Jim Kay talks about inspiration and processes for illustrating ‘Potter’

Jim Kay, the talented artist behind the Harry Potter illustrated editions, was recently profiled in a wonderful piece by the New York Times. In the profile, Kay talks about his artistic processes, character inspiration and the challenge of giving new illustrative form to a franchise already marked by such recognisable visuals.

Jim Kay
Jim Kay: ‘you’re trying to get people to buy into an alternative world … the more you can seat it in apparent reality, the better it works’.

On illustrating a story like Harry Potter, Kay explains, ‘the problem with fantasy books is these things don’t normally exist, so you have to create them to give them a sense of reality’. Adds the illustrator: ‘you’re trying to get people to buy into an alternative world. The more you can seat it in apparent reality, the better it works. On a more practical level, it’s much easier to draw if you have something in front of you. If it doesn’t exist, I make it’.

Jim Kay starts with 3D models. These in-progress sculptures of a Thestral and Kreacher will serve as inspiration for the Order of the Phoenix illustrated edition (2021).

The wealth of existing ‘Potter’ imagery (courtesy of the Warner Bros. film series) presented interesting challenges for Kay. ‘It was very difficult because I’m very fond of the films. The only way to do it was to start from scratch. I built the landscape first, really physically built it with models … after that, I recast the film and I used people I know’. Kay modelled Ron, Ginny and Molly Weasley on real mother, daughter and son, and adds, ‘my niece is a perfect Hermione … it took about two years, but now I think of my world and not the film one’.

And the hardest character to draw? ‘Harry’ says Kay. ‘Also because he wears glasses and glasses are a nightmare to draw … I’ve literally smashed up and thrown stuff across the room in frustration trying to draw Harry.’

The Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire illustrated edition — the fourth in the series — was released last month. Jim Kay is currently hard at work on the Order of the Phoenix sequel (he mentions the Thestrals as a favourite character) which will be released in late 2021.

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