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Harry Potter artist reveals hidden gems in JK Rowling books

Harry Potter fan Emily Shears attended a presentation by the Northamptonshire artist who helped create the illustrated versions of the books…

On Tuesday 10th October in a Grand Hall slightly (only slightly!) less magical than Hogwarts’ own Grand Hall, award winning illustrator and Northamptonshire local, Jim Kay unveiled what it’s really like to live and breath all things Harry Potter.

Kay, incredibly modest about his work, spoke at the University of Northampton’s Avenue Campus in the week of the latest release of the illustrated Harry Potter series, Harry Potter and The Prisoner of Azkaban, which had already topped the adult and children’s book charts half a week into its release.

The Kate Greenaway Award winning illustrator spoke of how his previous work on Patrick Ness’ ‘A Monster Calls’ and illustrating ‘The Great War’ didn’t strike him as being the obvious previous experience required for being cast as the Harry Potter illustrator, however, he’s very much looking forward to illustrating the darker moments looming ahead in the Potterverse, if Azkaban is anything to go by it should be a Death Eaters dream.

Kay regaled the Newton Grand Hall with his humorous insights into just how his impressions of Hogwarts and J.K Rowling’s beloved characters came to be, giving a glimpse into his artistic processes and how pretty much any object you may have lying around the house can be used for artistic inspiration, from fishing lines, cotton wool and plant pots. Kay’s playful humour perfectly demonstrated why he was personally chosen for the project by Rowling herself: at one point he had the room in fits of laughter with his tale of how plasticine Dobby’s nose met a rather sticky end one summer’s day, falling foul to Buckbeak’s behind. As they say in the business, don’t work with animals, children and plasticine on hot days!

We were treated to seeing Kay’s early character drawings of Hogwarts regulars like Snape, Dumbledore, Lupin and Hagrid, presented as Tudor-esque portraits, each with their own hidden character gems, unsurprisingly, Snape’s was the most poignant. For the Potter nerds in the room, it was particularly exciting to get some exclusive context around some of the Easter Eggs included within the books, the recurring moon motif and character being particularly prominent throughout Azkaban to name just one. I’m not going to spoil your hours of trawling through the books looking for the other hidden meanings!

The free event, which concluded with a mammoth book signing, was part of the launch of the Northamptonshire’s Children’s Book Group, which aims to get people of all ages talking about children’s books and literature. I think it’s safe to say that all of the children that attended the event will be pestering their parents for copious art materials and objects, given how enthusiastic and passionate Kay was about getting children to be creative in all forms.

Throughout the event, Kay addressed the gravity and pressure behind bringing to life everyone’s favourite School of Witchcraft and Wizardry (no offence, Durmstrang) and J.K Rowling’s beloved creations, highlighting how it’s hard to work with both the books and films as such renowned reference material that everyone has an opinion on.

Kay’s advice to aspiring artists was to be prepared, as inspiration can be found in the most unlikely of places, from seeing a person’s face and mannerisms on the street to brick walls and shop fronts. He also warned that illustrations are continual works in progress that sometimes people latch on to works that you still want to improve, but ultimately seeing the enjoyment that others get from your work outweighs that niggling feeling of wanting to add another wrinkle to Dumbledore’s face.

So to all of Northamptonshire’s inhabitants, particularly those in Kettering, if you get approached by a man on the street who asks to draw you, go with it, for who knows you might end up immortalised in a future Harry Potter illustration, don’t worry, Voldemort’s already been chosen!

You can see more of Kay’s work at the British Library exhibition Harry Potter: A History of Magic which opens on October 20 2017 and runs until February 2018.

Chris Fidler of the University of Northampton press team, put together the following story on Kay’s visit.

The man who was handpicked by JK Rowling to illustrate a new series of Harry Potter books visited the University of Northampton this week – and revealed what it was like to work with the world’s most famous living fiction writer.

Northamptonshire’s Jim Kay, whom Rowling described as “modesty itself, completely unaware that he’s a genius”, appeared at Avenue Campus to promote the latest fully illustrated edition of the Potter saga: Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban.

The University’s press office caught up with Jim after his talk and book signing, to ask him about being Rowling’s chosen illustrator, the pressure that brings and his advice for budding illustrators.

Recollecting the moment he received the call that he’d been chosen for the job, Jim said: “I was terrified, because it was such a big thing and I didn’t sleep properly for six months because the responsibility would suddenly hit me – you don’t want to make a mess of the world’s most popular children’s book and that feeling never really left me.

“In fact, every time there’s a book release I’m still terrified, still nervous, but that keeps me going, you’ve got to keep on your toes.”

Jim also spoke about his relationship with Rowling, who has sold in excess of 500 million books – a figure which puts her alongside the likes of Agatha Christie, Shakespeare and Enid Blyton in the top 10 of the most successful fiction writers.

“The one person you want to please, as an illustrator, is the author,” said Jim. “So far I’ve had some amazing letters from Jo, really lovely letters, and she writes beautifully, as you’d imagine.

“So far she likes it, and I couldn’t ask for more than that.”

Jim went on to offer advice for students on the University of Northampton’s Illustration course.

“There are far better draughtsmen than me, but it’s all about perseverance and sticking power,” said Jim.

“If someone says I can’t do something it motivates me. Early on in my career there were loads of failures and they made me really push hard.

“So don’t be put off by criticism, just build on it and learn from it. It smarts at the time, but retrospectively that’s often the kick up the backside you need.”

You can find out more about Jim Kay by visiting his website and the Harry Potter Illustrated Editions on the Bloomsbury website.

Details about the University’s Illustration degree course can be found here.

I'm the editor and owner of The NeneQuirer.

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