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Sketching a Life in the Courtroom

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courtroom sketch artist profession

In New York, Elizabeth Williams has captured some of the world’s most notorious court cases. From the trial of John Gotti to Martha Stewart to Bernie Madoff who she depicted from the back being led off in cuffs to prison. So too has L.A.-based artist Mona Shafer Edwards. Her drawing of Lindsey Lohan, focused on the celebrity’s red Christian Louboutin shoes, went viral.

Edwards was compelled to try her hand at the unique profession in 1978 when she saw a sketch from a case one night while watching the news. “I turned to my husband and said, “Those are terrible. I could do so much better.” Her attorney husband replied, “Go ahead.”

Both are part of what is an increasingly exclusive group of artists with a very special skill set. They’re courtroom sketch artists. It’s a career requiring the ability to sketch at lighting speed (even more so today with hyper-fast news cycles), capturing the key moments of the case with a likeness — and of course meet tight deadlines, not to mention have “nerve of steels,” as Williams puts it.

In the U.S., courtroom sketch art dates as far back as the Salem witch trials in the 17th-century. Following the advent of photography in 1880 the number of courtroom artists went in slight decline, but then shot back up in mid-1930s when, following the media circus of the Charles Lindberg abduction case, they were banned from all courtrooms. In the 1960s, courtroom art became a regular fixture on broadcast news. With cases like the Charles Manson case and Watergate, this period was a kind of golden age for the genre until the 1980s when cameras, now less intrusive, were reintroduced.

It’s top courtroom sketch artists like Williams and Edwards who are being kept in the courtroom through mainly high profile cases in federal courts, including the Supreme Court, where cameras are still not allowed.

notorious drug kingpin el chapo
The mysterious and elusive El Chapo captured at last — on paper. | Copyright Elizabeth Williams

Fashion Counts in the Courtroom

“You have to have a great knowledge of anatomy. Body language is really important and knowing how clothes fit,” says Edwards, an experienced fashion illustrator who credits her remarkable drawing speed to years spent sketching runway shows. “That’s also one of the reasons why I’m so busy. It’s all about fashion, especially here [in L.A.] when drawing famous celebrities. They know that every camera is on them whenever they are in public. It is a very important thing how they look to the public when they are in court, when they walk from the car to the courthouse, when they walk from the courthouse to their car. It’s about how to move the figure, how to take mental pictures around the courtroom, and focus on what’s most important.”

Edwards was compelled to try her hand at the unique profession in 1978 when she saw a sketch from a case one night while watching the news. “I turned to my husband and said, “Those are terrible. I could do so much better.” Her attorney husband replied, “Go ahead.”

Although she could offer a “photographic memory” and speed — “I’m incredibly fast,” Edwards says — she had no direct experience. So all she could show to prove her skills was her fashion illustration portfolio. Although the first news station told her to stick to fashion, determined, she went to the next station, “I said please give me a chance.” Her first case? The now famous Lee Marvin “palimony” case. “It catapulted my career.”

lindsey lohan trial Copyright Mona Shafer Edwards
It’s not every day your drawing goes viral, but when cameras aren’t allowed in the courtroom, your drawing of Lindsay Lohan (famously wearing Christian Louboutin shoes) becomes the one every media outlet shares. | Copyright Mona Shafer Edwards

Like Edwards, Williams is also a trained fashion illustrator. She was encouraged by a post-grad professor to try out the profession. “I was able to get a likeness, and I was fast,” she says. Her big break was a result of a recommendation from the still highly regarded L.A.-based courtroom artist Bill Robles (he and Edwards are L.A’s leading courtroom sketch artists). His 1970s sketch of Charles Manson lunging at a judge is one of the 20th-century’s most iconic courtroom arts illustrations.

Capturing the key moments and the key people of the case is William’s goal. “I want to give the viewer a sense of place, of being there, experiencing what I have drawn.”

Rihanna in court Copyright Mona Shafer Edwards
There’s a lot of pressure when capturing someone as well-known and fashionable as Rihanna in court. Just ask the artist who drew Taylor Swift. People dispensed swift Twitter justice when fans balked at Swift’s likeness. | Copyright Mona Shafer Edwards

Tools of the Trade: Digital Isn’t Always an Option

Although courtroom sketch artists share a need for speed, a nose for news, and exceptional drawing skills, each has their own style, approach, and preferred set of tools.

Carried in her large messenger bag, Edwards works with Razor Point 2 Pilot Pens and alcohol-based markers on vellum paper. “I come in and do a count — 1, 2, 3 — and take a breath. I look around, “ she says, describing her process. “I never sketch anything first. I have no erasers. I look around and put my pen down and that’s it. [The sketch] is already done mentally, it’s already finished.” Then, in the courtroom, in the hall, or outside she lays in the color. “I move the marker around with my finger to blend the different colors.” The colored sketch is then photographed by her using her iPhone or by the TV station and sent off into the world. “By the time I finish to the time it’s shot, it’s seconds. It’s incredibly fast. There is no time for anything. That’s why it has to be right the first time. We have tight deadlines. Everything is on the clock. It’s always rushed.”

OJ Simpson courtroom sketch Copyright Mona Shafer Edwards
When you’re drawing OJ Simpson, pressure is high to get it done ultra fast. Hundreds of news outlets are waiting. | Copyright Mona Shafer Edwards

Focusing on the key people in the case and their family members, Edwards describes her particular style as very fluid. “It has a more emotional quality than just depicting what’s going on.”

Williams, who carries her brush pen, colored pencils, and oil pastels in a sturdy LL Bean canvas bag and her paper in a large lightweight portfolio, tries to prepare herself before the proceedings, if time allows, by drawing “many small studies of the main subjects. That is how I learn about a subject’s face and expressions, “ she says. This process allows her to get a better sense of how the subject look and moves, “so I can ­­–­ hopefully – get a good drawing. There is no reset button, and many times we have limited time to get one shot at the defendant. For example, last time [Mexican drug lord, Joaquin] El Chapo [Guzman] was in court, the entire hearing took less than fifteen minutes. So I want to make the best use of the time as possible.”

My goal is to do justice to whatever I am there for. My fear is always that I won’t be able to get it. — Mona Shafer Edwards

Williams describes her style (which in contrast to Edwards’ style includes the surrounding environment to provide a sense of context) as “direct line drawing, reportorial. I draw what I see.” She has recently purchased a Samsung Galaxy Tab A with S pen, which she has been experimenting with outside of work along with the Autodesk SketchBook app. “It is surprisingly like a regular drawing tool, and I am very pleased with the results so far, “ she says. “It will take some practice to speed up the drawings, but so far I am pleased with the ability to draw on a tablet. “ She admits, though, that in the particular context of the courtroom, there might be some issues likes the tablet’s size. “I could do one nice portrait, but to draw an entire courtroom scene could me a challenge,” she says. “Plus, since we primarily work in federal courts, due to the ban on cameras in federal courts, I doubt tablets will ever be allowed. Electronic devices are not allowed in many federal courts due to cameras within the devices.”

Elizabeth tries out digital drawing using SketchBook from a Paris cafe. | Elizabeth Williams

Edwards on the other hand — “I am totally 20th-century,” she says — is sticking with pen and paper. No matter what tools they choose to use, these courtroom sketch artists and their colleagues take their job seriously. “I never take for granted I am there to do something serious; I am there to tell the story,” says Edwards. “My goal is to do justice to whatever I am there for. My fear is always that I won’t be able to get it.”