Wizarding Images: Real or Memorex?

by Joshua Bradshaw

By now we’ve become comfortable with the idea that photographs, paintings, and even tapestries in the wizarding world can move and even react to the environment to a degree. But how exactly do these things work? The short answer is that they in fact do not work – it is fiction after all. Of course that answer is not very much fun, and makes for a lousy editorial. So all that aside, what are the mechanics and limitations of the various forms of wizard portraits? First, let’s look at the three types.

Photographs: the book descriptions would imply that some or all of these are black and white images, and the movies support this. They are essentially two-dimensional silent movies with the subjects limited primarily to the activity they were engaged in when the picture was taken.

Painted portraits: these are almost certainly all full-color, since very few painters in recorded history worked in black and white (aside from etchings this only became a popular medium after the invention of the first cameras). Portraits can move, interact and speak with “real” people as well as other portraits.

Tapestries: we don’t have a lot of material to illuminate this medium. In fact the only example that comes to mind is the tapestry of trolls beating up a wizard that was hanging outside the Room of Requirement in OotP. There seems to be some capacity for interaction, but not much is known beyond that.

Now beyond what is explicitly written in the books, there’s quite a bit that we can guess about these images to fill in the blanks. How are they made? Just how smart are they? How accurately do they portray the “real” person shown? Can they be creatively created – in other words can you “make up” a fictional person by painting them magically? Let’s take a look at these questions one by one.


JKR has given us some good details on the generation of wizard photographs. Colin Creevey tells us in CoS that he found out that developing a photograph in a certain potion would make the pictures move. (He was told this by another student – he didn’t discover it himself.) So that question is answered: magic potion + normal photographic negative = moving picture. The apparent predominance (or exclusivity) of black and white photos may be a limitation of this potion. No fancy charms required, no real skill required on the creator’s part (photo potions are probably commercially available in certain wizarding shops). Well, a certain amount of skill is required to take a reasonably decent picture – remembering to take the lens cap off, hold the camera still, aim properly, but these are within the capabilities of any wizard capable of walking and eating Bertie Bott’s Beans.

Wizard portraits are another issue entirely. The method used to create these paintings (so far) has not been revealed. However, only a moderate amount of guesswork is needed to determine the most likely methods.

1. A charm or transfiguration spell is cast upon the painting. This might be done after the picture has been painted, or possibly the spell itself creates the painting. In either case this is likely to be a rather complex bit of magic, since we don’t see every other wizard whipping out paintings like they’re going out of style. (Plus it fits in with the parallelism JKR has established between the Wizard and muggle world.) Artistic talents are almost certainly required – we’re told that Dean was a skilled artist in SS/PS. The spell used is probably in the same “magic family” as the Protean Charm so that all paintings of the same subject update collectively.

2. A complicated potion is used, similarly to the spell explained above. Could be the actual creation process, or painted over the completed work as a “top coat”. In this case it would be logical to assume that a “bit of” the subject is used as a final ingredient of the potion much like the Polyjuice potion.

3. Special magic paint is used. Technically there isn’t much difference between this and number two, since trying to draw the line between red paint and a “red potion that can be spread on a canvas” is a bit like trying to nail Flobberworm mucus to the wall. Here again it is likely that something of the painting’s subject is used in the paint, to give it that little something extra.

We know that the people in paintings (I’ll just call them “subjects” for clarity) can move from picture to picture. The limitation seems to be that a frame they wish to move to must either be in the same building, or it must be another painting with the same subject. From this we can infer two things.

First, the method for bringing paintings to life is almost certainly standardized. This would be likely anyway, but considering that two different paintings of different subjects appear to be “compatible” with each other indicates the same kind of charm was used. Since we have no evidence of two paintings that follow the above rules not being able to interact, it’s likely that the method is standardized enough that every painting in the books so far was done using that same method.

Second, the method appears to incorporate some kind of adaptation. It would be impossible, when sitting your first portrait for instance, to know precisely how many portraits you might have done later on. Thus your subject being able to move from frame to frame of all your paintings must be something “adapted” when the new paintings are created. There is also evidence that there can be only one of each individual subject visible in any of their paintings at any given time. In other words, if you have three paintings of yourself, your image can only appear in one of them at a time. They’re all linked somehow.

Again with tapestries we have no clues, but they are comparable to paintings in their probable creation methods. Charm, potion, magically active threads… any are possible. Most likely, the method of creation is very similar if not a predecessor to the method used in creating magical paintings. Nothing is known about whether tapestries are linked, but it seems less likely. They are “low-tech”, in a manner of speaking.


Just how smart are the grinning (or screaming) faces in these frames? Now we start to get into some more confusing and conflicting information. With photographs we are shown a very limited amount of “brains”. They reflect the attitude and characteristics of their subjects, but we have some contrary evidence as to how deep this runs.

Exhibit A – the photograph of the old Order of the Phoenix. The group photo that Moody shows to Harry in OotP contains Peter Pettigrew and Sirius Black, and none of the other subjects react to him the way their real counterparts would if forced to stand with them. Clearly, the subjects in this photograph do not have accurate knowledge of current events, or we’d be seeing one of the two of them severely beaten, dead, or at the very least forced out of the frame.

Exhibit B – the family photograph of the Weasleys. In OotP Percy can no longer be seen in the family photograph, having apparently stepped out of the frame. Harry did this in the photograph that Colin Creevey took of him and Professor Lockhart, but this was also what Harry wanted to do when the photograph was taken (he wanted to disappear). However, in the case of the Weasley photograph, Percy’s subject seems to have reacted to an event that took place after the picture was taken.

Exhibit C – Percy’s photograph of Penelope. Here we have an example of a photograph reacting to immediate stimuli. When the picture has something spilled on it, the subject hides because it disfigured her face. Lockhart’s photographs also react to conversations, nodding their heads in response to what is said. Also the Order photograph responds to Moody telling the subjects to move around so that hidden subjects can be seen.

So what does all of this tell us? If we assume that there is not a mistake made, and that subjects of photographs are not truly intelligent (no power of speech, limited knowledge of current events), then the question we need to answer to create consistency is “Why did Percy leave the Weasley family photograph when he shouldn’t have known what was going on?”

It stands to reason that the subject may have reacted to a conversation or command by a real person. If a heated argument took place in the presence of that photograph, it is possible that the subject took that as a cue to leave the frame. Perhaps the argument that precipitated Percy leaving the Burrow took place within earshot of the photograph, which reacted in a similar manner. (Of course that makes one wonder why the Order photograph didn’t react when/if a conversation about Pettigrew took place in its presence.) It is also possible that one of the Weasleys told the Percy subject to step out of the frame because they didn’t want to see him smiling next to the rest of them. He would be an unwelcome reminder of the rift in the family, though his absence from the picture was no less of a reminder of that fact.

Whatever the case, the Order photograph clearly illustrates that photo subjects are not linked with their other photographs, and thereby do not gain knowledge. If they were, it is almost certain that someone in the Order photograph would have appeared in another photograph that somehow learned of Pettigrew’s betrayal. Additionally, Sirius was in that photograph, so if photograph subjects “learned” the Order would have thought that either Sirius or Pettigrew was a traitor (depending on what they’d been told) and reacted accordingly.

Special cases: two special cases exist that I’m aware of. The first are the sports posters (Quidditch teams). These are described as being quite brilliantly colored, but it’s not clear precisely where they fall in the artistry (painting) vs. photography spectrum. The other case is the photographs thrown out by Sirius Black during the cleaning of 12 Grimmauld Place. These photographs are described as having “squealed shrilly as the glass cover them smashed”, and are specifically mentioned as being photographs, not “pictures”, “images”, or any other ambiguous term. Perhaps they’re capable of inarticulate noises only? Hard to say, but then these are photos from a decidedly evil house and could quite possibly have been subjected to any number of undesirable magical effects.

By comparison, paintings are quite intelligent. We know that Sir Cadogan was making up passwords during his stint as Gryffindor house painting. This indicates a certain degree of free-thinking and creativity. Paintings can speak and hold intelligent conversations with real people and other subjects. They can keep up with current events, learn new people, and so on. They make friends with other subjects, exhibit loyalty (in the case of the paintings in Dumbledore’s office), and in general display numerous traits of intellect, self-awareness, and decently well-developed emotional qualities. Exactly where along the scale of intelligence these subjects exist is hard to say for certain, but it is certainly close enough to wizard-kind to pass casual inspection.

It is important to note that we have so far seen no evidence of any subjects of living witches or wizards. Whether this is because of popular convention, law, taboo, JKR simply not addressing the point yet, or perhaps because it simply can’t be done (perhaps the magic doesn’t work if the subject is still alive) we just don’t know.

Another important consideration is the obvious differences between photographs and paintings. Since painting subjects can travel between their own paintings and those in the same building, they posses the power of speech and intelligence and the capacity to learn, it stands to reason that the method of creation is significantly different (or at the very least much more powerful) than the photographic potion used in photos. We have the example of the Protean Charm that Hermione used in OotP, which in essence allows all affected items to be updated by a single “master” item. If the photo potion brings negatives “to life”, some magic akin to the Protean Charm might allow them the updating or “learning” effect seen in paintings. Of course it would be significantly more complex than the standard Protean Charm, and that’s NEWT level magic.

As far as tapestries go, we again have no real indication of their intelligence level. The only example we have has predominantly troll subjects. Duplicating their level of mental alacrity would not be terribly challenging. It stands to reason that tapestries are not as complex as paintings, and probably share more in common with photographs.


Now we get to the big philosophical question: Just how “realistic” are the subjects? It might look and talk like the real thing, but does it think like the real thing? Does it have all their memories or simply what it is told? Precisely how accurate is the duplicate to the original?

With photos the answer is pretty simple. With no apparent higher intelligence, photographic subjects are obviously not accurate representations of a living person. It seems that these subjects are a kind of “freeze frame” of someone’s life. It will display the immediate activity, manner, and even state of mind of the person but does not have adaptive capabilities or memory.

More important is the accuracy of painting subjects. Using the headmaster portraits in Dumbledore’s office as an example we can see that they are employed in the capacity of advisors, informants, and (for lack of a better term) spies. We can see that Dumbledore trusts them, apparently due to some binding oath of loyalty to the current headmaster of the school. The Fat Lady is entrusted with the security of the Gryffindor Common Room and dormitories. How well-placed this trust is, and how far it extends is open to debate, but most people would argue that Dumbledore hasn’t demonstrated poor judgement in this regard.

More to the point; just how precise is the representation? At what point does it become a worthy avatar, and when does it become “you”? It could be argued that if the subject is a perfect duplication of the mind, memories and emotions of the real person, that it becomes them. Along the same lines, just how accurate was Tom Riddle’s diary subject? Was it really him or just aspects of himself, the parts he wanted to record?

Does magic have the ability to create an accurate duplicate of someone’s very soul, or is it at best a respectable facsimile? We don’t know for sure yet, but personally I’d say that even the best paintings are not really the same (mentally) as the real person. Far too many problems arise if they are.

Other Thoughts:

Was the Fat Lady a real person? It would seem odd to call her “the Fat Lady” if she had another name. Even Dumbledore, who’s never shied away from using someone’s real name, calls her the Fat Lady. So either she’s a real person whose name is no longer known (and for some reason she can’t or won’t tell anyone) or she’s a fictional subject created by a painter. Sir Cadogan is another often questioned subject. Was there ever a “real” knight by that name? He’s so comical it is hard to believe he ever existed, or that if he did he managed to sit still long enough to have his portrait done (and didn’t constantly interrupt the painter with challenges to duel). We know that there can be interactive non-human subjects, such as the painting of fruit that acts as the entrance to the kitchens. Thus it seems possible that a human subject could be creatively generated by a painter.

Another big question is the matter of the Chocolate Frog cards. We know that there’s somewhere around 500 to 600 different cards, the majority of which are of deceased witches and wizards. If these are popular only in Britain and the surrounding area (Hogwarts’ “school district” if you will), and we estimate the collecting population to be mainly children and thereby roughly 5,000 individuals, and that the average child owns most but not all the cards in distribution, it follows that roughly 2.25 million cards are in circulation. We can deduce from Ron’s statement on the Hogwarts express in the first book that he has quite a few Dumbledore cards, that certain cards are more common than others and that the headmaster’s card is one of them. So if Dumbledore’s card is common, the odds are that most children have one. Five thousand cards out there, the images behave somewhat like photographs, but “you can’t expect him to hang around all day”.

It stands to reason that there’s more going on here than meets the eye. It can’t be the same magic as paintings – if Dumbledore’s image could only be on one card at a time and there were 5,000 cards, that comes to just under 18 seconds a day per card. Perhaps it’s just that the subjects in photographs may become bored and wander about, disappearing out of frame occasionally. Or perhaps there’s a different kind of magic at work here.

Perhaps, it’s a very special kind of magic specific to Dumbledore’s cards. He has friends in all sorts of places, and is quite the lover of sweets. It would come as no surprise to anyone if they were to learn that the maker of Chocolate Frogs was an old friend of Big D and had done a favor for him when the card was introduced. Make it common, make it a bit smarter than average, and make Dumbledore a magic mirror, master card, or some other mechanism by which to collect the data from these photographic informants.

Of course it’s all speculation, and has been discussed before. Plenty of flags went up when we heard that Dumbledore didn’t care about the actions the Ministry of Magic was taking against him as long as they didn’t take him off the Chocolate Frog cards. Perhaps it was his unique brand of whimsy, perhaps there was more to it. Dumbledore has always struck me as the kind of person who despite being genuinely eccentric is certainly not above using his eccentricity to explain away some very concrete goals and concerns. He might be a little crazy, but he’s crazy like a fox as well.


So what do we get from all this; what is the big “lesson”? Just like everything else in these books, this revolves around Harry. When we left him in book 5 he’d just lost his godfather, who despite not being an ideal role model did genuinely care for Harry and vice versa. (Harry doesn’t seem to have noticed Sirius’ faults yet, namely his tendency to leap with both feet into “thrill-seeking” fun simply for the sake of a laugh, i.e. the Snape Incident, and Harry probably never will notice this unless forced to.)

Now we have Harry, who just had a taste for what a dad might be like, likely to be looking for a substitute. We’ve heard absolutely nothing about whether his parents or Sirius have ever had portraits painted. If they have the questions of intelligence and accuracy will suddenly come into play, and with extreme importance.

Just how much could Harry depend on a painting of Lily, James, or Sirius? How reliable would they be? Would he really know his parents if he spoke with a painting?

I can’t help but hear the words of advice that Ginny got at the end of CoS. You can’t trust something that thinks if you can’t see where it keeps its brain. Does the image of a head qualify as seeing where its brain is? And don’t forget that just because you can see where its brain is kept doesn’t mean it’s trustworthy. Plenty of wizards and muggles alike are wholly untrustworthy (Voldy-pants anyone?) and their brains are easily located.

Alas, I don’t have the answers to all these questions. One answer I have learned is that often times it isn’t nearly as important to know the answer, as it is to ask the question.