Q&A: Sketching the Supreme Court
May 2016 - Q&A with Arthur Lien
Interview by Christine Mollenauer
Sketch artist Arthur Lien, who currently works for NBC and Scotusblog, has been covering the U.S. Supreme Court since 1977. Trial caught up with him as he was preparing a sketch on another tight deadline. Here are his thoughts about his craft and what it’s like to have a front-row seat to history.
Q How did you get your start in this field?
A I had just graduated from art school in 1977 and was tarring roofs and painting houses when I heard they were looking for a court artist to cover the mail fraud and racketeering trial in Baltimore of then-Maryland Gov. Marvin Mandel. I tried out and got the job. Soon after, I contacted the D.C. networks about similar work in Washington. An artist who used to work for CBS took me under his wing and brought me to the Supreme Court and the Senate. I was totally overwhelmed!
Q I imagine your deadlines are tight. How does that affect your creative process?
A Deadlines are very tight. The joke is, before anything actually happens, the producer leans over and asks, “Do you have anything we can shoot yet?” The typical turnaround time? Minutes.
Q When there is a new justice or attorney, is there an adjustment period in learning to sketch that person?
A It takes a while to get used to a new justice, yes. With the attorneys, there’s more variety, but it’s very often the same people over and over because they all have to be members of the Supreme Court Bar. Still, during the argument, I’m often looking through and around other people to see the person I’m sketching. Sometimes I only see the person up close after an argument is over and I think, “So that’s what they look like!”
Q What is the hardest thing to capture in a sketch?
A A likeness. And I don’t mean facial features alone—it’s hard to capture body language and mannerisms and the “action” taking place in the courtroom.
Q Do you ever get feedback from the justices, or from the attorneys and parties?
A I occasionally get feedback from the justices, although I don’t have that much contact with them. Justice William Brennan, who was on the bench from 1956 to 1990, once told me I made him look like a leprechaun. I gave Justice John Paul Stevens a sketch when he retired in 2010. He liked it and didn’t criticize it at all. I usually get positive feedback from the attorneys and parties as well.
Q Are some justices easier to sketch than others?
A There are some I find hard to sketch. Chief Justice John Roberts comes to mind. Justice Stephen Breyer, too, but I don’t know why I have a hard time with him. He has great body language.
The worst—and I think every court artist would agree—was Justice Sandra Day O’Connor, because she’s very attractive. The hardest thing to draw is an attractive woman or a handsome man. Take, for example, the recent controversy over Tom Brady’s likeness during the Deflategate hearings. Court artist Jane Rosenberg’s sketch made him look like “Lurch.” It got tweeted and went viral; people were making memes out of it. Funny, but not for her!
Q What was the most exciting case or moment you’ve covered at the Supreme Court?
A The Supreme Court is not necessarily an exciting place. You know what’s coming. In terms of my role, the big, newsworthy cases are not much different from the others. But, it is exciting for me to work on a tight deadline, and I like the variety.
Q What was the oddest or most surprising thing that happened during an oral argument?
A In the last few years, a few people have stood up in Court yelling. It used to be a rare occurrence. The most memorable time was in 1983 when Larry Flynt was arrested after he screamed obscenities at the Court during oral arguments in a case involving Hustler magazine.
When you hear a commotion like that, you’re lucky if you can catch a glimpse of the person before the police remove him or her from the courtroom.
Q Do you often end up with a different kind of sketch than you initially planned?
A My sketches are always evolving during the argument. If certain questions come up during the process that change the focus, I might change the focus of the drawing. I work with pencil, so I can erase midstream quickly and easily.
Q During an argument, do you find yourself concentrating on your subjects or on the substance of the argument?
A It’s hard to concentrate on what’s being said while I’m working. It’s a right brain/left brain kind of thing. So I just try to get a general sense of the subject. I read about the cases ahead of time, and that always helps to understand the issues involved. Some people can listen intently while they sketch, but I don’t think I have that skill.
Q Are there other sketch artists covering the Court? Or are you the main person?
A There are others, but I’m probably the only one who covers the Court regularly.
Q You’ve said that courtroom sketching is a dying art. Can you elaborate?
A Cameras aren’t coming to the Supreme Court anytime soon, but I do think the trend is going that way. Eventually, I think there will probably be cameras in every court.
Besides that, I think the whole attitude toward courtroom art has shifted. People consider it archaic. And then there’s the issue of budgets. News organizations don’t want to pay for sketches anymore. But I will keep sketching the Court as long as I can.
Q What does a sketch contribute to a news piece that a photograph cannot?
A Sketching is a wonderful storytelling medium. An illustration adds narrative; it emphasizes certain elements. A good illustrator can tell a story very well—much better than a camera could.