Harry Potter's Portrait Artist

  • Share
  • Read Later
(l. to r.): Chris O'Meara / AP; Scholastic Books

Illustrator Mary GrandPre, and the cover of a special anniversary edition of Harry Potter and the Sorcerer's Stone.

J.K. Rowling gave birth to Harry Potter, but Mary GrandPre breathed life into him for millions of readers. As illustrator of the Potter saga, GrandPre made evocative drawings that traced Harry's often-perilous journey through adolescence, and in the process shaped the world's image of the book's hero. GrandPre spoke with TIME about how she went about drawing Potter and what it was like to recast Harry's image for an upcoming 10th anniversary edition of Harry Potter and the Sorcerer's Stone.

TIME: How'd you wrangle the Potter gig in the first place?

Mary GrandPre: It was just like any other job at the time. I got a phone call from Scholastic. They wanted to know if I had time to do a cover illustration for a book about this boy who had magical powers. At that point I was really busy with other work, and I said I didn't have time. [My contact, David Saylor] really wanted me to do it, and asked if I would reconsider if he sent me the story. I read it, and I really liked it, so I made sure to make room for it in my schedule. The rest is history. I'm glad I did it.

What was it like to go back and draw Harry as an 11-year-old [for the upcoming anniversary edition] now that his story has finished unfolding?

It was really a nice opportunity. As Harry grew, I always wished I could go back and make a new piece for each book. So when the anniversary cover idea came up, I was really excited to do that. It's like getting to do a new portrait of this old soul you really know.

What did you try to do differently, given what you've learned about him as he traveled through the saga?

The first cover was a designed cover, with a certain trendy feel to it. As you got to know him, it was more about depicting Harry as a real person. By the fifth cover, I was more interested in Harry on an emotional, personal level rather than creating a graphically designed, compositionally correct cover. I tried to bring that emotional and personal feeling to this anniversary cover.

Do you think you could render Harry at age 30, or age 60?

Sure. It takes time to draw and redraw, and to study his facial structure. The more I draw Harry, the more acquainted I become with him in my head. I try to use each previous drawing as a map for the next one. I need to start drawing to know what he'd look like. [Plus, J.K. Rowling] is such a visual writer. I've always looked to her writing as the main inspiration for the drawings. For a storybook or cover illustrator, the first responsibility is to draw from the writing. She makes it really easy because she's so descriptive.

Did you consult with Rowling as you were preparing to depict the characters?

Not directly. My relationship was with [art director] David Saylor and Arthur Levine [the book's editor]. They would consult with her, and show her my sketches. She was always very agreeable, it seemed like, for the images I came up with. I think we had the same thing in mind. It's really been a nice pairing for her and I.

Can you tell me a little bit more about your procedure for mapping out each book's illustrations?

I worked out a system where, as I read, I'd highlight different things — descriptions of characters, cool scenes — in different colors. Then I could scan by color for what I needed to find. I'd start sketching real loosely, with pencil on tracing paper. I'd do a series of tracings on top of that, and on top of that, until I had what I felt was a good-looking character. It's really just sketching and re-sketching, and paying attention to the words and descriptions. Harry Potter fans are so in tune. They pay attention to every detail, and if you mess up, you'll know about it the next day.

Did rabid fans ever get in touch with you to tell you that you messed up, or that your drawings weren't the way they pictured it?

Not so much. There were some discussions online where people at times weren't happy with my work because they have their own ideas of what things should look like. I read a few of them and then stopped. You do the best you can. It's pretty high pressure, because [the series] is so in the limelight. But by the same token, that passionate fan is also the most appreciative fan. I get a lot of great fan mail. Most people I talk to are really appreciative of the work.

How much time did it take you to illustrate each book?

It's usually rushed; it seems like the artist is usually the last one to get the assignment. I'm not a fast reader, so I usually gave myself about two weeks to read and digest and make notes on the manuscript. Then another week for cover sketches, and another week or two for all the chapter headings. So I think you're probably looking at a couple months for reading it and creating all the artwork.

Are there legal limitations regarding where and how you can draw the characters? If someone offered you an obscene amount of money to do a mural of Harry in his or her house, could you do it?

I don't know if I'd be allowed, but I'd choose not to. I don't want to take the value away from the character. The whole property issue is pretty complex. And I have so many other ways I want to spend my creative time that I wouldn't do it anyway.

Are there other characters you'd love to have illustrated?

If I were to pick a classic character, Alice in Wonderland would be a really fun one to maybe put a modern spin on her. I know that's been done, but it would be fun to do it my way.

Did your illustrations ever deviate at all from the way the characters are described in the book?

No. I guess I wouldn't feel right if they did. I know there's a bit of a discrepancy between the movies and the books. But as a book illustrator, I have this obligation and sense of responsibility — and privilege — to stay true to the writing.

Did the movies affect your conception of what the characters looked like?

I stayed away from watching the movies. Now that the series is done, I'm watching them. I can enjoy them now, because I don't have to worry about them messing up my mind.

Your cover art often seems to contain hints of what's to come without spoiling the plot. Is that a difficult line for you to walk?

A little bit, but that's the fun part too. You're teasing the readers with something that piques your interest. It's fun to design that into the cover, and show hints and shadows. The mood in the book is often set by suggesting thingsa sound, a soft color, a shadow. I try to do that with the illustrations, too, to give that sense of mystery to it when I can.

What was it like to be one of a tiny handful of people who knew what was coming while the rest of the world waited in anticipation?

It was kind of cool. I felt pretty privileged. And I had to be real careful that nobody knew I had the manuscript. I kept it in a safe. I had to swear my husband to secrecy. It's very, very, very serious business. Starting with maybe book four or five, every time there was a new manuscript, one of the Scholastic people would fly it out and I'd meet them to pick it up. It always felt like some clandestine meeting.

How many people knew what happened in the books in advance?

I don't know. I'm guessing probably eight, nine or 10.

Did people try to worm information out of you?

Yeah, sometimes. Not too much. My friends and family are really cool about it. They don't even really talk about it much with me. They understand that's part of what I do, and that there's a confidentiality agreement.

How did the ending of the series stack up against your own expectations?

I think it was a good last book. It was a really nice way to wrap it up. I'd have to say it was my favorite of the seven. And it was my favorite to draw.