Art Lien arrives early to Courtroom 9 inside the U.S. District Court for the District of Columbia.
It's a Monday in September, and a hearing has been scheduled in the case of accused Russian spy Maria Butina.
From his seat in the empty jury box, Lien begins to draw: He works on the wide shot first, sketching the judge's bench, bracketed by an American flag and District Court seal. The stenographer's seat, with its classic green-shaded desk lamp beside it, marks the foreground.
Once Butina enters and the proceedings begin, he starts to sketch her sitting hunched over the edge of the defense table with big black-framed glasses obscuring her face. He outlines her portrait in mechanical pencil, one of several weighing down his front pocket. Then he reaches for his palette, a 6-inch-long tray of colors, into which he dips his watercolor brush, swirling together a blend of reds and yellows to capture Butina's vibrant scarlet hair.
Lately, Lien's schedule has been full of cases with a particular theme: allegations of Russian interference in American politics that are roiling the Trump presidency. Maria Butina, Paul Manafort, George Papadopoulos – Lien (who is usually one of a few artists at the big hearings) has drawn them all, alongside their lawyers and the prosecution, analyzing the defendants' pained expressions through a monocular telescope he hooks onto his glasses.
Depending on the case, Lien explains, the business of courtroom drawing can be agonizing – but it can also give you a front-row seat (or close enough) to history. He's drawn the cold stares of mass murderers like Timothy McVeigh and Dylann Roof, the somber sentencings of Washington villains like Jack Abramoff and Scooter Libby, the nine black-robed justices perched high on their bench in the Supreme Court, and many more.
“I missed out on Watergate as a young man, so this is fascinating,” Lien says of today's political scandals.
He started as a courtroom sketch artist in 1976, when he got wind that a Baltimore TV station was looking for someone to draw the fraud trial of then-Maryland Gov. Marvin Mandel. After graduating with a degree in printmaking and painting from the Maryland Institute College of Art that year, he found that his employment opportunities were limited to painting houses, along with tarring their roofs and laying sod. (“Really, what do you do with an art degree?” he told me.) So he decided to bring his skills to the courtroom.
Getting his start
These were heady days for sketch artists. The Senate didn't allow cameras, and in the House, they were permitted only under special circumstances; Lien would eventually get gigs drawing both chambers. The vast majority of federal and state courthouses, too, had not yet allowed videotaping or photography. So sketching was the only way for newspapers and TV networks to get visuals of a trial.
Lien, however, got off to a rough start at Mandel's trial. “I had been practicing this really nice illustration technique with an opaque watercolor on a nonabsorbent paper,” he recalls. “But it was no good in the courtroom, because when I tilted my paper, everything ran. It was a mess. And I got fired the first day.”
But he asked for a second chance, switched to a more absorbent paper and reclaimed the job. After that trial, he got a job sketching for CBS, finding himself under the tutelage of Howard Brodie, who had been a combat artist in World War II and still occupies the No. 1 spot on Wikipedia's “Notable American courtroom artists” listing.
The pace of courtroom sketching is very different from that of other types of art. Lien usually needs to crank out at least three or four pieces by the end of an hourlong hearing. The TV networks that air them almost always require a wide shot: a scene-setter with the judge and a full view of the courtroom. Then there are individual portraits of the major players: the prosecutor, the defense lawyer and, most important, the defendant. And if it's a full-on trial, Lien usually needs to draw each witness who takes the stand. He remembers a day during the McVeigh trial when the prosecution called in more than 30 witnesses, one right after another, and Lien drew them all.
Trials like that one can be challenging, Lien says, and not just because of wrist pain. His job requires him to analyze and depict people at what very well could be the lowest moment of their life, whether it's defendants facing decades in prison or victims facing their tormentor in open court.
Lien remembers listening to one woman describe the impromptu amputation of her leg after the Oklahoma City bombing. “That kind of testimony – the weekend wasn't long enough to recover from it,” he says. “I started feeling normal around Sunday night and then had to start over again on Monday.”
Cameras come in
In 1980, Lien was offered a contract to draw for NBC, where he's mostly remained since (he also does Supreme Court sketches for SCOTUSblog). Around this time, many state courtrooms began lifting restrictions on cameras in the courtroom, and he noticed the number of fellow sketch artists at each hearing begin to drop off.
Photography is still banned in the Supreme Court and most federal courts, but Lien says there's plenty of other ways for the media to get visuals – mug shots, perp walks, computer graphics – all of which have “made what we do sort of archaic.”
Lien says he's not a purist when it comes to photography in the courtroom – “The camera really does put you there” – but he believes sketches can do things cameras can't.
“What we do is closer to what a writer would be doing in a courtroom,” he says. “We're telling a story, we're condensing things and deciding what to focus on.”
There isn't much room for artistic interpretation in his line of work, but by using certain colors and shades, a court artist can set a tone or depict a moment with more nuance than a photo or video. In a certain sense, a drawing, he says, can be more truthful than a camera.
“I'm not very good at philosophizing, but I do think there's something to be said about how the camera can lie,” Lien explains. “We think it's real, but everything is edited. With a drawing, you know it's edited. In a way, the drawing can be more honest.”