A Muggle’s-eye view: peek into the world of Harry Potter artist Jim Kay

The illustrator of the latest Harry Potter edition describes how he reinvented J.K. Rowling's fantastical world with pots of tester paint and imagination

My journey with Harry Potter started with a phone call from my agent. She said, ”Are you sitting down?” I said, ”Yes.” She said, “Harry Potter.” And I thought, "oooh, crikey, for their covers – that would be fantastic." And she said, ”No, no, it’s to illustrate the whole thing.” And I thought, gosh, all of one book would be amazing. And she said, ”No, it’s all of the books.” 

Prior to Harry Potter I’d only really done a couple of young adult books which are mostly black and white, very moody and dark. Part of the reason I took the book is it’s way outside my comfort zone. There are about 100 illustrations in book one and I take usually four to five attempts on each illustration, so you’re looking at a massive amount of work in the bin to get to what you see!

I haven’t really painted children before and they are extremely difficult to do. If you add a single line in the wrong place you age them by about 10 years. You have to get the character and the face across in as few lines as possible

Some things J.K. Rowling describes in great detail – the environments, you get wonderful descriptions, but they’re usually honed down to one or two lines that repeat throughout the book. With very little she builds up this picture. It’s nice for me because it gives me a bit of room to play with, and for Diagon Alley, for example, I created little back alleys and extra shops

The text is paramount. You look at a description, and if it just says ‘a wooden house’ you think, well, I’ve got some scope there. That’s what you’re looking for. The text is king but then you see what wiggle room you have left over. So for Hagrid, who is my favourite character to draw, I made his log cabin from an upturned boat

I work with anything; the cover of the book one was done with a load of those tester pots from the home store B&Q for wall paint. I’m not precious. I’ll use anything and everything to make a line. For book two it was children’s wax crayons with some beautiful watercolours. If you mix cheap paints with expensive ones you get interesting results because you get this lovely broken patina

I’m a really big fan of the films, I thought they were extraordinary for everything – from casting to product design, even the graphic design, the costumes, absolutely amazing. And I remember watching them and thinking, god, how on earth does someone land that sort of gig, because it’s just wonderful. For me the actors in the films like Daniel Radcliffe or Emma Watson are the characters so it was a case of how to reinvent them from scratch