Art and magic back on the shelves
A young Chinese-born illustrator integrates Chinese aesthetics into Harry Potter paintings
Published: May 11, 2023 11:14 PM
Mai Weitong  Photo: Courtesy of Mai Weitong

Mai Weitong Photo: Courtesy of Mai Weitong

The Harry Potter series has become a global phenomenon and has been appreciated by readers and moviegoers for many years. The Harry Potter Wizarding Almanac, the first official magical companion to J.K. Rowling's iconic series, is set to be launched by the Bloomsbury Publishing on October 10, 2023. 

The almanac is considered the ultimate compendium of wizarding lists, charts, maps and all things magical. 

It is divided into seven chapters, each with a theme presented by a different illustrator. 

The illustrators are from different countries and one of them is a young Canadian Chinese-born freelancer Mai Weitong, who was born in 1995 and is currently based in London, the UK.

Through her interpretation of art, Mai included the unique Chinese aesthetic of "leaving a blank" into her paintings, which represent an intersection of traditional Chinese culture and Western culture. 

"What I have been doing is to combine Chinese traditional culture with some modern methods and expressing it in my paintings," Mai said.

The book cover of The Harry Potter Wizarding Almanac Photo: Courtesy of Bloomsbury Publishing

The book cover of The Harry Potter Wizarding Almanac Photo: Courtesy of Bloomsbury Publishing

A sense of accomplishment 

When Mai was a child, she was often sent by her parents to after-school programs, but all the classes she took inspired in her just a short-lived interest. 

"The only thing that really fascinated me and that I kept on was painting, but I did not expect to work in this industry after graduating from the Camberwell College of Arts for BA Illustration major in 2017," she said. 

Mai told the Global Times that during her studies she did not think too much about career planning, she simply wanted to draw as a hobby while working a "real job." 

"Fortunately, in my sophomore year, I received an ­illustration job offer and during junior and senior years, I realized that I could make some money in this industry, so I kept gaining work experience and contracts as an illustrator while I was in college," she said. 

"It was a huge surprise to receive the offer to illustrate The Harry Potter Wizarding Almanac in 2021, there was a trial period for Harry Potter content at first, which lasted for about six months, until I was informed that I had passed at the end of 2021," Mai told the Global Times. 

She started painting in early 2022 and it took her a year and a half to complete the task. 

There is a sense of accomplishment that comes from drawing books, Mai said. 

Drawing a picture generally takes time and patience, but thanks to her passion for illustration, Mai enjoys every aspect of the painting process.

"When you finish your work, it brings you a sense of pleasure and achievement, and of course, recognition from the outside world," she said. 

A painting by Mai Weitong Photo: Courtesy of Mai Weitong

A painting by Mai Weitong Photo: Courtesy of Mai Weitong

'Pursuing essential expression in art'

Mai's painting leans toward the abstract style, which is evident especially in the shapes she gives to clouds, wind and birds, and in the artistic concept, at the same time all of these also reflect Chinese-style aesthetics. 

"I think this is one of the reasons why the Harry Potter team chose me. In The Harry Potter Wizarding Almanac, some of the parts I was responsible for drawing were the effect of the lights coming out of the wands and scenes surrounded by smoke, which are something more abstract and mysterious," she told the Global Times.

Although Mai was painting a subject of Western origin, such as the magical world of Harry Potter, her art combined Chinese painting aesthetics coming from her own life experience.

"I was born in China and the Chinese cultural traditions and the way of thinking have been deeply rooted in my mind since I was a child. My early art and ­aesthetic were established during my training in painting and calligraphy in China," she said. 

"When I was drawing the book, I needed to put a lot of information on the same page, or the book had to contain a lot of information, so I would tell the team that instead of piling up the pictures, it would be better to 'leave a blank' to ­reduce the overwhelming feeling given by a composition that is too full. This method naturally leads the reader to direct their eyes to the subject," she said. 

She believes that in Chinese culture, it is more important to get rid of the superficial forms and to pursue instead the core subject.

"When I get to work with publishers and businesses, they want me to show Chinese elements in my works, but I don't think that purely superficial elements like the red color, dragons and clouds can sufficiently express traditional Chinese culture, although they are of course very representative," she said. 

"The artistic concept of my paintings is that of expressing the essential inner meaning of something," she added. 

China's profound, traditional culture has been beneficial to Mai's works, as she wants to combine it with modern artistic expression, while putting aside stereotypes and keeping the core essence of the characters and objects in her paintings.

A painting by Mai Weitong Photo: Courtesy of Mai Weitong

A painting by Mai Weitong Photo: Courtesy of Mai Weitong