Courtroom sketch artists go back to nineteenth century in an on again, off again relationship with printing technology and the courts permitting cameras. In Australia cameras are generally banned from the courts, so in order to have a picture of a defendant appearing in a trial courtroom sketch artists are employed by the media.
Melbourne painter and silk screen artist, Wendy Black has worked as a courtroom sketch artist for Network Ten and other media outlets. I interviewed her about this intersection of art and crime.
Black explained the job. “It is a bit like extras work, you stand around and wait and wait for hours and then you have three minutes of intense action. It is the same with this. You are just given one name and there could be thirty people going through the court that day and you just have to listen for that name. So you are looking very intently at everyone. When that name comes up you have to intensely draw for three minutes and remember what colour eyes, ties and shirts if you haven’t drawn enough in three minutes.”
There are a small band of court artists in Melbourne, about half a dozen courtroom sketch artists working on a freelance basis. Black started working for newspapers and moved to television when in 2005 she rang Network Ten to tell them she had just drawn the accused in a high profile murder at the time, Joe Korp, the husband of the women in the boot story.
In the UK courtroom sketch artists cannot draw in court but must work from memory and notes to produce their drawings outside the courtroom. In Australia and the USA artists are permitted to sketch in the courtroom. There is no restriction on the media that courtroom sketch artists can use. Black had a lot of time to explore different media. “I got very fond of coloured pencil, I must admit.” But there is a limit to what you can bring into court because of security. “I really had to change from Stanley knifes for sharpening very fine points on pencils to going to the dreaded pencil sharpener which I couldn’t bare but now I’ve sort of come back to liking it.”
After the sketches have gone through the media cycle, the artist can keep them or sell them. People and institutions collect these sketches; the National Museum of Australia that has 182 courtroom drawings by Veronica O’Leary of the 1982 trial of Lindy and Michael Chamberlain.
In 2007 Black had an exhibition of her sketches in Langs Lane, part of the Laneway Commission “Three Minute Attention Span”. The exhibition involved her drawing in the Magistrates court for sixteen weeks everyday.
She prepared for this with lots of life drawing. To be a courtroom artist you need to stay in practice with life drawing to keeping your hand in. For budding courtroom sketch artists Black recommends the life drawing sessions where you do the one minute, three minute, five minute drawings before you get into a longer pose.
For more on courtroom artists read my book The Picasso Ransom and other stories about art and crime in Australia.