Updated: Jan 21, 2022
Naomi interviews a court sketch artist, Charles Vincent. Learn more about his work, what he does, how he does it and how he came to do it! This post is updated to include Charles' court sketch work here.
I understand you are a court sketch artist. Can you elaborate for others about what that job entails?
In Canada cameras and are not allowed in the courtroom. A journalist can take notes on the proceedings, but a photographer can’t enter and take pictures. However, like taking notes, sketching the proceedings is allowed. I believe drawing is considered less distracting, and there is some concern that the participants will become concerned as much with the cameras and viewing public as the proceedings. The court sketches I get assigned are usually stories of major interest, I don’t get sent to the bulk of what happens in courthouses. When I get an assignment, I take a sketchbook and coloured pencils into the courtroom and depict what is happening. I have developed a little kit that goes easily through security and doesn’t require a lot of inspection.
I understand, being a lawyer, there are limitations about how court proceedings are recorded/broadcasted, which is often an access to justice issue. Can you share how your work contributes to access to justice in helping others have a glimpse into the courtroom?
I try to draw the courtroom in a way that reveals as much as possible about what is going on in the trial, and how it is conducted. A drawing of the accused is important, but the drawings I think work best also show the judge and some of the other people present, such as the defense or prosecutors, and the court employees. I try to show not just what is going on, but to capture the feeling of it as well. There are some things I can’t draw, such as a jury or anything or anyone under a publication ban.
With COVID-19, many courtrooms and proceedings are now virtual. How has your work changed since COVID-19?
During COVID-19 I have been drawing at home from a video feed. I draw it the same way as I would in person. I find it more difficult to document the entire event, as everyone participating is alone in separate rooms, and often I only have time to make a sketch of the accused. It is usually them looking face on, and in court the accused is usually from the side, which demonstrates the interaction more easily. I find the resulting images quite different. With a quick hearing in court in person, I have been in court enough times that I can draw the room before the accused arrives to where they will sit or stand, then draw them into it in a couple of minutes while they make their plea. This gives a more complete picture.
Can you explain to others some of the important aspects of your job? For example, how important is it to be neutral when composing a sketch/work?
Being neutral and objective is the starting point and stays at the core of the entire sketch process. When I am drawing matters that are before the court with unproven charges, my job is to show the community what the proceedings look like. I don’t believe the courts should be conviction factories, and I don’t want to convict anyone by sketch either. I am there to help the writers document the legal process, so the public knows how it works. In some cases, the reporters and editors can’t find any image of the accused until I am in court drawing it. If I am going to make the only image of this person that the community will see, I work to make it as true and unbiased as I can.
How did you become a court sketch artist?
In 2003, when I was working in the ad-building department at The London Free Press, the editorial department had an upcoming case to cover where they needed court artwork. When a case is complex there are a lot of variables, and key moments can come up with little notice. The assigning editors came to the ad department to see if any of the graphic artists would be available to try their hand at the sketch. I am good at drawing likenesses and can work quickly, so I said I would like to. I didn’t have any journalist training, so I relied and continue to rely heavily on the writers assigned to each story to help me know what is allowed and expected in court reporting. I don’t know of a court artist course. It can be daunting to be covering important stories for Page A1 immediately without first covering a science fair or something less weighty. But I turned out to have the peculiar combination of skills required, and I have been helping to cover stories for The London Free Press throughout Southwestern Ontario since.
Anything else you like to add?
Watching cases in court I have learned how central The Crown is to Canada. I used to think of it as being more ceremonial. For example, the prosecutor is The Crown Attorney, not the Parliament nor Province Attorney. I try to reflect this in the drawings. Also, I have gained a lot of respect for the Defense Attorney. It is important that everyone has access to an advocate. I have found that people’s reaction to me being a court artist has changed enormously in the last few years. It used to get a lot of reaction as an unwelcome topic. I wouldn’t mention it without being asked. In the last few years, I think the true-crime boom has made it a point of fascination for more people, and it has become the part of my art output that generates the most interest. I have had to figure out how I want to talk about it as a result. I try to bring what I hope is a helpful understanding of the court process in Ontario and Canada to those conversations.
Charles Vincent is an artist and graphic artist from London, Ontario. He has a Special Art Certificate from BealArt at Beal Secondary School in London. His work first appeared in punk zines and comics in 1982. He has worked extensively in page-layout and ad design, as well as courtroom sketch art. He has had five solo exhibitions and has work in the permanent collection of The Art Gallery of Ontario. He is currently working on an extended drawing and writing piece titled The Wages, An Illustrated Story.