“Who’s that guy who does all those miserable dark drawings?” asks Jim Kay, showing pictures of his work A Monster Calls. “Ink mixed with the tears of Robert Smith.”
“I could mess up the world’s most successful children’s book!”
Jim is the first to note that his dark and atmospheric work didn’t seem the natural choice for illustrating Harry Potter, but here he is. He got a call from his agent and for the first time in his life as an illustrator, he was given certainty with the seven books. It was joyous, unbelievable, but also terrifying – he remembers panicking, “I could mess up the world’s most successful children’s book!”
The best piece of advice he received about illustration is that if something terrifies you, you should probably do it.
And he did. And he didn’t mess it up. Far from it.
Jim’s illustrations bring Harry Potter to a new life; rich and detailed, the whole book is a work of art in itself that fans dive into with the intensity with which they scrutinised the films and original books, and keep finding more details that you missed with each read. You’d happily frame most of the pages on your wall.
“It’s fantasy, stupid.”
He shows how he built his own models of Hogwarts and the Hogwarts express, creating his own world away from the films with cheap materials that allowed him to light it and move it as he pleased. He talks through his process, the crazy work schedule at times, and even gives sneak peeks at the upcoming illustrated versions of The Chamber of Secrets and The Prisoner of Azkaban. All I can say is you’re in for a treat.
He had to frequently remind himself “It’s fantasy, stupid” because when you stop drawing, you try to make it sensible again. He’d create fantastical illustrations and then apply rational practicalities to it when he stepped back. You’ll never be 100% happy with your work, no illustrator is, so “it’s about making things your own and making them different.” He trawled the original books for character details and then worked within JK Rowling’s parameters; often they were barely described which gave him great freedom.
His approach is fun and interesting; for ghosts he’d paint in the negative and digitally invert them, which resulted in a haunting glow. He’s draw from his own vast influences, whether it’s Diagon Alley being inspired by Mr Benn, or questioning, “How would Leonardo Da Vinci draw the Mandrake?”
It’s hard to cast a book, especially when you’ve never drawn children, but Jim has found individual people that he draws, and as they grow older he redraws them to keep it authentic. His approaches are thorough but his own – the world of Harry Potter is so vivid that any version of it needs to be just as rich and detailed.
But one parting thought, aside from Harry Potter: Jim frequently sees children at primary school who want to be artists and go “I can’t though, because I can’t draw”. Art is a craft that you can teach yourself by working at it, the ideas are what matters. Take your ideas and create your own worlds, the art will catch up.