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A sketch artist’s day at the Court

Since April, the blog has been fortunate to be able to feature artwork by veteran Supreme Court sketch artist Art Lien in its coverage of oral arguments and opinion announcements.  In this post, Art describes a typical day at the Court and his strategy for putting together a finished product.

SCOTUS sketch: line in rain (Art Lien)

My day at the Court begins early. Arriving a couple hours before I have to take my seat in the courtroom allows me time to warm up with a quick sketch or two of whatever strikes me as interesting. It may be lawyers lining up to be admitted to the bar, or Justice Kagan getting her morning coffee in the cafeteria. In the next few weeks I’ll certainly be sketching the early morning line outside the building waiting for the big end-of-term decisions.

At 9:30 I take my seat in one of the alcoves to the left of the bench. From there I’ll see Clerk Suter chatting with the lawyers I sketched earlier who are now seated; I’ll see other lawyers who are standing and greeting each other; I’ll see visitors looking up at the friezes, pointing out Moses and Hammurabi. All great subjects for a sketch. But very often I’ll use this time, especially if it’s a big story, to get a head start on the “wideshot” –  the scene-setting sketch of the entire bench, columns, lawyers, press, and public. At this stage all I can do is the architecture, but as the reporters begin to file in and take their seats on the benches in front of me I add them to the wide shot. Every bit helps, because I won’t have time to pay attention to those details once things get under way.

If there are opinions I’ll usually sketch a partial bench highlighting the Justice delivering the opinion. And of course, if a Justice reads a dissent from the bench I’ll capture that as well.

The real work is covering arguments. In addition to the wide shot, or in a really big case the “wide wide shot,” I need sketches of each lawyer, sketches of certain Justices, and maybe also some partial bench shots depicting the Justices’ body language.

I used to concentrate on the lawyer at the lectern, trying to capture him or her as best I could. To do that, the best seat is in the first alcove closest to the bench. The problem with that seating, though, is that part of the bench is obstructed and you can barely see Justices Breyer, Thomas, and Scalia. Lately — and I do mean lately, I’m a very slow learner — I’ve come to realize that it’s the questions from the Justices that make the story. As a result I’ve moved to the further alcove — which, while limiting my view of the arguing attorney to three-quarters of the back of his or her head except when the questions come from the extreme left side of the bench, allows me to see all of the Justices.

Another thing I’ve learned is how much it helps to have at least a passing familiarity with the case that is going to be argued. Often I would be asked how the arguments went and I had no idea, because I was too busy drawing. I still have a hard time following most arguments, but a little reading ahead of time has helped immensely.

After the arguments are over, I still have a good two or three hours’ worth of work ahead of me to finish the drawings, adding color and making sure I got Justice Sotomayor’s silver bangles or the right jabot on Justice Ginsburg. All of the male Justices get red ties all the time; that’s artistic license.

Recommended Citation: Art Lien, A sketch artist’s day at the Court, SCOTUSblog (Jun. 5, 2013, 3:30 PM),