Sketch artists at the impeachment trial are capturing scenes that the cameras can’t


On Tuesday, that out-of-camera view included Sen. James E. Risch (R-Idaho) seemingly falling asleep for about 15 minutes during the session.

Veteran court artist Art Lien quickly went to work.

“I was looking exactly for something like that,” says Lien, who had “no doubt” Risch was dozing. (A Risch spokesman told the Wall Street Journal the senator was just listening intently.) “As I was drawing, his head was sinking lower and lower. I wished I’d started even sooner.”

Because there are no photos of the scene, Lien’s image was what made the rounds on social media.

Lien, based in Baltimore, began working for NBC News in 1980, and is covering the trial for the New York Times. He’s one of three court artists inside the chamber, along with Virginia-based artist Bill Hennessy, whose clients include CBS and CNN, and Dana Verkouteren, drawing for the Associated Press.

Returning to the chamber takes Lien and Hennessy back to when they covered President Bill Clinton’s impeachment trial.

Neither artist had been inside the Senate chamber since then. “It was striking to be back in that building,” Hennessy says, “and recognize that I’d done a drawing from this angle.”

“I felt like it was my youth,” adds Hennessy, 62, who studied at the Rhode Island School of Design and American University. “There is a little bit of reminiscing going on. I’m actually sitting in the same seat I did back then.”

The modern era of courtroom sketch artistry launched in the 1960s. Howard Brodie — the “patron saint” of their profession, Lien says — famously covered the 1964 sentencing of Lee Harvey Oswald murderer Jack Ruby. Lien and Hennessy have often been witnesses to history in more conventional criminal and civil trials, yet Lien says he hopes that his many sketches from inside the Supreme Court — sometimes featured on SCOTUSblog — will stand as his legacy.

Lien, 68, graduated from the Maryland Institute College of Art in the 1970s and had only worked one trial before Brodie “got me my first job for CBS,” pencil in hand inside the Supreme Court and Senate, he says.

Today, much has changed. “It is a lot more difficult to move around,” Lien says, and there’s “more press.”

Lien says he brings just pens and paper into the chamber; he’s not even allowed to bring his small watercolor set past the detectors. “Maybe it’s the metal,” Lien says with a laugh.

From Lien and Hennessy’s distant vantage point in the press section of the balcony, on the Republican side, it’s challenging to see the politicians closely. “I’m looking at the top of their heads,” Lien says of many of the senators. He uses a monocular to get a magnified view.

“The most fun I’ve had is drawing the press, partly because I’m close,” Lien says. “Although Bernie Sanders is fun to draw because of his body language — hunched over. Everyone knows him. I just wish he would stand up and start talking.”

Verkouteren sits across the way from the others, on the Democrats’ side. Because space is tight, she’s had to leave her usual rag paper — measuring nearly 2 by 3 feet — at home. Instead, she sets up with smaller paper, brush pen, water-based markers and colored pencils — applying watercolor only after she leaves the room. She also totes erasable FriXion pens for the occasion, because the ability to erase lines while drawing live on deadline, she says, suits “the way I think and see.”

Verkouteren takes a nonpartisan approach to the trial — “It’s about trying to get that right moment and be fair and never taking sides,” she says — and she finds that Rep. Adam B. Schiff (D-Calif.) and White House counsel Pat Cipollone are similarly appealing to render. As physical performers, she says, they “are very present and very alive.”

Verkouteren, 60, studied at the Art Center College of Design in Pasadena, Calif., and began sketching legal proceedings in the early 1980s, including at the Supreme Court. And one lesson she has learned is to focus on the truth revealed apart from what is being said.

“I enjoy what comes across in faces and body language,” says Verkouteren, who is based in Maryland’s Cabin John area just outside Washington. She seeks the candid aspects of movement, because “the body doesn’t lie.”

In the Senate chamber this week, other members of the press pause to gawk at the sketch artists. They’re a curiosity — a symbol of a pre-digital time. “It’s a completely Luddite field,” says New York-based court artist Elizabeth Williams, co-author of “The Illustrated Courtroom: 50 Years of Court Art.”

Courtroom art enjoyed a heyday a half-century ago, but some industry experts say it is a fading art form. “It’s not like it used to be,” says Williams, whose live-sketch subjects include Trump and Paul Manafort. “One reason is because of all the cameras in courtrooms now. And news budgets have contracted [as] people are getting news from many sources.”

Yet these seasoned artists now have a certain cachet. Decades ago, “we were looked down upon,” Lien says. “Now, it’s like we’re something special. Senate reporters are constantly coming up to us, taking pictures with their cellphones.

“They say: ‘You’re doing that without Photoshop or anything!’ ”

Yet unless a sketch goes viral, people beyond the courthouse tend to overlook the role of the artist.

“Americans rarely stop to think about the talent and energy that goes into that three-second pan [across the sketches] on the television evening news, or the image that accompanies the newspaper article,” says Sara Duke, who in 2017 curated the Library of Congress exhibit “Drawing Justice.” “But there is a certain amount of genius that goes into rendering a likeness quickly. These images, whether we realize it or not, stay with us — it’s how we remember our collective legal past.”

And as this impeachment trial unfolds, it is Lien, Hennessy and Verkouteren who serve as our artistic witnesses to history.

This week, Lien sketched Sen. Richard Burr (R-N.C.), showing how the politician wears stylish dress shoes but no socks. Burr made the sketch his profile image on Twitter.

That led to another occasional source of revenue for a court artist: A Burr aide, Lien says, “has asked to buy the original.”


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