Courtroom sketch

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A courtroom sketch of an accused person flanked by two attorneys, drawn in about eight minutes.

A courtroom sketch is an artistic depiction of the proceedings in a court of law. In many jurisdictions, cameras are not allowed in courtrooms in order to prevent distractions and preserve privacy. This requires news media to rely on sketch artists for illustrations of the proceedings.

Creating courtroom sketches[edit]

Courtroom sketch artists attend judicial proceedings as members of the public. In the United Kingdom[1] [2] and Hong Kong SAR,[3] courtroom artists are not permitted to actually sketch proceedings while in court, so they must create their sketches from memory after leaving the courtroom.

Courtroom artists can quickly capture a moment on paper and then sell their work to media outlets who would otherwise be denied a visual record of the trial. Pastels are typically used, but artists also use pencils, charcoal or other materials suitable for sketching. An established freelance artist working in a busy court system can work up to 45 hours per week. They may be paid per sketch, or on a per diem commission. Sketches may be sold to television stations, newswire services, or newspapers, or even to lawyers or judges who may want to keep a sketch as a memento of a particular trial.[4] Courtroom sketches may also be purchased for institutional archives, if they depict a trial of historic importance. The entire set of courtroom sketches related to the Lindy Chamberlain trial were purchased by the National Museum of Australia from the Australian Broadcasting Corporation (ABC).[5]

A courtroom sketch artist must work quickly, particularly during arraignment hearings where a witness may appear in court for only a few minutes. A television-ready sketch can be produced in that time, and viewed on television immediately after a court proceeding is finished.[6]


An 1889 courtroom sketch from the trial of ex-Alderman Thomas Cleary, which was published in the New York Times.

Courtroom sketches in the United States date back as far as the Salem Witch Trials during the 17th century. Courtroom sketch artists were present for the trial of abolitionist John Brown. By the mid-19th century, there were well-known court artists and printmakers such as George Caleb Bingham and David G. Blyth. These sketches were reproduced as engravings in the print publications of the era, long before photography was a practical option for courtroom news coverage.

Mass-publication of news photographs became more widespread in the 1950s, but courts were reluctant to allow either cameras or sketch artists in courtrooms since they were viewed as a distraction. Artist Ida Libby Dengrove protested these restrictions, and gradually courtrooms began allowing sketch artists to work during trials whilst seated in the public gallery.[7] Cameras were first permitted in American courtrooms in the mid-1980s.[8] Since then, demand for courtroom sketches has declined, and are used when cameras are banned from specific trials, such as the trial of Bradley Manning.

See also[edit]


  1. ^ "Contempt of Court". Crown Prosecution Service. 
  2. ^ Dammann, Guy (14 November 2006). "A sketchy future for courtroom artists". The Guardian (London). Retrieved 14 May 2010. 
  3. ^ Chapter 228, Section 7 – Summary Offences Ordinance
  4. ^ "As courtroom sketch artist, she's the people's witness". New York Daily News. Retrieved 7 September 2011. 
  5. ^ "Courtroom drawings sketch Chamberlain's history". Australian Broadcasting Corporation. Retrieved 7 September 2011. 
  6. ^ Sakai, Mike. "Courtroom sketch artist in Loughner case says eyes tell the story". East Valley Tribune. Retrieved 7 September 2011. 
  7. ^ Robert H. Giles, Robert W. Snyder (1999). Covering the courts: free press, fair trials & journalistic performance. Transaction Publishers. ISBN 978-0-7658-0462-4. 
  8. ^ Sakai, Mike. "Courtroom sketch artist in Loughner case says eyes tell the story". East Valley Tribune. Retrieved 7 September 2011. 

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