What is a Courtroom Artist?

Mary McMahon

A courtroom artist is an artist who depicts scenes from the courtroom. Many courtrooms do not allow cameras, and the only way to convey what is happening in court to the outside world is through courtroom sketches and reports from journalists who are seated inside the courtroom. The tradition of barring cameras from courtrooms is slowly being eroded in many regions of the world, although some high courts have retained the practice of barring cameras, arguing that it interferes with the trial and the dignity of the court. Wider acceptance of cameras in court has made pursuing a career as a courtroom artist tough in some areas.

Courtroom artists draw the things they witness in the courtroom.
Courtroom artists draw the things they witness in the courtroom.

Some courtroom artists only work on courtroom sketches, but this is rare. Many have larger art careers, and may work in a variety of styles and media in addition to drawing in the courtroom. It is common for a courtroom artist to be a freelancer, selling work to whichever news agency offers the best price, although some full time courtroom artists are employed by specific news agencies or networks.

After working inside of courtrooms for years, some courtoom artists may become very knowledgeable about the practice of law.
After working inside of courtrooms for years, some courtoom artists may become very knowledgeable about the practice of law.

Many people are familiar with courtroom sketches. These sketches are drawn quickly and are meant to create a vivid impression of the scene in the court. The courtroom artist captures facial expressions, gestures, styles, and moods in their work, and the work is used to illustrate reports on courtroom doings. Historically, quick sketches were used as a basis for etchings and engravings for more formal records, although this practice is not widely continued today. Courtrooms are one of the few places in which artists, instead of cameras, are still used to provide a permanent record of events.

A typical courtroom artist has completed art school, and may have received special training in courtroom art. Some have backgrounds in caricature, which familiarizes them with working quickly and under pressure. Many spend hours practicing in the courtroom while in art school, attending trials which are open to the public to start to learn the tricks of the trade and to become comfortable in the courtroom.

Courtroom artists can work in pastel, pencil, pen, and many other media. They generally must use media which are not disruptive; setting up a massive canvas for an oil painting in the court, for example, would not be permitted. Many courtroom artists develop a very distinct style which may be recognizable to people who follow the court beat, while others may stick with a generally accepted and familiar look and feel.

This type of work can be very interesting for an artist. It offers opportunities to explore portraiture with new people every day, and to develop a variety of drawing skills. Along the way, some courtroom artists become very knowledgeable about the practice of law, and may apply their knowledge to their work.

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Discussion Comments


My uncle used to be a courtroom artist, but he stopped getting calls for his services a few years ago. A new judge decided to allow cameras into the civil and criminal courtrooms, so there was no need for a sketch artist anymore. He told me he didn't really mind the dismissal, since he didn't really enjoy doing that kind of work. Courtrooms could be very tense places for an artist to work, and he had to sit through some very sad cases.


When I was a kid, I would see courtroom art on the evening news all the time. Now I rarely see it, unless the news channel creates courtroom animations on its own. It seems like putting up crude pictures of witnesses isn't all that necessary these days. Just about every trial I see on TV now has a camera in the courtroom.

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