Jane Rosenberg has to choose carefully whom she tells what to:
When I go to a party, if I tell people I'm a painter, they say, 'That's nice' and then they walk away; but if I tell them I'm a courtroom artist, they say 'Wow' and want to talk to me all night. It's so different and interesting to them. But galleries aren't so impressed, in fact, they don't know what to make of courtroom art (it's not quite fine art, it's not quite illustration), so I only tell them about my paintings.
The moral may be that a day job allows artists to hold onto their dreams as well as keep conversations from lagging.
The New York City artist's work comes in two types: She is an outdoor plein-air artist, regularly taking her paint box and French easel out onto the streets of Manhattan to create mostly street-level cityscapes, crowded with people, buildings and color. As a courtroom artist, Rosenberg is the one who is cramped, battling with other courtroom artists to get a seat with a good view of the defendants, lawyers, judges and jurors, making quick pastel sketches on her lap and making sure that nothing touches the paper because that will smudge the picture. If she is lucky, the court proceeding will last long enough for her to get a good look; if it is a five-minute arraignment, well, let's hope she gets it right the first time.
You probably have seen her work. Rosenberg has been on hand for the trials of Bernie Madoff, Brooke Astor's son Anthony Marshall, the Woody Allen-Mia Farrow custody case, Martha Stewart, Boy George, John Gotti, Kennedy scion Michael Skakel and lots of others over a 30-plus-year career.
You see her work, but then you don't really get to see it, because everything flashes by so quickly. We see the television anchor introducing the story, photographs from somewhere of one or another of the court defendants, the TV reporter saying something, an interviewee offering some brief commentary, a fleeting glance at the courtroom image (cameras generally aren't permitted in federal courts), cut back to the reporter, a quick look again at the courtroom picture and back to the anchor.
Christine Cornell, another New York-based pastel-using courtroom artist, noted that artists are seated on a first-come, first-served basis. Sometimes, she only gets the second row, which makes it difficult to see around those in the front row when those artists are standing.
When a hearing has ended, both Cornell and Rosenberg and all the other courtroom artists in attendance rush outside where photographers were waiting to take pictures of their sketches that could be transmitted quickly back to the news rooms. Sometimes, they can lean the drawings up against a wall, or someone brings an easel. On occasion, things get a bit fancier. For the 2005 child molestation trial of Michael Jackson, a booth with lighting was set up outside the courthouse for Sacramento, California artist Vicki Behringer's watercolor scenes of the trial. Undoubtedly, you saw those pictures, too. You take in the visual information, not giving a thought to what it must be like to hold a palette in your left hand, painting with your right and praying that no one jostles you, causing the bottle of water in your bag to spill. "The look of courtroom art in New York is pastel," Behringer said. "The look in California is watercolor."
She noted that "I really haven't had many accidents. Pastels are messy, and the pastel dusts make me cough. Watercolors, on the other hand, dry quickly, and you can apply large swaths of color."
For courtroom artists, the work is sporadic (a celebrity in trouble with the law helps), and is most lucrative when a number of different news outlets call on a single artist. Bill Robles, a courtroom artist in Los Angeles who has covered the trials of Michael Jackson, Patty Hearst, Rodney King and Timothy McVeigh, noted that he is paid between $500 and $650 per day (the more network affiliates use the story the more he receives) per client. He covered the U.S. government's lawsuit against Arizona's new immigration law for eight different news outlets, which he called "a very good day's work."
These artists retain their drawings and paintings, which they sometimes sell to the lawyers and judges depicted, and the prices can range from $500 to $1,500. (Christine Cornell said that one lawyer hired her just to draw him making a closing argument in some otherwise non-newsworthy case.) Many judges around the country still are reluctant to allow cameras into their courtrooms -- Elana Kagan, in her Supreme Court confirmation hearing, expressed her view that the High Court's activities should be televised, a view that others on the bench do not share -- so it appears that courtroom artists will find work for the foreseeable future.