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Exclusive Interview: Thomas Taylor, Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone illustrator

December 4, 2010.

Harry Potter is a huge franchise. Movies, merchandising and a lot of books. A guy with a scar and glasses. But the first person who gave Harry a public face was Thomas Taylor, the artist responsible for the cover for Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone (1997, Bloomsbury).

Thomas Taylor drew the first Harry Potter cover ever and was one of the first people to read the book. I asked him for an interview and he kindly agreed to it. Questions, answers and a surprise, next:

Hello Mr. Taylor. Thank you very much for this opportunity. Our readers know you for being the first Harry Potter illustrator in the Potter phenomenon. How does that title make you feel?

Hello, Patricio. It’s a pleasure to be interviewed about Harry Potter and my cover art for Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone.

Being the first person to have illustrated Harry Potter certainly makes an exciting entry on my C.V, and a great conversation opener at parties. Of course, the fact that many countries commissioned their own cover artwork does mean that my image isn’t as widely known as is sometimes thought. But it’s certainly something I’m very proud of.

Can you tell us about the cover illustration process? Are there any other illustrations that never came out?

I would always expect to read the text I was illustrating, and this was no different with HP. I must have been one of the first people in world to have read Harry Potter, since the author was still working on the text when it was sent to me, over a year before publication. This was in 1996.

As for the process, there is often quite a bit of art direction concerning what should or shouldn’t be depicted on a cover, and this leads to sketches, possibly around several different ideas. These are then discussed with an editor, and a final design agreed on.

When I was first approached about cover art for HP, the brief included chapter heading illustrations in black and white line, and I did make a few rough sketches of other characters in the book. But very quickly the brief firmed up as cover artwork only.

Why did you choose that particular scene (the Hogwarts Express) to illustrate? Did you talk to Joanne Rowling before working on the art?

This scene was chosen for me by Bloomsbury. I was told I could explore other scenes, but I liked the moment when Harry discovers Platform 9 3/4 anyway, so I was happy to stick to that. I didn’t meet the author at all during the process and that is quite normal. Commissioning artwork is entirely the domain of editors and publishers, and authors often get no input into the process.
I did meet J.K. Rowling, but only a couple of years after the book was published.

Did you keep reading Rowling’s books? What are your thoughts about them?

I very much enjoyed the books, and feel that they speak directly and endearingly to the 11/12-year-old mind, even in those of us whose bodies have grown up! The spirit of Rowling’s books is firmly in the 9-12 age range and this is best expressed in books 1 to 4, though there’s obviously plenty of magic and wonder in the later ones too.

Is there a particular J.K. Rowling book you’d like to illustrate?

The Prisoner of Azkaban has some lovely imagery.

What are you working on nowadays? Which other authors besides Rowling did you work with?

I haven’t done many covers in my career. It’s a difficult area to work in. After the cover for HP, I illustrated two books by Enid Blyton, both Black and white line work and colour covers, and then concentrated on books for much younger children. I write and illustrate my own picture books, so a lot of my illustration has been for my own writing. I did the cover art for two Tanya Landman books, Waking Merlin and Merlin’s Apprentice, and for the picture book retelling of the Sorcerer’s Apprentice by Sally Grindley. Of all my illustrations for other people’s writing, it’s these that are most like my Harry Potter cover work.

Which painting/illustrating methods do you usually use?

I use concentrated watercolours and inks to colour a faint pencil drawing. For a long time, I would then use a black pencil to outline the picture after the colour had been added, and this is the technique I used for HP. Later though, and for a younger audience, I used coloured pencils for the outlines, and for adding texture and highlights to the inked background.

Where else can we find your illustrations?

Mostly on my own picture books for young children, such as my Clovis the Tiger books – The Loudest Roar, The Biggest Splash and The Noisiest Night, published by Oxford University Press.

These days I concentrate on writing, and I have a novel of my own coming out in 2012 through The Chicken House, the publishing company set up by Barry Cunningham, the discoverer of Harry Potter. It’s called The Ghost Effect, and is about a boy who can use his dreams to travel in time. There might be some small illustrated elements in it. I’m also working on a humorous text that will have some quite Harry Potter-ish line drawings in it.

Is there an illustration you’ve done that remains unpublished? If so, is there a chance you could show it to our readers? (full illustration, sketch, preliminary concept, etc).

People often like to see this early pencil sketch of the Harry Potter cover, and you can see in the difference between it and the finished painting something of the way art editors steer the process. I’ve also sent you a scan of the original back cover, showing a very different wizard to one later used. Early editions with this wizard on are now very collectable. I hope your readers enjoy the chance to see this rare image.

Well Mr. Taylor, we can’t thank you enough for this. Is there anything you’d like to tell to our readers?

Nothing, except to thank you and them for this interview, and to wish you all happy reading in the future.

So, what’s the surprise? The backcover Mr. Taylor mentioned is the following one, portraying the young wizard:

Young Wizard on the backcover of Harry Potter and the Philosopher's Stone

He also sent me the whole drawing of the cover, without the title, displaying the entire Hogwarts Express:

Harry Potter and the Philosopher's Stone Cover

But the actual surprise was a never-seen-before sketch of the cover art for Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone cover, which Mr. Taylor gently sent me:

Harry Potter and the Philosopher's Stone Cover Sketch

I am really thankful to Mr. Taylor for giving me this opportunity. I hope you enjoyed reading this as much as I did, and I encourage you to visit Mr. Taylor’s blog: That Elusive Line.

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