could do good enough a job, and would my work bring the Idea Person’s concept to life the way they imagined it in their head.
2. Two artists agree on a concept and work on it together, sending the piece back and forth. This is my favorite sort of collaboration and the excitement of getting the file back after the other person has made their latest round of changes is sort of like opening a Christmas present.
For this sort of collaboration to work best the artists need to generally like/ admire each other’s art styles. The way it’s worked for me is like this: first a few messages are exchanged offering/ accepting the collab and hashing out an idea. Usually the initiating side already has an idea they want to work on, or a particular contest they want to enter, or some clue as to what the piece might be. The idea can get tossed around and refined a bit. Then one artist will take it upon themselves to do the initial sketch and send it over. The other partner will do the linework based on the sketch. Artist 1 will then start the coloring process, Artist 2 will add details, and so forth.
Unwritten rules say you try to change as little as possible of what the other party has already done – you’re trying to build upon their work. (Unless they sent a rough concept proposition, then you’re free to reinterpret it your way). If you want to change something that’s already been put down, and you think it improves the piece significantly, you have two options of going about it – a) discuss and agree what’s best. The other side will usually say go ahead, unless the point is particularly important to them, and b) just go ahead and make the change. If they let it stand, it’s been tacitly agreed. If they change it back, let it go. It’s a subtle dance.
In theory mixing the styles of two different artists sounds tricky, but in all my experiences the end result is beautiful, and turns out better and more interesting than either of you could have made it on your own. Since doing a collab is a sort of adventure in its own right, usually both sides go into it feeling a little more adventurous than usual, and are more open to trying stuff they generally wouldn’t think of.
3. Two artists agree they want to collab with each other but never get around to it
Probably the most frequent model. I have a longish list of dream collab partners, with three or four up at the top. With some I’ve already agreed concepts and ideas (in some cases, years ago, haha). But the sad fact is that time remains the most expensive commodity, and making schedules fit is rough.
Still, if you have a chance to collaborate with another artist, take it. If you have someone you’d love to work with, ask them if they’re game. Don’t get your feathers ruffled if it doesn’t work out – or even if they flat out refuse. But keep reaching out, and make the effort to take others up on their offers. You’ll do stuff you haven’t done before, you’ll learn new techniques, deepen friendships, and you’ll definitely have fun.
Oh yeah – before I close, an important word of advice. Work out in advance how the ownership of the piece is going to work. Will you both put it up for sale on PoD sites? If you’re subbing it to a contest and it wins, how will the prize be split? (50-50% is the norm regardless of the amounts of input from either side, but it’s best to confirm agreement with this). If one of you has a larger following/ stronger sales venues, will they share the profits? Money talk is always a sticky subject in art, and we like to pretend it’s not there, but get it out of the way to avoid bitter experiences later on.
Have you done art collabs so far? Did you enjoy the process? What pitfalls did you encounter – or was it all smooth sailing?