Monday, November 16, 2015

The Illustrated Harry Potter and the Sorcerer's Stone » Review

As an Art and (almost) English major, I geek out over illustrated books. But really, I've loved them since I was a child, of course.  I remember, very clearly, being enthralled by Vera Rosenberry's precise, watercolor illustrations in Magic Slippers: Stories from the Ballet.  Rosenberry's loose, long-limbed figures embraced the tragedy of the balletic tales.  They looked positively consumptive, their skin corpse-pale, their necks tilted at snapping angles.  If I don't remember the stories perfectly, I do remember the deadly inquisitive cock of Giselle's head, the tragic, wrenched spine of the Firebird. Those pictures perfectly encapsulate what illustrations are meant to do — highlight and augment the thematic elements of prose.

This was Jim Kay's job — being the first to visually underscore and elaborate upon one of the most famous pieces of modern literature.

Let's review Jim Kay's to-do list.  To complete the Illustrated Harry Potter and the Sorcerer's Stone, he had to:

  1. Paint a wrap-around dust-jacket cover

  2. Watercolor and ink endpages

  3. Sketch and color 100+ small illustrations

  4. Produce tens of two-page spreads

  5. Execute seventeen chapter headers AND

  6. Amaze the world

I'm dizzied just thinking about the hand cramps and bleary eyes the man must have gotten. Not to mention the pressure. It's an incredible amount of work and Jim Kay is going to do all seven of the illustrated books.


  1. Seven dust-jacket covers

  2. Fourteen endpages

  3. 700+ small illustrations

  4. ≈100 two-page spreads

  5. 200 chapter headers

Oh.    My.   Pantheon....

No wonder Jim Kay said he couldn't sleep for days after accepting the commission. This project will doubtlessly age him, like a presidency. His hands will rictus and his eyes will go blind doing this work.

 All of this being said, despite the immense respect and awe I feel over Jim Kay's effort and talent, I really doubt his illustrations will wind up defining the Harry Potter books, the way, say, Arthur Rackham defined so many British children's books, the way Gustave Doré defined Milton and Dante... I realize I'm being a tad ridiculous at comparing Kay with THE illustrators of history.  But, this is the first illustrated Harry Potter.  I'm going to call it like I see it.

Before I get to what I think Kay could do better, I want to discuss everything he did so, so right.

The Angles

Kay works with diverse angles in many of his illustrations, achieving striking results.  The dust-jacket is a perfect example.  We see Platform 9¾ from an owl's-eye view, with Harry a small, foreshortened figure amongst a bustling, indistinct crowd.  This perfectly captures the emotions of our protagonist in this scene, feeling little, lost, alone, yet fascinated with this new world he's just discovered.


[caption id="" align="aligncenter" width="357"] I love everything on the platform. But then, I'm sorry to say it, but I hate the Hogwart Express design. *ducks*[/caption]


In contrast, we have low-angled compositions, emphasizing the vastness of the half-giant Hagrid and Halloween troll, their heads crowding the tops of their pages as if the book is struggling to contain their mass.


[caption id="" align="aligncenter" width="262"] I love the skull details on Hagrid's sloppy, oversized necktie. His belt buckle is fantastic as well. The use of light and shadow is atmospheric.[/caption]


Then, there's the effectiveness of a simple, straight-on angle.  Which brings me to...

The Portraiture

Jim Kay uses portraiture to great effect in his edition of Harry Potter.  His individual portraits of Harry and Ron are some of the best illustrations in the book.  Just look at this portrait of Harry.  It's stunning.


[caption id="" align="aligncenter" width="503"] Let's have a moment of silence for the mastery of this portrait.[/caption]


The huge, waif-ish eyes.  The delicate highlighting on the nose.  The loose strokes of the clothing and the tighter focus on the features.  The perfectly upstart, not cartoonish, hair.  The restrained palette... It's just lovely. Rowling has said that Kay's illustrations "moved her deeply" and images like this have to be why. I sincerely hope we get six more portraits of Harry, just like this, as he ages throughout the years.

The Chapter Headings

We see Kay as his most inventive and whimsical in the chapter headings.  They're tricky animals.  Those illustrations have to be indicative of the chapter to come without giving anything away.  His most successful heading is undoubtedly for The Keeper of the Keys.  I love how inventive he got with the keys, because of course J. K. Rowling's wizards would have wacky security devices!  The eagle claw one is my favorite. Only, what is with the Troll Doll?  See it on the left, there?


[caption id="attachment_1067" align="aligncenter" width="255"]keeper of keys This is the strongest of Kay's chapter headers. Note the winged key, alluding to a future scene in the book.[/caption]



Now let me get to what I didn't like.

The Inconsistency of Style

To me, it seems like three or more different artists could have illustrated this book, and I don't mean that kindly.  Take a look at Nearly-Headless Nick.

Jim Kay has said that he painted the ghosts normally, then digitally inverted the colors.  I... It's not my favorite technique.  Compare this portrait with the one of Harry.  The feel is totally different. These digital details are scattered liberally throughout the book and every time I see them, I wish the effect was achieved organically.  The manipulation of physical mediums defined Kay's work in the celebrated When A Monster Calls.  Remember the things the man did with ink and water?

[caption id="" align="aligncenter" width="460"] Those wise to the YA scene have had Kay on their radar for a while due to his work with Patrick Ness.[/caption]

Then again, he did use digital manipulation is some of his work in Monster, and I can't say I liked it there either.  Compared with the look of the natural ink, the computer work was too stark, too unreal.  Does this come down to taste? Am I mad?

In Summary...

I wish Kay's style had stayed unified throughout the book, and I wish he'd done away with digital manipulation. I wish the Hogwarts Express didn't look so weird.  I wish we'd gotten a portrait of Hermione done in the same style of Ron and Harry. I wish I understood why Kay thinks Hagrid collects little dolls and keeps them on his person.  I wish, I wish.

In the end, though, Jim Kay did a great job with the Illustrated Harry Potter and the Sorcerer's Stone.  And he has six more books to win me over.



  1. This is how a graphic novel/illustrated novel should be reviewed. Only you can do so prolifically. :)

  2. I feel like you've handed me a bouquet of roses! Thank you so much. :D