The court room artist sits cheek to cheek with other voyeurs on a hard wood bench trying to capture likenesses and actions of the participants in real life morality plays called trials. There are incredible consequences for the defendants as well as their family and friends who, while absorbed in the proceedings, cannot help but rubberneck your work.
It is quiet enough to hear a pin drop while the air in the room actually feels tense with human drama. (A respected national artist who used markers elicited groans from the court staff because of the squeak-squeek of the markers on paper).
Most artists have the luxury of a studio area complete with the tools of the trade close at hand, their personal choice of music, the ability to put your brush into the water bucket and get a cup of coffee or taking a break, all their reference material nearby, and best of all no deadline that is mere hours away including transportation.
The courtroom artist generally works in black and white on medium-sized sketchpads. During a break they may run to their diy office in the closest restroom to quickly apply watercolor pigments if that is in the assignment. The pressure to create a piece of art that will not appear to be done by a 5 year old is intense.
I was a courtroom artist for several years. I wielded my art whenever there was a particularly gory case being tried in a venue in which cameras were not allowed. Think dismemberment or other inhuman forms of human behavior. Or spy trials like the Walker family. Or big money and well known community figures. Human interest in the vein of if it bleeds it leads.
Getting a court assignment was always a challenge and many times a panicky challenge. Every time was like the first performance of an actor in front of a paying audience. Can I do a good job? Will my seat let me see the main players: defendants, defense, prosecutor, jury?
The judge was easy. The judge always faces the crowd from an elevated position.
While you are considering who could do this awful thing to somebody else, you also have to concentrate on making that nose long enough but not too long.
Getting the painting job done.
I learned a few interesting things to help me do my job. The most important one was that everyone tends to revert back to their common positions. Lawyers especially. If the lawyer stood with both arms folded and then they turned to address the jury or acknowledge the defendant, they would inevitably return to the folded arm position. Thus as an artist I would start a very quick sketch and when they changed positions flipped my page and start the next one and then flip back when they came back to the first position. That resulted in many starts on many pieces of sketch pad paper. When I finished for the day, I would choose the sketch that I felt was the best of many.
Last year a young filmmaker visited my studio. He seemed to think we could work together on a project and consequently my art is in the “Innocence Files” (you can find the series on Netflix). They asked if I thought I could possibly produce courtroom art that would look as if I were in the courtroom at the time of trial. I would use photos they would provide. Of course I always rise to a challenge and said, “Yes.”
The reference material could not have been more difficult to work with. The little girl who points out a suspect in the courtroom is from a photo of an extremely sweet little girl in her backyard. The dates of the trials were near 30 years old and the pictures of the varying actors were from varying dates. The actual court rooms were seen through doors with windows.
I have never been more inventive in trying to produce an actual scene in my life. I did the best I could and I hope the results were OK. I felt that if I could do this assignment, then frankly, I could do anything. Okay, anything except conjure up mechanical or technological images. I just don’t do things geometric or shiny. In retrospect, drawing images from the description of witnesses or victims of crimes came pretty darn close. But they had to relive horrible events and I merely had to interpret them into someone that could be recognized. Which did happen.
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