Tag Archives: collaboration

Nature is my collaborator

One of the things I’ve been doing recently is painting on shells. The shells in question have generally turned up as unwanted things other people had around their houses. I wouldn’t source large shells by taking them directly from a beach because you can’t easily tell if they are inhabited (even if the first occupant is dead, other things may have moved in). I’m also wary of supporting shell selling businesses for all the same reasons – empty shells are part of a beach ecosystem. However, people have been taking shells for a long time, better to do something with them than send them off to landfill.

One of the things I’ve found paining shells is that it’s a very different experience from painting on a manufactured or already crafted surface. There’s a lot of variety in a shell, in terms of shape, texture and colour. I could have just put my intention onto them and used the shells as a hard surface to paint on, but I didn’t.

I’ve taken each shell as an individual, and tried to work with, enhance or respond to what the shell already is. In effect, I’ve been treating the now deceased shell maker as my artistic collaborator in this project – respecting their choices, and trying to see where I might add to that. Of course there’s a power imbalance, we can’t talk about it, one of us is dead… but nonetheless I’ve found it a really powerful experience.

I’m an animist, so taking a physical thing and treating it in line with the belief that is has acted deliberately and has intentions and preferences I can work with, is not a difficult line of thought for me.

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Tips for Collaborating

I’ve done a lot of working with other people – I’ve co-written, been illustrated, written for comics and done a lot of music with people. Collaborations have the potential to result in something that is more than the sum of its parts, if you can get them to work. Here’s what I’ve learned…

Are you thinking about a single project, or a working relationship? Either is fine, but it helps to be clear about your intentions at the beginning. Your intentions may of course change as things develop. Stay clear about them.

Pick people whose work you love, and who love your work. Collaborating is about letting something new emerge. If you don’t love each other’s stuff and don’t respect each other as creators, it won’t work.

You have to make room for the other person’s creativity and accept that they will do things you never imagined. I find this really exciting, but it is also a loss of control. If you want to be in control you’ll end up with people who work for you and that’s not the same as collaborating.

Pay attention to how risk is shared out between collaborators. Does more of the cost (of money or time) fall on one person more than another? How can you balance that out to keep things equitable?

Know your own boundaries and respect other people’s. Especially with reference to the time and money you are able to invest in a project.

Be ready to really listen to your collaborators. Be open to negotiation. Don’t expect it to work by magic.

It may not work perfectly straight off. That’s not necessarily a problem. You may need to invest more time in figuring out how to work together to best effect.

If working with someone inspires and encourages you, that’s excellent. It could turn out to be tiring, demoralising and a grind. Some of this depends on finding the right people, but it also depends on being the sort of person who thrives on working with others. You may not be who you think you are, and some things you only find out by doing them. Mistakes are essential, room for mistakes even more so. Never get so attached to the idea of collaborating, or a specific collaboration that you can’t consider it properly.


Finding the third artist

Arthur by Brown.

In January of this year I started working as a colourist alongside my husband Tom, on the John Matthews graphic novel interpretation of Le Morte D’Arthur. This is an intensely collaborative project – a dead author and a living one, Tom doing all the lines and then me doing the colour, and then Tom doing the final things in photoshop – not least sometimes dropping his lines back in on top of my work. Someone else will be lettering the pages.

I’ve worked collaboratively before, but usually as an author – either writing with other authors (Professor Elemental, Letters Between Gentlemen) or as Tom’s author. There are all kinds of issues around art/words collaborations, but the artist does the art and the author does the words and for your bit you remain yourself, albeit in service to something that is more than you.

At the moment we’re working on the same sheets of paper. For the first couple of weeks I found it hard just bringing colour to the pages. What I do obscures Tom’s lines, inevitably. I’m a big fan of his pencil work, so watching it disappear from view is an uneasy process. A page I’ve coloured looks very different from one he’s drawn. The lines alone have an airy, delicate quality while the colour is solid and substantial. For the first week I had the unpleasant feeling that I was taking pieces and wrecking them. Then the photoshop magic started, and the original lines went back on top of the colour. A whole new thing emerged, something that wasn’t really him and isn’t really me. The third artist who is more than the sum of its parts. We’ll probably call it ‘Brown’.

A great deal of talking goes on around each page – an advantage we have, as most comics artists do not sit at the same table as the colourist. We’re finding out what our individual strengths are, where to back off and let the other one handle it, where to be ok about the end result not looking like our bit. I’ve started trying to do on paper some of the things we thought would happen in photoshop – candle glows, mist… and I spend time watching Tom do the final work on the piece. In seeing what changes he makes I can better see how to get the page right in the first place so that he does less.

In an ideal world, we’d pass the paper back and forth between us, doing very little in photoshop. We’re already talking about what happens with Hopeless Maine this way. I had a go at the latest cover, using watercolour pencils, which gives Tom room to come in over the top and reassert pencil lines. Oils are trickier that way – slidy, and a physical presence on the page. I know it can be done, because my grandmother used to pencil over oils to get the rigging details on tall ships. But these are things to explore another day.

Cover art above. The Sky, the ray of light and the lighting effects are Tom’s.


Reclaiming my bloke

For the last year, this young lady has given me no small amount of trouble. When Tom wasn’t with her, he was mostly thinking about her, and that’s tough in any relationship. I knew about her of course – she was getting ten and twelve hours a day of his time, often seven days a week, I’d have to have been pretty oblivious not to notice her impact on our lives.

It’s the biggest project Tom’s ever had – a 200 page graphic novel for Inklit – a Penguin imprint. He gave it his all, because he always throws everything he has at doing projects anyway, and this being the biggest and highest profile one to date, really focused his attention.

It did not make for an easy year. Tom and I came together through a publishing house, many years ago. We were collaborating on www.hopelessmaine.com long before we were romantically involved, and our creative partnership was for years a defining part of our relationship. Only, last year, he was mostly working with someone else. I occasionally got to help out doing large areas of simple shading, but that was about it for me – I provided domestic support, and what other support I could, but I wasn’t part of the project that had taken over our lives. I found that hard.

It’s also a challenge in any relationship when one party shifts up a gear to become way more successful, and the other party does not. As the person not making huge strides forward, it was hard not to feel peripheral, and left behind at times. I’ve made my peace with that – there was nothing else to do. I’ve watched resentment of success eat other people up, and I don’t want to be like that.

I pick my collaborators carefully. Always did. I’ve probably made more careful and considered choices around investing in co-creators than ever I have in romantic relationships. In matters of the heart, I’ve been swept off my feet into poor choices more than once. I’d assumed that the focus and intensity of a creative collaboration would be too much alongside also living with someone, but apparently not. And, having spent this last year with my marriage stripped largely of its creative collaboration aspect, it is immensely cheering to find that we still get on well and can be happy in each other.

It’s a form of challenge any relationship can face – when the thing that brought you together, or defined you, is no longer part of the mix. For couples defined by their parenting, the growing up of offspring can cause real difficulties. Then you get to find out how many facets your relationship has, and whether there’s enough depth and breadth to survive what’s missing.

This last year, we’ve learned that while working together makes us both very happy, we can survive long stretches of being flat out on working with others. It’s been an interesting experience, and by ‘interesting’ I mostly mean that I hope we won’t do anything quite like that again! At least nothing quite that long and involved.

More about the aforementioned book here.


Emotional Honesty

One of the things that matters to me is space in which I can be present to and authentic around my own emotional responses. Interestingly, I gather I can come across as a bit ‘heart on sleeve’ with this blog. That troubles me slightly, because this is so such a construct. What goes here is not the raw experience of the moment, but something I’ve had time to process, reflect on and squeeze into some kind of shape. My actual emotionality is a lot more immediate, but I’m a big fan of thinking about feeling and seeking to understand the currents of my own emotions.

There are many situations in which emotional honesty may not seem appropriate. Work situations would be an obvious example. Nonetheless, I’ve watched over the last few months how my emotional state impacts on my ability to work well. When I feel happy, am engaged with the work, feel emotionally secure and emotionally rewarded, I get a lot more done and the quality of my output is better. On the other hand, if workspaces are triggery and I feel that people are trying to control me, I can kick off into anxiety and my productivity decreases. I took the choice last week to be honest about this with someone I work with, and I think it’s going to help, but it was nonetheless an unnerving decision to contemplate. At work, we are not supposed to feel.

There are many human interactions that do not prompt strong emotional responses in me at all. I quite enjoy the fleeting contact I get with people who I feel neutral about. It can be easy and pleasant. I know it’s not providing what I most need, but the emotional connections are often difficult, and as risky as they are rewarding.

It is the human contact rooted in things that matter to me that tends to be the most emotionally affecting. I’ve always formed deep bonds with people I share music with. There’s a level of engagement in shared music that can transcend normal interaction and become very much an emotional dialogue. There used to be a few people in my life with whom I had that level of intensity and openness when we were playing together, and I’ve missed it. People with the technical skill and the open heart are not many, but there are some on my radar and I wait to see what happens.

My creative collaborations have always engendered a high degree of exposure of self and soul. Tom was my artist long before he was my lover, and it was the intensity of the shared working that drew us together. Other collaborations have brought deep friendship and potent connections. Where there is flow and trust, where no one needs to be in control and there is respect between participants, creative collaborations are wonderful things.

The trouble is, it doesn’t always go like that, and until you get in and try, it’s not obvious which way things might go. Creative partners can also turn out to be possessive, resentful of other people’s successes, jealous of the skills of their creative significant other. Co-creators can be paranoid, or control freaks, or both. It can turn out that one of them is aiming to ride on the coat tails of the other. That stuff hurts. It makes it harder to trust anyone, and harder to trust your judgement about who might be equal to those deeper, more involved connections.

I started last summer with my soul just beneath the surface of my skin, with my heart open, ready to trust and to try. I did not place that trust very well, and I’ve had to step back. It may well be that the people I should have chosen to work with have suffered as a consequence. I messed up. I put my faith in the wrong people, and it left me needing to retreat and regroup, to lick wounds, consider the bruising and try to work out what I actually want.

I do want those creative connections. I want people in my life I can trust and share with, where there is flow and connection, trust, respect and good things happen. I want those magical moments of finding myself on exactly the same wavelength as the person I’m with, where the ideas are streaming along. My two regular creative partners, Tom and Paul, have simply weathered my falling apart these last few months and supported me. I do not need to be cautious with them, and I will go back to those spaces, open hearted and ready to make stuff. I’ve had time to reflect, and have decided I’ll take the bruises and setbacks rather than protecting myself by not risking it. I’ll try to pick more carefully. What I want are people who see the heart on the sleeve and dare to show me theirs, rather than reaching for something to cut mine with.


Taking a side

Collaboration has undoubtedly delivered more human success than anything else. None of us have all the skills, or all the knowledge. People who work in teams get something that is usually more than the sum of its parts. And yet, the idea of competition, or winners and losers is so much a part of our culture. The whole way in which capitalism works pretty much depends on exploitation, (I shall resist the urge to get all Marxist about this one). Business is all about win and lose, and competition drives the market place. We are told that competition is healthy and delivers the best outcomes to consumers. Frankly I’m sceptical about that one, not least because the definition of ‘best’ tends to be ‘cheapest and most widely available’.

The moment you set up sides, and decide that there’s an us, and a them, then its not long before we have to win and they have to lose. Once we’re looking at a win-lose setup, then ideas about compromise or consensus are right off the table. We aren’t looking to agree, we want to win, score more points, get more things, come out on top. Our culture tells us that when we win in this way, we have achieved something. We are superior to the losers. Cleverer. We deserve our success and can take pride in it. The losers deserve to have lost and deserve the humiliation and practical consequences of failure.

Our judicial systems are adversarial, and that sets up not just assumptions about the kind of outcome that’s desirable, but a structure in which the win/lose arrangement is pretty much the only thing you can get. When it comes to situations of human error and tragedy, this means that people fight to win, which means fighting not to be blamed, and therefore not taking responsibility, and therefore vital lessons can be easily not learned. As with what so often happens when medicine or infrastructure goes wrong and kills people. This is not my definition of a good win at all.

When you get into a conflict situation and you get that conventional ‘win’ and watch the other person lose, you have the option to be smug and self righteous. You have all the cultural support imaginable to kick the person who is now down. Or perhaps you get the hollow feeling that you were playing the wrong game all along and that what you have is really another form of lose.

In a win/lose scenario, the more that’s at stake, the more important it becomes to seem right. Being right is a secondary consideration. Winning comes first. In war, the first casualty is often said to be truth. It’s just as probable in other forms of human conflict. Where we want to win, and where winning is more important than how we get there, honour doesn’t get much of a look in. Truth is likely to be further hidden beneath piles of obfuscation and perhaps even self delusion. We want to believe in ourselves as righteous winners, after all. That’s what it’s all about, allegedly. Except that way lies a mire of mistakes and emotional self harming, a total lack of scope to make good changes, and a whole range of methods to entrench and escalate hostility. Again, I have to say this is not my definition of what ’win’ ought to look like.

What I think is this. When people draw lines and take sides, rally round flags and declare enmity, there is only one available outcome. To some degree, everybody is going to lose. Often not just the people involved, either. We lose in our humanity and understanding, in our capacity for making something better. I want a win that takes everyone forward in a good way. Or failing that, as many people as possible. I want wins that are about truth, compassion and best outcomes for everyone.