Harry Potter: Behind the Pictures
An interview with Jim Kay, the artist behind the first ever illustrated edition of Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone!
“So I got this phone call from my agent,” illustrator Jim Kay tells me, “and she said, ‘Are you sitting down? They want you to illustrate Harry Potter.’ As a big fan of the books and the films, Kay explains, “It was an incredible opportunity to design Harry’s world from the bottom up.”
But does the commission of a lifetime also come with the pressure of a lifetime?
“Yes, definitely. Everyone has an opinion on Harry Potter and that’s why it’s great, but that’s also why it’s challenging. But I’m not complaining, it’s an amazing commission.”
And Jim Kay likes to challenge himself. “My old art teacher used to say you have to keep testing yourself, don’t get comfortable. And I knew Harry Potter would be difficult for me: because it is children, because of the scale of it and because it’s fantasy. I probably think of myself more as a printmaker, expressing things through landscapes, but with Harry Potter I had to express emotions through characters.
“The hardest thing was the casting – I had to find my own Harry, Ron and Hermione. I’ve never really drawn children, so I needed actual references, especially as the kids grow up through the books. So my agent and I had to find children to cast as my characters.”
And how did he go about imagining Hogwarts?
“The preparatory stage, visualising the ‘architecture’ of Hogwarts, took a huge amount of time. I drew a floor plan of what I imagined Hogwarts was like, referring across all seven books. But when I started stacking different floors on top of each other, I found it difficult to understand how they fitted together. So the only way I could work out how to draw it was to build a model of it. It’s the same thing I did as a child – building things in Lego so I could then draw them. So I made quick models out of paper and Plasticine, and used these to draw from. Models are great also to work out the lighting and how the buildings relate to each other.”
Peter Jackson’s Lord of the Rings films also had a big impact on Kay.
“I’m a massive John Howe and Alan Lee fan, both of whom worked as concept artists for Lord of the Rings films. I’ve definitely been influenced by the way that Peter Jackson went about his films, getting artists involved to try out different creative avenues. And so the opportunity to approach Harry Potter in the same way was incredibly exciting and enjoyable.
“I can’t work in silence; I have to have background noise and it has to be something familiar. So while I worked on Harry Potter I had the Lord of the Rings films on as background noise. I played the whole three films on a loop all day, so I know the whole script of each film.”
The styles and medium used throughout the book will delight readers in their variety.
“Basically it’s me trying to find a style – but I kept changing my mind. Much of the artwork is in watercolour, and I left the ragged edges on the illustrations. My designer said they liked that and wanted to leave those on, and also use ink splodges to add to the page designs. There are also some portraits done in a Hans Holbein style, because one day I really wanted to do some oil painting. So I decided to do oil portraits of Professors Dumbledore and McGonagall.
And Potter fans will immerse themselves in details in the illustrations.
“Well, the detail is a bit of a safety blanket for me because I find spontaneous images really hard, whereas detailed stuff is easier for me to control. Also, I grew up on Richard Scarry’s books and loved all the detail and I think children like looking for details too.
And to be given the freedom to add his own details to Harry’s world must have been a Potter fan’s dream come true.
“Yes that was amazing. I was allowed to create shops on Diagon Alley and I’ve shown pages from field guides about trolls and dragon eggs. I really like those illustrations because they are outside the story and they are something that people won’t be expecting when they open the book. I wanted to bring something new and the great thing about Jo’s writing is that she references all these wonderful books. You could fill a library with all the books she mentions, and all that makes the world more real.”
And, there’s a special detail that Kay likes to squeeze into all his books.
“Years ago I was staying at my brother’s house in the country, and I lay down in a cornfield and this hare came through the corn. I looked at it, and it looked at me. It was one of those experiences that stayed with me, and the hare is an animal that personal to me. So I try to include a hare in all my books. In Harry Potter he’s found his way on to a sign in Diagon Alley.”
And does Kay have a favourite illustration?
“I really enjoyed doing the chapter-head illustrations. My favourite is a chapter opening with a hog in relief sculpture on a building, with birds nesting on the chimneys. I like it because it’s the only illustration that went right first time. Usually it takes me four or five attempts for each image.”
The book is also full of interesting viewpoints, surprising images and perspectives.
“Yes I like alternative viewpoints. I get tired of looking at things from my height, and I think it’s also good to remember what it was like to be a child and to show things from a child’s perspective. My image of Hagrid, where he’s squashed up against the ceiling filling a whole page of the book, is shown from Harry’s perspective, looking up at this giant.”
And after such an intensive amount of work, can he look now at the book as a whole and be proud of his work?
“Like many illustrators, I have a habit of focusing on the things I want to change. But having said that, looking at it now, it’s nice because it represents a diverse approach, with a real mixture of things, styles and approaches, and I really like that – I like the playfulness of it. Also, it was such a big project that I have forgotten a lot of the stuff I did for it, so seeing it again was like ‘Oh wow, I did quite a lot, didn’t I?’"
This interview with Jim Kay, as well as illustration images and video, have been provided to you by Scholastic. Thanks Scholastic!
Bonus! Harry Potter, 15 Years Later: J.K. Rowling Speaks