Tag Archives: sketching

Courtroom Artists

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.


One of Wendy Black’s courtroom sketches

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.

No sketching at the NGV

I have sketched in many galleries around the world, even in the crowded Uffizi gallery in Florence with tour groups moving around and the gallery attendants calling out “No flash! No flash!” I have taken copious notes in major art galleries and photographs (without a flash of course). There have never been any problems, it has been common practice for centuries which is why the no sketching, no note taking policy at the National Gallery of Victoria (NGV) is an aberration.

“Sketching and photography are not permitted in this exhibition (no pens or pencils will be permitted inside the exhibition).

Kirsty from the NGV email enquires claims that: “During the exhibition Art Deco 1910-1939, sketching and note taking is not permitted as this condition is set as a requirement of loan from lending institutions for the exhibition. This is to ensure the safety of the delicate artworks on view and to allow visitors a better experience of the exhibition.” In 2004 Corrie Perkin, NGV head of communications, claimed that the no sketching policy for The Impressionists was to obey strict security conditions of private or institutional lenders.

I am skeptical about Kirsty’s claim for a number of reasons (I am skeptical of the claims made by any person who doesn’t give their full name). I can’t prove that the V&A set the policy because the V&A press office will not return my emails however the V&A’s own policy raises doubts. “You may take photographs or use a video camera in the galleries, but not with a tripod, monopod or supplementary video lighting. Flash photography is permitted.”

The idea that this is to ensure the safety of an artwork is absurd because it claims that the standard practice of V&A and other major museums does not ensure the safety of the artwork. And the ‘better experience of the exhibition’ is debatable and not a real reason that the V&A would give for not permitting note taking. There is so little fear that sketching will damage the art that many public art gallery around the world promote sketching. The J.Paul Getty Museum in LA has a special sketching gallery where it provides paper, pencils, charcoal and art sticks to the visitors. This is not unique when I visited the Courtauld Gallery in 2000 there was small still life exhibit with drawing table and materials.

In December 2004 there were protests by Free Pencil Movement against the NGV’s policy. And the NGV responded claiming special provisions for blockbuster exhibitions and over zealous and confused gallery attendants. However, the repeat of this policy for the “exhibition organized by the Victoria and Albert Museum: Art Deco 1910 -1939” begins to strain my imagination.

It is hard to find other no sketching policies, most galleries permit sketching on a maximum size of an A3 sketch book with no charcoal or chalks, no sprays or fixatives and an enclosed pencil sharpener. This is because the original purpose of a public art gallery was an educational resource for younger artists and designers. The V&A collection was assembled “to inspire those who shape contemporary design” and “as resource for learning and creativity”. The purpose of an exhibition where sketching and note taking are not permitted is strictly infotainment (and as promotion for the catalogue and other merchandise).

The earliest example of a no sketching policy that I could find was in 1867 when Mr William Colliss, an amateur artist was not allowed to sketch Warwick Castle. Mr Colliss drew a sketch of the incident from memory. I did find that at the Cleveland Museum of Art sketching was also not permitted for temporary exhibitions. This lends some credibility to the NGV’s claims although it doesn’t reduce my skepticism of the reasons behind it and my dislike of the policy.

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