Mary GrandPré
From Communication Arts™ 1999
Kids surround her. Swarm around her, actually. While in the background, a few nervous parents check their watches, concerned about the football practice due to begin in just minutes. But these nine- and ten-year-olds will not be rushed. They've come to this small bookstore in Wayzata, a suburb of Minneapolis, Minnesota, to get Mary GrandPré to sign their book, and they're not leaving until she does.

The book is Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban, and as most adolescents, and many of their parents, can tell you, GrandPré is the one responsible for bringing Harry Potter to life through her brilliant pastel and black-and-white illustrations. In this day and age of publishing phenomenons, it's just the sort of overnight success story everyone loves.

Except that it didn't happen overnight. And, frankly, as much as GrandPré loves the kids and the attention her Harry Potter illustrations have garnered, including the Time magazine cover last fall, she'd much rather talk about the other work she's done, thank you very much.

That other work includes the book covers, ads, editorial illustrations and personal work that's made her a staple in the awards books since graduating from the Minneapolis College of Art & Design nearly two decades ago. But the groundwork for that success was laid even earlier than that. "I've been drawing since I was five years old," GrandPré explains. There was her Salvador Dali stage when she was ten or twelve. "I liked the way he stretched things--made them real, but weird. And so I used to stink up the whole house with oil paints." Then she graduated to copying black-and-white photos out of the encyclopedia. "I must have been bored," she admits now. "But to me it was fun. I loved the colors of black and white."

But it wasn't until her mid-twenties that she even considered going to art school. And that's where she learned that she could be an artist and an illustrator at the same time. "I'd always thought of illustration as kind of a boring, commercial thing. I was a fine arts major, so I approached illustration with that attitude. And it came to a point where it really worked for me because I started solving illustration ideas with the natural way that I draw," she said


After graduation came the obligatory jobs of waiting on tables while showing her book around the local ad agencies and slowly building up a portfolio of printed pieces. In those days, the style was to have no style--to be flexible, adaptable, a generalist. But that didn't feel right to her. "I really struggled after college. I was pulling my hair out, and losing sleep because I didn't feel like I had a style." But the more work she did, the more she found herself evolving toward a style she now calls "soft geometry," one that oVers a colorful, light-hearted and whimsical approach. And one that features pastels. "I've always drawn with pastels. Even as a kid it was my medium of choice." And, despite that Salvador Dali fling, she's stuck with them. "I've tried other things. Sometimes I've put a layer of paint underneath, but I always finish up with pastels."

Her fine art background and appreciation for art history has also helped her work avoid any trends. "I almost try to wear blinders--I don't really want to know too much about what's going on out there. I try to approach each job with a quiet kind of focus, not so much on how my style fits the job, but how that problem should be solved," GrandPré says. "No technique should be bigger or more important than the problem the illustration needs to solve. The combination of a good basic understanding of what makes a picture work-- good composition, good color, good drawing--combined with a strong concept can enable you to work on anything."

And so from the sun-filled studio she just added on to the back of the small, unassuming house she shares with her fiancé (also an artist) on a quiet street corner in St. Paul, Minnesota, she brings her formidable talent to a wide range of assignments. There are advertising jobs for big national agencies. Editorial illustrations for McGraw-Hill and Random House. Assignments for Harcourt Brace and others. And, of course, children's books.

"I really enjoy the children's book industry because it allows you to focus on a big project for a long time. There's nothing to disrupt your train of thought." The colors are brighter; the pieces larger, more simple. And it allows her
to indulge in her love of magic, fantasy and whimsy. "Art directors have always described my work as 'approachable.' There are some real emotional qualities to it, and emotion is so important in an illustration."

That work, in turn, led to a phone call one day from DreamWorks. It seems they were working on a new movie called Antz and wondered if she'd be interested in helping with some of the landscapes. What could she say? Looking at life from an ant's point of view is not the sort of assignment that comes along every day. "The nice thing about that job was not only the great fun of looking at ordinary things through
a magnifying glass, but really being appreciated for being an artist. And realizing that there's plenty of room
in the computer industry for the art world." When she saw the finished film, there were her landscapes, stretched across the wide screen, her biggest canvas to date. Subsequently, she's been hired by another studio to do some character development
for a new animated film, which she, unfortunately, can't talk about at
this point.

And where is the computer in her studio? GrandPré laughs. "Well, I do want to learn how to use one for accounting. But I don't see much of a use for it in my work in the near future. You know, it's not the creative wizard we thought it would be." (That said, she's certainly no Luddite--you can find her portfolio online at

Then two years ago she received a call from an art director at Scholastic. Would she be interested in working on a book cover and some inside black-and-white illustrations for a book previously published in Britain about a boy named Harry Potter? "It sounded like a nice job, so I said 'sure.' I presented three cover sketches, they chose one, and I was pretty happy with everything. They were great to work with, and I think I remember them saying there might be more. At the time, it just seemed like another job.”

A few months later, the art director called again. The first book was doing very well. The author was most pleased with the illustrations. Was she interested in doing another? That job went smoothly and was followed quickly by a third installment. And that’s when the storm hit.
The last six months or so have been a whirlwind of bookstore appearances, school visits and calls. Lots of calls. And autographs. All of which she’s happy to oblige, especially the visits to schools. But as she’s quick to remind anyone who asks, “Harry Potter is the most popular part of my work. But it’s a very small part.”

So besides four more Harry Potter books, what else does the future hold for Mary GrandPré? “I’d like more personal time in the studio to grow as an artist,” she says. She’d like time to experiment with new textures, new subject matter. Perhaps have some shows. “I just want to keep making art—wherever it takes me.”

Just as long as it doesn’t take her too far from the success she’s found on this quiet little street in St. Paul. n

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