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Collaboration on The Wishes of the Fish King

Collaboration is such a powerful thing. When done well, it can bring together two unique visions — each complimenting the other — to form something greater. The process, though, can be tricky because it requires creative compromise. When the project is deeply personal to one of the collaborators, the process becomes even more complicated. I’ve learned a bit more about this while working on The Wishes of the Fish King with Doug McKelvey.

I was a little intimidated when Doug asked me to work with him on this book last November. Not because it would be a collaboration, but because when I read the manuscript I could tell that it wasn’t just another project to him. There was tenderness here and real care wrapped up in the lines of this story.

Doug wrote the book during and about a special time in his life, when his daughter was seeing the world for the first time, and it was all wonderful and full of magic. He wanted to preserve these poignant and fleeting moments, and so he wrote this story. And now I’m stepping into it 18 years later — into an already created story, space, and experience that represent a deeply personal and emotional part of Doug. To illustrate something like this, to bring my own artistic vision to an already established creation, can feel like walking into a minefield.

I feel like we’re both working together for the sake of the project itself. Jamin Still

Let me explain. I have several unfinished projects of my own that are 10+ years old. They are never far from my thoughts, and with each passing year they are woven more deeply into me. It’s difficult to separate them from me sometimes. I tried to do a collaborative picture book project with a friend a while ago, using some older (and very dear) paintings of mine as the starting point, and about a day in I pulled the plug. His story suggestions weren’t bad, but they weren’t mine. Allowing my paintings — images that have been with me for so long — to be shaped by someone else’s creative process was just too much.

So I recognize the vulnerability required to open up one’s work to the creative input of someone else, especially when that work is personal. Maybe Doug isn’t worried about this, but I am, and so I have attempted to approach our collaboration with listening ears and open hands. I want to bring my artistic vision to the project, but I want to do so in a way that serves Doug’s artistic vision.

For a peek into how this practically plays out, I’ll walk through our creation of The Sea of Fields. I started with this sketch.

Doug said (among other things), “Good start. But the house/boat needs to be higher. And the wooded island lower. And tilt it more.”

J: “What about this?”

D: “Closer. But higher. And lower. And tilt that boat back even more. And make it a little smaller.”

[Let me be clear — Doug is in no way demanding, so don’t think from my description that he’s a tyrannical taskmaster who’s a bear to work with. All these exchanges were pleasant and neither of us has hung up the phone and cried. I think. Doug?]

J: “What about this?”

D: “Yes!! Do that! Now we need to think about this from the child’s point of view. We need magic and imagination running wild. We need merdeer.”

J: “I don’t know how to do merdeer, so I’ll worry about those later. In the meantime, how’s this for imagination? Is this a good blending of the land and sea? See what I did with the grass and the wheat and the dirt and made them like waves and water?”

D: “I do. I like it! Keep doing it!”

And then as the painting progressed I passed on the progress shots to Doug and asked what he thought.

J: “What do you think about the father and daughter?”

D: “They’re good. But I think she’s a little too big. She’s supposed to look 2-3.”

J: “Right… she’s kind of 10 or 12, isn’t she? How about instead of standing, I make her sitting on the side of the boat. She’s already too small to paint smaller.”

D: “Perfect.”

Eventually we got to the merdeer. I threw some sketches his way, we discussed dolphins and deer and how they might look melded, how they might leap (we decided it would be gracefully), and we eventually got to this.


J: “Doug, what do you think about me adding stars?”

D: “I don’t know. Do you want to add stars?”

J: “I always want to add stars. I think they would look great in this piece!”

D: “Let’s do it then!”

Overall, there’s been a lot of give and take, and a lot of revisions of work that I thought was finished. This can, of course, be difficult. I wouldn’t have painted something a certain way unless I thought it was the best way to paint it, so opening myself up to changing it can be a blow to my pride. But the results have been better for it. Our conversations have refined these images because we’ve both been open to the other person’s suggestions. Instead of either of us wrestling to maintain our unique artistic vision, I feel like we’re both working together for the sake of the project itself.

Want to see more of these collaborative illustrations unfold? Follow Doug’s author page and my illustrator page on Facebook. And if you haven’t thrown in to the Kickstarter campaign yet, do that too! There are only a couple weeks left!


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