Editorial Feature

Jim Kay On Drawing The Boy Who Lived

The illustrator discusses his work on the latest editions of the Harry Potter books

For the last few years award-winning illustrator Jim Kay has spent his time working 12 hours a day, 7 days a week to reimagine the wizarding world in illustrated form. His work is the star of Bloomsbury’s new illustrated editions of the Harry Potter books, which have earned him recognition from all over the world.

With books 1 to 3 published, Jim is currently hard at work on the 4th, The Goblet of Fire. The detail and passion that sits within the pages becomes fully realized when talking to Jim, who is dedicated to finishing all 7 books. He has inspired a new generation of readers through his work, and reminded original fans how truly magical the world J.K. Rowling created 20 years ago still is.

Here we chat to Jim about his creative process and the ups and downs of illustrating such an iconic and globally recognized phenomenon.

How did you first get involved in illustrating the Harry Potter books? What had you previously worked on?

I'd not worked on a great deal. My first real full-length book was Monster Calls, which was by Patrick Ness and based on an idea by Siobhan Dowd. So it really came out of the blue. I got a call from my agent who said: "You'd better be sitting down for this – I've got Harry Potter for you,” and not just the covers, she meant all 7 books. I think the only way you get better is to do things that terrify you a bit and this is without a doubt the most frightening commission you could get.

Drawing of Buckbeak the hippogriff by Jim Kay, for The Prisoner of Azkaban (From the collection of The British Library)
Study for the phoenix by Jim Kay, for The Chamber of Secrets (From the collection of The British Library)

How would you describe your style?

I don't feel like I have a style yet. I've adopted a scattergram approach and lots of different styles appeared in book 1. When I find [my style], it will make life so much easier because everyone will know what I'm going to do. Bloomsbury has been very patient and willing to try a lot of different things. I find illustrating really difficult. It's a really uncomfortable job to do.

What do you find difficult about illustrating?

Sitting on my own all day for 12 hours a day is really difficult – I’m quite fidgety. Also the execution of it – I never get it right straightaway. For every illustration in the book there's way too many that have gone wrong. It's a little soul destroying when it feels like you're just feeding the bin. On the other hand, if I'm not drawing I feel I'm missing something. It's something I have to do, it's not instinctive though, it's almost forced.

Your work is often very detailed in its aesthetic. Have you always focused on the finer points of an illustration?

When I was a child, I read lots of Richard Scarry books who's an illustrator who really embraced detail. The response I've had is that people, especially children, like looking for things. So what I've drawn has been a response to that – I want to give people something to discover on each reading.

Study of Harry Potter and the basilisk by Jim Kay, for The Chamber of Secrets (From the collection of The British Library)
Diagon Alley by Jim Kay (From the collection of The British Library)

How do you balance what's already in the book's text with your imagination?

There is definitely a balancing act in terms of treading on the author's toes, but so far Jo [J.K. Rowling] hasn’t really pulled me up on anything. It’s amazing because I never thought Diagon Alley would even get past the sketch stage. Partly my job is to fill the gaps and expand the east and west of the universe Jo has created.

The challenge is the sheer volume of text you're going through. You're not illustrating just one book at a time, you're referencing 7 continuously. But Bloomsbury is very experienced with that now and has a Potter bible that I refer to all the time.

Aside from the written text, what else provides you with inspiration for the illustrations?

I constantly scour museums, libraries, National Trust properties, everything. I love the paraphernalia of old buildings and architecture. And the costumes as well – I want to show more of what the wizarding world wears because it has to be quite different from the muggle world.

What is your process when working on an illustration?

I've got to a point where I’ve created a drawn shorthand, so I'll draw something in this shorthand and I know it's the composition I want. But I don't often stick to the rough, it usually evolves further, I am very chaotic in the way I do it.

I get bored really easily so I like switching mediums all the time like trying new paints. I often use paints that are awkward to use like tester pots from DIY places mixed with things they shouldn't be mixed with like wax. I also use damaged brushes and other things that make it unpredictable.

Diagon Alley by Jim Kay (From the collection of The British Library)
Portrait of Professor Severus Snape by Jim Kay, for The Prisoner of Azkaban (From the collection of The British Library)

How much time do you spend on each book?

For book 1, we thought it would take 6 months to do each one. It took 2 and a half years to do book 1 – working 7 days a week, at least 12 hours a day. Then we went straight into book 2 and had 8 months, because the first one took so long. It was really intense. By the end of book 3 I was burned out and hallucinating.

The break between book 3 and book 4 has meant I've been able to subjectively step back and reflect on the project. It does occupy every hour of every day, but because you want to do the best you can, there is a lot of pressure. It's funny what you put yourself through.

When working on the covers for the books, how do you choose what details of the plot to focus on?

Covers are very awkward to do, because there’s so many limitations. For these books they fold out into a large composition and there's also multi-language editions that need space for the title.

The trickiest cover is the one I'm working on now. Amazing things happen in the three tasks Harry is set in Goblet of Fire, but it's how they sit on the cover. How do you physically compose them? It's going to take a few cover meetings to get there.

What has been the hardest thing to visualize in the project so far?

It's always Harry, every single time. He's based on a young boy from the Lake District, who is fantastic looking and has a really unusual face. But when you draw that truthfully, it doesn't always look right on the page.

The fact everyone wears robes is also really difficult to draw. They're so loose fitting, everything is a nightmare. You're begging for someone to wear something a bit clingy. Then of course, when you draw people on brooms, it can look very rude. It's very hard sitting someone convincingly on a broom – you just dread broomstick moments.

Study of Harry Potter and Draco Malfoy playing Quidditch by Jim Kay, for The Chamber of Secrets (From the collection of The British Library)
Winged Keys by Jim Kay (From the collection of The British Library)

What's your favorite thing to draw?

I like giants, especially Hagrid. He's heavy and covered in hair so you just scribble and it looks good. Also the proportions of Hagrid to a human is almost like being a child again because you're looking up at him. I'm also really chuffed to have 4 dragons to draw in this latest book – I've spent ages designing them.

The characters are growing up from book to book, what's the difference drawing children initially and now teenagers?

My drawings are based on real models of children I know and they’re obviously growing up too. The whole point of using real children is that I can map the changes over the years.

Drawing [the characters] is more forgiving as they get older. When you’re drawing someone age 11, there's not much to get hold of in their face. They're very clean-skinned and pure with no lines. Luckily as you get older you get a bit more angular. I like drawing the angular, spiky bits of teenagers.

Study of Platform Nine and Three-Quarters by Jim Kay, for The Philosopher's Stone (From the collection of the British Library)
Study of Aragog by Jim Kay, for The Chamber of Secrets (From the collection of The British Library)

What does it feel like to see your illustrations consumed on such a large scale?

I desperately try not to think about it – it's what keeps me up at night if I do. You can't think too much about the fact this stuff is going public, because there'd be too much fear otherwise. In the exhibition at the British Library, my sketches are on show and you never expect anybody to see that part. So suddenly I’m now thinking maybe even my sketches will be seen in the future!

3 books have been published so far and you're currently working on the 4th one – are there any practical lessons you've taken forward?

I've made templates that are in all the dimensions of all the pages. So if I want to work up something the same size, half the size, three times the size, I have all these templates ready made.

Everything else is the same process of mild panic and guess work, trying things that occasionally don't fail. My success rate is still quite low on that, but I've come to accept that I don't get stuff right first time. For me this next book is the most exciting, it's the one I want to get right.

What's the best reaction you've had to your work?

I've had a few letters saying they couldn't get their children to read a book, but the illustrated version has finally got them reading. So I couldn't ask for more really. It's such a privilege. If you help one person engage with books, the hours, the solitude is worth it because you've hopefully helped somebody on a life of literary discovery.

Study of mandrakes by Jim Kay, for The Philosopher's Stone (From the collection of The British Library)
Portrait of Professor Remus Lupin by Jim Kay, for The Prisoner of Azkaban (From the collection of The British Library)
Words by Rebecca Fulleylove
Credits: All media
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