Wednesday 21st Oct 2015
‘I had some trouble sketching the Astronomy Tower,’ Jim Kay tells a captive audience at the House of Illustration in London.
It’s a drizzly evening outside and he’s showing a roomful of admirers some early sketches of Hogwarts.
‘How do I put this? It’s very hard to draw a tower without making it look, ah, well…’ he gestures grandly towards the screen as the crowd burst into giggles. ‘It’s a real problem! Look, I never get a sketch right the first time, ever. It’s usually around the ninth or tenth try that it starts to work; seventh if you’re really lucky. But look at me trying again and again to get that Astronomy Tower, right, there are just willies all over the page!’
He’s a creative genius but get him on the subject of phallic architecture and Jim’s chortling like a schoolboy. You can glimpse in his face, the joy with which he works and then just as quickly, the fear. The task of getting each detail of J.K. Rowling’s world right is all-consuming.
Jim’s serious for a moment as he flicks to the final version of the Astronomy Tower: a rather striking castle-like structure built in the form of a dragon, with a staircase carved into a tail that wraps around the turret.
‘The other thing of course is that Dumbledore’s got to fall from the top of this tower at some point so I need to design it so that he makes a great smacking sound when he lands.’
Everyone in the room laughs, but in a wounded sort of way, like they haven’t truly recovered from that particular scene. Now, of course, you can’t hear the sound of Dumbledore’s fate in an illustration, but Jim builds cardboard and Plasticine models to get the distance and scale right anyway.
Look at this rather beautiful cardboard version of Hogwarts, lit up with a roving desk lamp.
‘The clouds are just an indulgence,’ he says. ‘Not all illustrators make models. But I need something tactile, something tangible in front of me.’
To immediately demonstrate that habit, Jim brings up a photograph he took of his cardboard Hogwarts Express arriving at his paper platform nine and three-quarters. The little plastic soldier toys are used to mark out children and Jim used that cardboard pillar in the foreground to work out how big an adult would be in comparison. The little paper bird shape is an owl, suspended with fishing wire to create the illusion of movement across the scene.
You might recognise this setup because the painted version ended up being the front cover of the illustrated edition. Harry Potter takes the place of one of the toy soldiers, the owl changes direction and probably rightfully, everyone else becomes a blur in the smoke.
Jim rushes through the last few slides and invites everyone to grab a flute of sparkling wine or orange juice. Someone in the audience shoots their hand up like we’re in a classroom. ‘How do you choose which scenes you make illustrations for?’ she asks.
‘If it were up to me, I’d probably do all the little details,’ he says. ‘While Harry’s off fighting Voldemort, I’m there wondering what’s going on in the kitchen, you know? I’d probably skip the battle scenes to draw someone sweeping the Hogwarts floors.’
There’s a feeling of genuine awe in the room and a few murmurs, because Jim’s just unwittingly revealed the secret to his great talent. He’s been trusted with Harry Potter’s world because his brain doesn’t work like everyone else’s. His brain sees beauty in minute detail and drama in the mundane.
You can read our full interview with Jim here. The new edition of Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone illustrated by Jim Kay is available to buy from Bloomsbury (UK residents) or Scholastic (US residents).