By Isabella Biedenharn
October 12, 2015 at 12:00 PM EDT
Jim Kay for Bloomsbury Publishing

Last week, in advance of Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone: The Illustrated Edition‘s release, EW exclusively revealed four of illustrator Jim Kay’s stunning images. Now, you can read our full conversation with Kay, who tells us how he scored the opportunity of a lifetime (he’ll illustrate all seven Harry Potter books), and how he’s breathing new life into these already beloved characters and scenes.

How did you land this incredible project?

My agent just rang up one day and said, “Are you sitting down? Harry Potter. Seven books. What do you think?” At first I wasn’t sure because I’m a big fan of the films. But I thought, “Gosh, I can design everything: the costumes, the architecture, the people, the creatures.” That’s a dream commission.

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Were you nervous?

I didn’t sleep for months. I was just terrified. I used to get terrible shakes when I was drawing. Normally, in publishing, you work on a book that no one’s read before, unless it’s a classic, like Alice in Wonderland or Peter Pan. But everybody’s read Harry Potter, and everybody has an opinion on it as well. But you don’t get in the ring without expecting a few punches, so you have to brace yourself for those.

We’ll see what happens when the book comes out. I don’t think, “Oh, how can I please everybody?” You just think, “How can I please the author?” That’s all you can do: Please the author, and please yourself. Then if other people like it, that’ll be a bonus.

After you said yes, what was your first step?

[The publisher] Bloomsbury was very open-minded, so I started just by drawing and drawing. There were no demands, no “You’ve got to have this scene!” I envy illustrators with a lovely, consistent style, but I change styles like I change my pants. So there’s oils in there, acrylics, watercolor, digital coloring. Things that weren’t necessarily supposed to be in the book got in: the architectural studies, the insects, the leaves. There’s an illustration of a cat in the front door of Hogwarts at night—that was a concept drawing that ended up in there.

There’s a lot of art in the book, and with incredible detail.

I would notice blank spaces and think, “Oh, I could fit an illustration in there.” At the beginning we were saying, “Well, this is going to be about atmosphere, with hints of detail every now and again.” And then I would sit and draw every shop in Diagon Alley. In the books there are lots of gaps between the shops in Diagon Alley, so I said, “Do you mind if I fill the gaps?” Very good of the author to let me fiddle about and add bits and pieces.

Jim Kay for Bloomsbury Publishing

Tell us about your process.

I’m always trying to find a style. I don’t think I have a style, and I desperately want one. I envy all these illustrators that have a lovely, consistent style. But I sort of chance styles like I change my pants! Just because I like trying different things. So there’s oils in there, there’s acrylics, watercolor paper, there’s a bit of print. Everything, drawing, digital coloring, everything. Just because I get bored really quickly, so I like to try different things.

Then I work with models: I’ve always done it, ever since I was a little kid. I used to make things out of Lego and draw it. For me, it’s getting my head around three-dimensional objects, which is always difficult when you’re drawing. For the cover, I made a train out of cardboard and foamboard. It’s very quick – you only spend a few minutes on them.

A few minutes?

I do have a plastine and paper model of Hogwarts, too, and that took a couple of hours. But I can’t spend too long because I’ve got so many illustrations to do. It takes me five or six attempts on each one, so if you have a hundred illustrations in book, you have 500 or 600 images you’re working on. Models are just great because you can light them as well, and I love playing around with lighting. I tend to think of illustrations as little film sets, so I’ll set up people, and then I’ll change the lighting and the camera angle.

I can’t believe you made and drew from models even when you were a kid.

Yeah. [Then] I went to work in museums and libraries, and didn’t draw for about 10 or 11 years. I think I started [again] when I was moaning about an artist that had gotten an exhibition, and a friend of mine said, “You know, you’ve got no right to complain about this, because at least this artist is doing it. This artist is trying, and it’s really hard. It’s really hard to keep putting yourself out there and to raise the money to do this, and to put on exhibitions.” She was right. So I started drawing in the evenings and just went from there.

I did a solo exhibition, then I got some publishing jobs from that, and then it sort of grew from there. I got A Monster Calls, the Patrick Ness book, and little bits and pieces: concept work for television, stuff like that. It hadn’t been a great deal until Harry Potter came along, which is why it was slightly daunting, because I’d not really drawn children before.

Are children more difficult to draw?

They’re really hard to draw, because you know, you age them. With just two lines, you can age a child five years if you put the lines in the wrong places. If this were a one-off book, I probably wouldn’t have done it, but as it’s a series, I thought it’d be best to find real children that I can follow and track how they physically change throughout the seven-year period. It’s just a way of getting past the technical problems of drawing a child that ages over seven books.

Readers are definitely attached to the books, but we also have concrete images of the characters because of the films. How did you work around these visuals people already have in their minds?

The text is absolute king. It’s the most important thing, and you have to remind yourself, as an illustrator, to do this, because once you start scribbling and drawing, you can very easily wander off-script. You have to constantly remind yourself to go back, and keep checking what the author’s put. The surprising thing is that actually Jo puts very little physical description for the characters, which is nice. It gets the reader to formulate their own idea.

So I will check through all seven books, every description of every character. The same for everything: The architecture, the villages. I have this sort of bible, as it were, of descriptions of characters, and I keep referring to that. Then I had to cast the book, effectively in the same way that you cast a film.

That actually makes a lot of sense. The characters feel so real, and consistent.

There are a lot of portraits in book one because that’s me saying, “These are my characters, this is how I see them.” What you have to do, if you want to distance yourself from a very, very successful film franchise and try and make it your own, you have to say, “Well this is the world I’m creating.” So in book 1 and book 2, there are a few static portraits, just to put down the face of the characters.

Jim Kay for Bloomsbury Publishing

Who was your inspiration for Harry?

I was looking at all these photographs of evacuee children from the 1940s — in England, you’d call them “blitz kids” — who have been taken away from their home during the blitz. They had sort of thick, scruffy hair, and round glasses, and looked sort of underfed and malnourished, from really tough East End parts of London as well. I wanted that real character coming through, some adversity. But also slightly fragile, because he’s thin, and he’s smaller than usual.

So I was on the London Underground, and I saw a young boy hanging from the bars in the tube train. His mom was with him, and I just said, “This might sound really odd, but I think your boy’s got a great look to him, and I illustrate children’s books. I’m looking for a young male character to work from.” Luckily, his mum was very good with this sort of thing because her son, Clay, is a stage performer. He’s very used to acting and performing and things like that, which has been great.

I read that your niece inspired Hermione.

Yeah — she’s smart, but she’s also slightly bossy. She’s wonderful. She’s more of an adult than I am. I’m always messing about, and she’s always correcting me. I think she’s perfect for Hermione, very sensible, and very embarrassed on my behalf all the time. Even walking down the street with her, I think I embarrass her.

Who inspired Ron?

His mum was a librarian at a school where I was giving a talk, so I met his mum, and I saw her son come in, and I just knew straightaway. He’s got great character, and he’s a really nice lad as well. He doesn’t have red hair, but it’s not so much that that I’m after, it’s just the way they walk about, the way they chat, you know. He’s got a very good sense of humor.

Jim Kay for Bloomsbury Publishing

Tell us about Dumbledore’s portrait.

There’s a painter that was active in England in Henry the Eighth’s court called Holbein, and he’d do these beautiful oil portraits of very wealthy members of the court. What I like about early portrait painting is that you often have images, objects that are representative of that person’s trade or character.

So in Dumbledore’s portrait, the dried plant there is honesty, but on the honesty is also a little camouflaged praying mantis insect. It’s saying there is honesty, but with a catch, with Dumbledore. There’s also a little bottle of dragon’s blood, because he wrote a book on dragon’s blood when he was younger. There’s knitting, of course, because he likes to knit.

He’s based on an illustrator I know, who I absolutely idolize. He’s been an inspiration for years for me, so it’s a huge big deal for me that he’s lent his face to Dumbledore.

Where did you get the idea for the deeply atmospheric illustration of the quidditch rings?

That one was not intended to be in the book! I was trying this watercolor technique at the time, and I did it as a preparatory sketch for what was supposed to be the final illustration, but [Bloomsbury] liked the looseness of it. Where I lived in Edinburgh, you call them ‘murmurations of starlings’ when the birds form these beautiful swirling patterns, so I thought it would be nice to have starlings on the quidditch hoops.

I’m trying to do what people won’t expect, which is why I put images of the trolls, and dragon eggs [elsewhere in the book], even Hermione with the flame in the jar. It’s literally almost a throwaway sentence: I think Jo says something like, “Hermione had with her a flame she made in a jam jar,” so I thought, “I’d like to show her doing that.” I’m trying to do stuff thats almost parallel to the book, not always literally representing every line or sentence that’s in the book. I don’t think there’s any point in getting an illustrator unless you let them flesh it out in some way.

Jim Kay for Bloomsbury Publishing

Some of my favorite illustrations were the ghosts of Hogwarts. How did you make those stunning light blues and neon colors that just glow off of the page?

I paint in reverse. So for example, if you’re painting a ghost’s face, where there are shadows, I leave it white, but where there are highlights, I paint it black. So I paint the ghost in red, and then digitally invert it, so that it becomes blue. All the dark colors become light colors, and all the light colors are shadows.

It’s a funny thing to do, but I’ve found if you do that on wet paper, when you reverse it, you get this sort of glow effect where the paint has spread through the wet paper. It was by accident, really. I discovered it and I thought, “Well, that could be quite good for the ghosts.” And I’ve used it on a few other things as well: Some lighting and cloud effects, things like that.

The difficult thing is painting someone’s face back to front. It’s like looking at a negative of a photograph. In the old days, when you used to get film photographs, you’d look at the negative and see they’ve got sort of white eyes and black teeth. It took a lot of attempts to get it right. I think I filled two drawers with attempts to get Nearly Headless Nick to work.


Yeah, I don’t find illustration easy at all. I really struggle with it. I think that’s why I do it, because you know that everything you do, you’re pushing yourself. I’m not a natural illustrator, by any means. I’m just one of those who throws hours and hours at each image, and eventually something works. I keep the ones that do, and the 90% that don’t, I get rid of.

Have you met Jo Rowling?

No! She sent me a really nice letter. I’d love to meet her, but I thought, “Let’s just see how book 1 goes.” You don’t want to be the person who kills the most successful children’s-book franchise.

There’s probably not much danger of that.

Well, that’s good. It’s a frightening thing, to feel so much responsibility. I want to do as much justice as I can.

You’ve got six more books ahead. What are you most excited about?

I’m really itching to get to things like Azkaban, the Shrieking Shack. There’s a terrible temptation to rush forward and start designing stuff for the Deathly Hallows! But it’s a few years off yet. I just have to keep it in check and go chronologically.