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How do magical portraits actually work?

The walls of Hogwarts are adorned with animated portraits of an array of colourful characters, each with their own personality retained forever in their painting. But how true to their real-life counterparts are they?

WARNING: contains a few spoilers from Harry Potter and the Cursed Child.

I am paint and memory, Harry, paint and memory.
Albus Dumbledore’s Portrait - Harry Potter and the Cursed Child


In the wizarding world, every image is magically alive in its own way, from Harry trying to escape a photograph with Professor Lockhart on the front of the Daily Prophet, to Albus Dumbledore still delivering his sage advice through his portrait even after his death. But how ‘alive’ are the subjects of these pictures? Let’s investigate.

The images are brought to life with enchantments and potions

Illustration of Colin Creevey from the Dumbledore's Army infographic
Colin Creevey. © JKR/Pottermore Ltd.™ Warner Bros.

Whether a photo or a painting, wizards and witches are able to magically enchant the images to bring them to life. Even Colin Creevey, with his Muggle camera, is able to magically enhance his many, many photos – as long as he develops them in ‘the right potion.’

From some of the situations we’ve seen, it looks like taking a still photo is more like capturing a video, such as the example of Harry trying to escape his own photo with Gilderoy Lockhart, putting up just as good a fight as the real Harry did.

The more dedicated the witch or wizard, the more accurate the portrait

Animated illustration of Albus Dumbledore's portrait

It is tradition for witches and wizards of note to sit for portraits, so their legacy can be retained long after they’ve passed, hence why Hogwarts is covered in the frames of countless figures from wizarding history. But while each painting has its own unique personality true to their sitters’ real lives, some are more textured than others. While Sir Cadogan will jovially challenge anyone to a duel who walks past him, true to his days as a knight, others, such as Albus Dumbledore’s portrait, seems to emulate the sage headmaster’s famous intelligence perfectly.

According to J.K. Rowling, the more powerful you are, the more ‘real’ your portrait can be, and if you sit down with your portrait and spend more time with it, the more accurate a portrayal of yourself it will hold. This is why Albus Dumbledore’s portrait is so lifelike, while his Chocolate Frog card, which also holds his image, is more of a fleeting snapshot – which is still sentient in a smaller way.

Hence why Dumbledore’s portrait feels so real

In Cursed Child, Dumbledore’s portrait is able to serve true emotion when talking with Harry, and is even self-aware of the fact he is just a portrait, poetically dubbing himself, ‘paint and memory’. Despite this, Harry and Dumbledore’s portrait are able to have a frank discussion just as deep as they used to during Harry’s youth, with Dumbledore even admitting to Harry he loved him. In the play, McGonagall briskly tells Harry that the portrait is still just ‘a memoir’, but it seems pretty convincing to us. You’d never get that sort of heart-to-heart with the Fat Lady.

But portraits and ghosts are still quite different

Animated illustration of Gryffindor house ghost, Nearly Headless Nick
© JKR/Pottermore Ltd.™ Warner Bros.

While a portrait is a perfect shadow of their sitter, a ghost is more like an imprint – which carries their unfinished business into the afterlife. While portraits tend to advise and watch over the living world, ghosts can be a bit more pro-active, and can be shaped by new experiences. Nearly Headless Nick could still be hurt by the Basilisk, but as Harry astutely observed, ‘he couldn’t die again’.

While paintings can certainly remember things and reiterate catchphrases of their former selves, they are more like an ‘aura’ – while ghosts are far more... fleshed out, if you’ll excuse the pun.

In an interview, J.K. Rowling said of the difference: ‘If Harry had a portrait of his parents it would not help him a great deal. If he could meet them as ghosts, that would be a much more meaningful interaction...’

Although paintings still fear for their ‘lives’

Student and teachers find the slashed Fat lady
© JKR/Pottermore Ltd. ™ Warner Bros.

While ghosts choose to live in an in-between state forever, portraits still live in the fear of being destroyed. The closest we get to seeing this happen is when a terrified Fat Lady is attacked in Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban, and has to move frames to keep safe, as her canvas has been torn. We must assume from the Fat Lady’s fear that if a painting is gone their encapsulated form leaves too.

So... nobody’s painted a portrait of Voldemort, have they?

Not that we’ve spotted, thank Merlin. Voldemort was far too invested in splitting his soul into Horcruxes rather than indulging in small talk with a painting. For the best. We’ve seen the damage Walburga Black’s portrait still brings to the world...