Sketch artists have been the public’s eyes at high-profile trials for decades — a remnant of an age when drawings in broadsheet papers, school books or travel chronicles were how people glimpsed the world beyond their own. Today, their ranks are thinning swiftly as states move to lift longstanding bans on cameras in courtrooms. As of a year ago, 14 states still had them — but at least three, including Illinois this month, have taken steps since then to end the camera prohibitions.
Cutbacks in news budgets and shifts in aesthetic sensibilities toward digitized graphics have all contributed to the form’s decline, said Maryland-based sketch artist Art Lien. While the erosion of the job may not be much noticed by people reading and watching the news, Lien says something significant is being lost. Video or photos can’t do what sketch artists can, he said, such as compressing hours of court action onto a single drawing that crystallizes the events.
But while courtroom drawing has a long history — artists did illustrations of the Salem witch trials in 1692 — the artistry can sometimes be sketchy. A bald lawyer ends up with a full head of hair. A defendant has two left hands. A portly judge is drawn rail-thin.
Subjects often complain as they see the drawings during court recesses, said Chicago artist Carol Renaud. “They’ll say, ‘Hey! My nose is too big.’ And sometimes they’re right,” she conceded. “We do the drawings so fast.”
Courtroom drawing doesn’t attract most aspiring artists because it doesn’t afford the luxury of laboring over a work for days until it’s just right, said Andy Austin, who has drawn Chicago’s biggest trials over 40 years, including that of serial killer John Wayne Gacy. “You have to put your work on the air or in a newspaper whether you like it or not,” she said.
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