If you’ve seen a news report on a federal court case, you’ve undoubtedly seen courtroom sketches.
These artistic depictions of what happens in the courtroom are necessary because courts legally cannot allow cameras. Contrary to popular belief, that isn’t just courtroom tradition; federal rules state that courts “must not permit the taking of photographs in the courtroom during judicial proceedings or the broadcasting of judicial proceedings from the courtroom.”
Still, newspapers have to report on major trials, and they need images to run with their stories. That’s where sketch artists come in.
We spoke to Jeff Kandyba, an accomplished courtroom artist with 30 years of experience. Kandyba works out of Denver, where he recently covered the Taylor Swift groping trial. That brought him some unwanted notoriety when his first sketch of Swift went viral.
Social media users roundly criticized Kandyba’s depiction of the singer as unrealistic, but as Kandyba tells Urbo, that wasn’t exactly fair. Courtroom artists have strange, difficult jobs, but they’re crucial members of the media—provided, of course, that they don’t get kicked out of the courtrooms they’re covering.
Here are a few surprising revelations about life in this unusual profession.
1. You bring binoculars to work.
Part of the reason that the first Swift sketch didn’t look much like Swift: Kandyba couldn’t see her. In fact, in large trials, artists often have trouble seeing key figures like attorneys, defendants, and even the judge.
“They’re like postage stamps,” Kandyba says. Artists can be 30-40 feet away from their subjects, which makes work difficult.
You can’t sketch what you can’t see, obviously, so many artists bring binoculars. Courts generally allow that, provided that the artists don’t become distractions. When Kandyba knows that he’ll be sketching someone notable—Taylor Swift, for instance—he’ll practice before heading to court. Sometimes, that’s not enough.
“When you’re doing this type of thing, you don’t know how much time you’re going to have,” Kandyba says of his work on the Taylor Swift case. “It’s nice to think that you’ll have time to sit down for a few hours and do a fine sketch, but she might change her seat, she might turn her back on you, someone could sit down in front of you and completely block your view. You try to work really quickly.”
2. You work on extreme deadlines.
Courtroom artists have to submit their work immediately in order to meet publishing deadlines. Sometimes, that means leaving the courtroom on a break, showing your sketches to a bevy of television cameras, and trying to make your way back in before the court is back in session.
To do the job well, you need to work quickly and commit to your work. Kandyba will often start working with a pencil so that he can erase mistakes, but when he starts adding details, he can’t easily change course.
“Once you’re satisfied that you’ve got a resemblance…you’ve got to start building up colors and getting into inks and everything. By the time you get there, there’s no going back.”
3. It’s not an easy field to break into.
Kandyba became Denver’s go-to courtroom artist by accident. He was opening his own graphic design company in 1986 when he got his first call; a fellow artist had taken a courtroom gig from a local media outlet, but had to turn it down. Kandyba agreed to take on the job but didn’t anticipate any sort of long-term employment:
I figured that this would be nothing more than a cool story to tell the grandkids.
Gradually, the work became more steady, and he frequently worked beside two other sketch artists. Kandyba tells us that he didn’t think the gigs would last. Surely, the laws would change, and courtrooms would eventually allow photographers. That never happened, but eventually, his fellow sketch artists hung up their pencils to pursue other careers.
Kandyba stayed with it, although he also takes on plenty of other graphic design jobs. He credits his career’s longevity to his dependability.
“I don’t mean to disparage anyone else who does this, but it seems to be more availability than ability,” Kandyba says.
That’s not to say that it’s easy to get steady work. Successful courtroom artists have to be incredibly dependable, and they often receive calls to cover cases less than 24 hours before they have to be in the courtroom. Most courts only allow a single artist, operating on a first-come, first-serve basis, which can be brutal in larger markets. Show up later than your competitors, and you’re not working that day.
4. You can get kicked out of a courtroom for pretty much any reason.
“The judges are like kings; they can do whatever they want,” Kandyba tells us. If a sketch artist is a distraction, he might be kicked out of court—and his reputation will take a hit as a result.
Once, when a judge banned all cameras from a county court case, a station tried to circumvent the rule by sending a sketch artist instead. The judge noticed Kandyba sketching and stopped proceedings. A sheriff’s deputy came over and led him out of the courtroom, then asked to see any drawings he’d made.
“She took the drawing and tore it up in front of me,” Kandyba says. “I probably should have made more of a fuss about it…[but] when a deputy tells you to do something in a courtroom, you do it. There are hills to die on, but that’s not one of them.”
In the Swift case, Kandyba received some stern feedback from marshalls for sketching the jury. Court artists generally don’t show the jury at all, but Kandyba wanted a large sketch that would show the entire courtroom and give a feel for the space.
“I kind of roughed in the jury, and apparently I got too close to reality. They were basically just happy faces.”
When he received angry emails from court officials, Kandyba immediately obliterated the jury from his sketches. The court didn’t revoke his credentials. If they’d turned him away, he would have missed out on valuable work, and media outlets wouldn’t have anything to run.
5. Great courtroom sketch artists know how to capture the moment.
Courtroom sketch artists are essentially photojournalists. They’re tasked with creating compelling pieces that show the reality of the situation, which means paying close attention to the smallest details.
It’s a story that’s unfolding.
He looks for little moments that bring some humanity to the trial. For example, he remembers sketching the hearing of a 14-year-old defendant apprehended at the scene of a violent crime.
“He was still a kid,” Kandyba says. “There was this moment where they were leading him into the courtroom, with two guards, in shackles, and he looked up, and there was this unguarded moment where he sort of smiled. It was so subtle, Mona Lisa’s smile…then they sat him down. The instant was gone in a flash, and I had to draw it from memory, this brief little smile that still made him look like a kid.”
In another notable case, the subject’s actions weren’t so subtle. Kandyba was tasked with sketching a violent criminal, and he started working when the man came into the courtroom.
“I was about eight feet away from him. He’s a big old guy, he’s got leg irons, he’s got shackles…and his hair is just so disheveled, like he hasn’t dragged a comb through it in 10 years.”
Out of nowhere, the man started screaming.
“It was a circus. He was completely nuts. I’ve never seen or had to deal with someone quite as crazy as this guy was,” Kandyba says. “He’d shout down his own attorney right in the middle of an argument.”
As the defendant began arguing with his own attorney, Kandyba crumpled up the sketch he’d been working on. Everything had changed, and his more subdued sketch no longer showed the situation.
6. People will always criticize your work.
During our interview, Kandyba seemed very laid back, even when we discussed the negative reaction to his Swift drawings. He tells us that he’s learned to accept criticism as part of the job. He says:
Drawing from a photograph might be good practice—you can learn some of the idiosyncrasies of a person’s face that way—but when you get in front of [people], you’re drawing from life, you’re drawing from different angles. And even if it isn’t the best effort you’ve ever done, it’s going to be shown on national TV in 20 minutes. It’s pretty daunting. That kind of stuff would probably keep a lot of artists away from this.
When Kandyba’s drawing went viral, The Times of London interviewed him, then ran a story with the headline: “Could you draw Taylor Swift? The courtroom artist who says it’s harder than it looks.”
That headline seems like a mischaracterization, since most artists wouldn’t need to work noiselessly in a crowded courtroom using binoculars, not knowing whether they had 20 minutes or 2 hours to complete their attempts.
Still, Kandyba isn’t upset by criticism, although he’s surprised by the amount of attention he’s received.
“This was kind of a nothing case, really,” he says, adding that he considers Swift to be an admirable person. After his first day at court, he was surprised to be inundated with requests from major media publications.
What he didn’t anticipate was the backlash. When his first sketch hit social media, publications ran stories questioning whether Kandyba hated Swift. Some even jokingly suggested that he was a Katy Perry fan. Neither is true, but Kandyba, ahem, shakes it off.
“I’m sure I probably have heard her music, but I wouldn’t be able to name a single tune,” he says. “Katy Perry either, for that matter.”