Kay on Potter illustrations: 'extraordinarily difficult'

Kay on Potter illustrations: 'extraordinarily difficult'

Ever since Bloomsbury announced in 2013 that it was going to publish illustrated editions of all seven of J K Rowling’s Harry Potter novels, award-winning illustrator Jim Kay has been working flat out to bring the Harry Potter world to life.

Kay, a self-confessed control freak, said illustrating the first book was an “extraordinarily difficult” task: “It was not so much the act of doing it but the pressure. Every time I sat in front of a blank piece of paper I felt hand-shaking pressure!”

He has spent 12 hours a day, seven days a week creating a visual representation of the entire Harry Potter universe, starting with Hogwarts, building a Plasticine model of the school and checking everything was in the right place and “facing in the right direction”.

Harry Potter in his cupboard under the stairs. Picture: Jim Kay/Bloomsbury

Some of the hardest illustrations were of children from the books, he said, pointing out that adding one extra pencil line can “age them 10 years”, so he modelled his pictures on real children. 

When drawing Harry, he imagined a “Blitz kid, a scrappy, energetic character”, but Kay couldn’t quite pin him down until he spotted a boy on the Tube in London. “I asked his mum if I could draw him and gave her my card. I got half an hour of photographing him­—but I couldn’t tell him he was going to be Harry Potter.”

Harry Potter. Picture: Jim Kay/Bloomsbury

Kay’s inspiration for Hermione came from his niece, who “just is Hermione, especially in the way she moves”, and he based his image of Dumbledore on an illustrator friend of his, although he has declined to reveal who that person is.

Every image was cross-referenced not only with the seven Harry Potter novels, but also Rowling’s other books about the Harry Potter world. For example, one spread in The Philosopher’s Stone shows the anatomy of a troll which uses information from Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them.

Draco Malfoy. Picture: Jim Kay/Bloomsbury

Kay said that as far as he knows, Harry Potter author J K Rowling has not requested any changes. “She is amazing, she just lets you reinvent things,” he said. “I got a letter from her saying how much she liked it and it was the nicest letter I’ve ever had. It took me six months to get up the courage to write back.”

Hagrid. Picture: Jim Kay/Bloomsbury

When illustrating the first book he used a variety of materials, not constraining himself to one medium. “I don’t have a set technique and I never know what [the final drawing] will look like. I use whatever works. This book is mostly watercolour and pencil work but watercolour is very hard, so there’s some oils in there and some acrylics. I’m not a purist about materials. I like damaged brushes rather than brand new ones as they create interesting marks.”

Potions teacher Severus Snape. Picture: Jim Kay/Bloomsbury

The look of the characters will stay the same across the series but the second book will feature more varied pictures. “In the first book there are lots of portraits and people standing still. I had to set the scene so it is more static. Book two will be more dynamic.”

The release date for the illustrated Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone (h/b, £30) is set for 6th October. Bloomsbury declined to reveal the size of the print runs of the illustrated books, but said it had already sold rights in 23 languages.

Harry Potter wearing the Sorting Hat. Picture: Jim Kay/Bloomsbury

Kay has signed up to illustrate all seven of the Harry Potter books and Bloomsbury is planning on releasing one a year, although Kay said he may take a break after book three (Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban), to give him a chance to work on his own story ideas.

“I haven’t really got time to work on any other projects at the moment,” he said. “But I could do this all day, every day, there are so many different directions I could take it in. It’s the job of a lifetime.”