Friday, July 10, 2009

Creating Characters: An Illustrative Evening, A Discussion with Mary GrandPre

The new Harry Potter movie comes out next week, but before you go see it, revisit the books with a talk by illustrator Mary GrandPre. She’ll be at the Corcoran Gallery of Art Monday night to talk about her career (she’s done more than just Harry). We chatted earlier this week about how she got into illustration, her favorite character to draw, and why she never met J.K. Rowling until after the third book was completed.

How did you get into illustration?

About 25 years ago I was trying to figure out how to make a living and make art at the same time. I went to school at Minneapolis College of Art and Design where I really learned about illustration. I started freelancing while waiting tables after college and little by little I started building up a portfolio of editorial work and ad work and books, and then I got into children’s books. I had been doing illustrations for about 15 years before Harry came along and so I had a few children’s books out there by the time that David Saylor called me about doing the first book.

Describe your process for illustrating a book.

For a picture book, I get the manuscript then just start breaking it down into 32 pages or 48 pages, whatever the count is that the publisher wants to work with. I start doing character development and think about the style and color palate and all that stuff that makes a book have its own personality. Then I start sketching it out and go through an approval process with the art directors and work on characters more and make changes here and there.

How about for the Harry Potter books?

I get the manuscript delivered to me by hand and I need to put it in a safe. I can’t talk to anyone about what I’m doing or what I’m reading. I take a couple weeks to read it and highlight descriptions. The books are so packed full of visual descriptions that I need to mark different things with different color highlighters. I have my own system down when searching for what a character or a cover idea might be. Then I call David Saylor at Scholastic and talk about concepts, cover ideas and chapter spots. After that I go to the drawing board and do some sketches and send those to David and Arthur Levine and those are also passed to J.K Rowling at that point.

The Potter books are quite rushed and the whole process takes two to two and a half months. Everything is put on the backburner — holidays, personal life, everything — when Harry comes to town.

Your illustrations seem to glow, and you use color so wonderfully. What materials do you work with?

Oh, thank you! I work with pastels and sometimes I combine them with acrylic paint underneath. And I work on paper.

What's your favorite character that you've drawn?

In Potter, I’d say Sirius or Hagrid. They’re opposite in who they are and their demeanor, but they have so much personality. Harry’s also a fun one. For other books, I like doing animals and folk tale things.

How closely do you work with the author?

There’s always a disconnect, and the publisher is the bridge between us. I think they like to keep us separate as the author has her own vision and the illustrator has her own vision, and I think its just easier for everyone to have the publisher or art director or editor be the contact person.

I did meet J.K. Rowling after the third book had come out and she was touring the U.S. I met her in Chicago and we had dinner with a big group of people. She was really nice about the work that I was doing and she said that the way I drew Harry was much like the way she saw him.

Is there a dream book that you would want to illustrate?

I would like to do a book that’s more adult or for all ages, maybe not so much a story but more a collection of paintings and images. Right now I’m doing some personal work, and a series of angels.

What are you working on next?

I’m working on three books right now, for three different publishers, but I can’t give any more details on those yet.

Mary GrandPre is speaking at the Corcoran Gallery of Art on July 13 at 7 p.m. It costs $15 for members and $20 for the public. For more information, visit

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