The courtroom sketch artist: art in a pressure-cooker

June 12, 2018 | By Jim Stovall | Filed in: journalism, reporters, reporting.

Courtroom sketch artists are people who can draw (or paint) quickly, accurately depicting what they see and unafraid to allow others — maybe millions of others — to see what they have done.

They work under seemingly impossible deadlines, sometimes only a few minutes, at best a few hours. There’s very little chance of editing or corrections.

Yet with the continuing ban on cameras in many courtrooms in America, the courtroom sketch artist is the only way we have of seeing what’s happening in the judicial system.

A few recent high-profile courtroom scenes (Bill Cosby, Harvey Weinstein) provoked Time magazine into doing an article of some of these remarkable people: What It’s Like to Be a Courtroom Sketch Artist | Time. The article includes this:

Courtroom sketch artists toe a line of talent, speed, accuracy and precision, as they often serve as the only individuals who can see what happens in some of the most high-profile court cases across the country. Their jobs have changed drastically recently as officials tweak the rules around when cameras can come into the courtroom and as the 24/7 news cycle creates tighter deadlines. All the while, these artists often create these sketches while squeezed into courtrooms, sometimes sitting behind pillars, using binoculars and, in Cornell’s case, shifting in their seats to see the central figures hidden behind bulky court marshals.

As someone who does a good bit of drawing and painting, I have often wondered what it would be like to work in these pressure-cooker conditions and what kind of drawings I would produce. How would I do what these excellent and talented artists do?

The answer I have come up with for myself would be twofold: prepare and practice. Before the proceedings begin, know what the scene looks like and who will be there. Then start drawing those folks in different postures and with different expressions. Practice, practice, practice.

And hope that when the time comes to produce, you’re having a good day artistically.

If this topic interests you, here’s a book to check out:

The Illustrated Courtroom: 50 Years of Court Art  by Sue Russell  and Elizabeth Williams  (Author)

Illustration: Harper’s Weekly sketch of the arraignment of John Brown, 1859. Sketched by Porte Crayon (David Strother). 

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