The evening news comes on. The main story is a report about the trial of a former sheriff. After the live lead-in, many of the images are drawings of lawyers, the judge, witnesses, and the accused. A courtroom artist has been at work.
Courtroom artists have been used for decades because cameras are not allowed in many courts. All federal courthouses ban them and many city, county, and state courts do as well. Additionally, a judge may bar cameras from his courtroom if he believes they may be disruptive. Newspapers and television stations must then turn to artists to provide them with the images they need to support their stories.
The purpose of courtroom art is to give the readers or viewers a visual understanding of the proceedings. The three primary requirements are for a good likeness that is easily understood on a TV screen or printed page, an image that reinforces the reporter’s narrative, and one that is completed before the deadline. Good courtroom art brings the characters to life and conveys the drama and tension of the proceedings.
I have been the courtroom artist for the Asheville, North Carolina, television station for the past five years. Although the work can be demanding, it’s also quite a bit of fun. Additionally, it provides me with a good bit of local exposure as well as some added income.
If all goes well, I will know a few days in advance that the station will need my services. This allows me to do a bit of research, such as finding pictures of the accused, doing some preliminary studies, and preparing my materials. It doesn’t always happen, of course. One time I got a call just 30 minutes prior to a hearing, and I was 40 minutes away! I made it (don’t ask), but thankfully, this has been the exception and not the rule.
My in-court equipment is minimal. I only take in a small drawing board, a small stack of hot-pressed watercolor sheets torn down to roughly 11”x15”, my drawing tools (a mechanical pencil with 2B or 4B lead and also a kneaded eraser), and a small drawing pad for notes and experimental sketches. I leave my watercolor equipment at the TV van.
Where I sit has a big impact on how my drawings turn out. Courtroom artists aren’t entitled to any special treatment. During a trial, we have to sit with the public, which means we’re behind the main participants and looking at their backs. I try to sit as close as possible to the witness stand, usually a bit to one side if it will offer a better chance of a profile of the important people. A hearing may be a different matter. Since no jury is present, judges have sometimes allowed me to sit in the jury box. This is a dream location, offering the best possible view.
During the proceedings, I work on getting a good drawing. I try to get the best likenesses possible, while also trying to breathe some life into the figures by tilting their heads, having them look this way or that, lean on an arm, or show some emotion. Sometimes a drawing will consist of just one figure in close-up, while others might be a group of figures or even a wider courtroom scene.
When I do a "scene", I'll recombine and compress the key elements into a tight grouping. For example, in reality the witness stand may be way over to the right while the defense table is way over to the left, the judge is in the middle, and the flag is somewhere in the background. In my drawing, I will push them together into a compact composition.
At 11 a.m., I leave, even if the session is still ongoing, and go to the TV station's van. The reporter will already have a narrative in development for the noon news, so we’ll talk about what the report will cover and which drawings will be included. I then break out my watercolors and get to work. I'll normally have two or three drawings going, and will work fast on getting the color laid in. I need to have the drawings done by 11:30 so that the cameraman can shoot them and then splice all the images together with the reporter's narrative for the noon news show. Then it's back into the courtroom until the judge calls a lunch break. In the afternoon, it's a similar routine. I go back to the TV van about 4 pm so we can be ready for the evening news.
Every courtroom artist has their own way of working. Some use pastels on full sheets of tinted paper. Others use colored pencils, while still others use pens and colored markers. There is no “right” way to do it. You just need to have a system that is almost second nature. Your focus should be on getting a good image done quickly without being distracted by technical issues.
Once I’m done with an image, the cameraman needs to get it on tape. We’ll prop up the drawing board or tape the drawing to the side of the van so that he can get a long, steady cut. He often gets two or more shots out of one drawing. One will be the whole image, while others will zoom in on individual faces. I learned very quickly that a face that’s three inches high on my paper looks very different when it’s blown up on a large-screen HD TV!
The next phase is fascinating to watch. The reporter writes up the story and records the audio. The cameraman takes the audio and matches different video shots to the appropriate part of the recording. There may be a dozen different shots to use, including my drawings, “walk shots” of key individuals outside the courthouse, interviews, or stock footage. So he plays his equipment like a madman, swapping tapes in and out, running the story over and over, pounding buttons, and looking remarkably like a mad scientist in a grade B movie. Except he's for real, and within a few minutes, he has the full report completed. As the clock ticks down towards air time, he and the reporter get ready to do the live stand-up introduction and closing shots.
One area that many courtroom artists don’t want to talk about is economics. Virtually all are freelancers and consider their business model as proprietary information. Since I’m a small-time part-time courtroom artist, working in a very small market, I’m not worried about sharing my business model. I work for one news outlet at a time and bill them by the hour. They get an exclusive right to use the drawings on their news programs as needed. The drawings and the copyright, however, remain with me, and I can keep or sell them just like any of my other works. Most of the buyers are the attorneys and judges. Actually, from my research, it appears that there are a number of courtroom artists who do their work without ever intending it for the evening news. They market directly to the parties involved.
Courtroom work can occasionally be very lucrative, particularly in celebrity cases. One artist reportedly made $17,000 in one day covering a Michael Jackson hearing. This artist was the only one in the courtroom and when it was over, camera crews from around the world were lined up to shoot his work. On the lower end of the pay scale (mine), the income is a more like a nice supplement that infrequently comes my way. Artists in major metropolitan areas might be able to make a substantial part of their income in the courtroom.
In the meantime, I’m trying out some new ideas before the next big trial. There are some things I can do to make my work look better on the screen. I’m looking forward to it!