How do you become a (Dutch) courtroom sketch artist?

And nine other frequently asked questions.

Renée van den Kerkhof sitting in the court of Den Bosch with a tablet.
Photo by Joost Dijkman

It is of course a profession that not many people know about, while many people see your work: as a courtroom sketch artist you often get many similar questions. Here are ten FAQs at a glance, with my answers. Elements may of course be different for some of my colleagues. And note; I work in the Netherlands, I am Dutch, so the Dutch law and practice applies.

1. How do you become a courtroom sketch artist?
2. Why is it allowed to draw but not to photograph?
3. How long will you spend on a drawing?
4. Do you work for the court? Or how do you get a job?
5. What about colleagues?
6. Do you also hear everything?
7. Do you draw by hand or digitally? How would you describe your style?
8. How has the corona crisis affected your work?
9. How much does it earn?
10. What do you take with you to court?

1. How do you become a courtroom sketch artist?
There is no special training or educational programme for it. Suppose you run a university programme about a field that only a handful of people in the Netherlands can make their profit in. Who is the teacher then? How is that training profitable? Many fellow draftsmen have also attended the art academy (such as me, St. Joost in Breda). You mainly learn in the field.

The judiciary (in Dutch; de Rechtspraak) is quite a world on its own. You will have to have (or grow) a lot of patience if you want to work in it. It has its own rules and language, traditions. You can develop yourself artistically in the way you want, which suits your style or type of work. There is very little censureship, but of course not all styles are loved equally by the media. But there is not a ready-made degree in Courtroom Artistry.

The first barrier is finding your first commission, a customer who allows you to go out on their behalf. I was able to make portfolio work because the court in Breda held Open Monument Day and organised fake hearings where I was allowed to draw. That did help me. It was a fictional setting, but still with people in robes, in courtroom settings. I sat where the artist would normally sit. I made portfolio work that showed what I could do, at that time. Quite funny that some visitors thought I was already working as a courtroom artist. Based on that work (which I blogged about), a journalist called me.

It is not an easy industry that you can get into quickly. Precisely because there is not much work, the media landscape is quickly saturated, and the Netherlands is only a small country. So above all it’s about being able to draw well, being able and willing to improve yourself, and having a genuine interest in our court system, otherwise you will soon get bored.

Sidenote: I would love to be invited to work in other countries as well, so send out a request through info (at) neetje (dot) nl if you work fore international media.

The profession of a courtroom artist is not a protected profession, such as that of a dentist. But you have to be part of the press. You must therefore come on behalf of a medium or you must have a press card yourself. I am a member of the NVJ (Dutch Association of Journalists). So that the court can check that I’m really press. If you are going to draw at a hearing, you must comply with the Press Directive (“de Persrichtlijn”). These are rules drawn up by the judiciary (which covers all courts). That you do not just put the address details of the suspect online and that you respect victims, that you know how to behave in court. So you don’t necessarily have a certificate, but you have to act like a professional.

One of the first courtroom sketches I made, during fake hearings

2. Why is it allowed to draw but not to photograph?

Note; these rules differ per country. For example, in Belgium it is allowed to photograph the defendant, unless there is a request not to. And in the United Kingdom, sketching during a trial is considered a “contempt of Court”.

Photography is generally prohibited in Dutch courts. The privacy of defendants can be compromised. As an artist you must also be aware of the impact of your drawings, given that they contribute to how the case is perceived. Someone has not yet been convicted; this person is only a suspect , a defendant when he appears in court. Incidentally, one or two cameras are present, and if they are, they are only aimed at the judges and officers (sometimes lawyers). The suspect is not in the picture and if his voice is recorded, it is often distorted.

People want to form their own picture of such a case. As a courtroom artist you are a visual journalist and you give a sincere impression of how things went, how someone behaved. Can you also imagine that you, as a defendant (and yes, anybody can have to appear before the law), are stressed for several months, waiting for the hearing? And that you sit in such a room, and want to be able to honestly declare what you want to declare, and that you know that all cameras are pointed at you? It is way less intrusive if an artist is silently drawing somewhere in the room.

That it is allowed to draw is stated in the aforementioned Press Directive. The fact that the drawings of colleague Petra Urban are quite lifelike led to a court decision in September 2017, which is nice to mention in this context. A lawyer objected; he felt that his client should not be signed by Petra. Note; this lawyer has a drawing by Petra as his profile picture on Twitter. But the judge said that it is difficult for the court to rule that only bad drawings can be made. You don’t want to cross the border with censorship in my view.

It takes longer to make a drawing than to make a photo. An artist can be wrong. It is different when you see an impression as a drawing of a business, than when you cross a person in flesh and blood on the streets.

Drawing in American courtrooms started because taking photos was too much of a nuisance (because of the technology at the time). And even though some cases are streamed live there, there still remains a demand for the craft of courtroom art. I do notice myself that there is a difference between attitudes among certain lawyers and defendants, when there is a large audience in the room, or when only a few people are present. Just a little bit more grandeur, just a little more show. I hope the Dutch courts don’t move in that direction. Although I hope to be able to travel through America one more time and visit all kinds of courts there.

3. How long will you spend on a drawing?

Usually I draw as long as the hearing lasts; I only start as soon as I am sitting in the room. However, how long a hearing lasts varies a lot. Sometimes it is a preliminary one, completed in twenty minutes, and sometimes several days are scheduled in a row. I once had a hearing where two different clients wanted a drawing of the defence, so I also wanted to make two variations of it. But the hearing lasted only 25 minutes. So as long as we were in that room, I paid close attention and tried to sketch and write everything down, and then I spent a little longer on rendering, adding colour and details. On average I take 3 to 4 hours for an OK drawing from the first sketch until I deliver it to the editors. If there is less time, for example, I only draw the suspect, and if possible, with their lawyer. If there is more time, I try to paint a broader picture with the judges, officers, room, or what else stands out. And sometimes I discuss with the journalist about what they are going to write, so that text and image work well together (for example, what kind of detail I emphasise).

In addition, I also regularly have to deal with travel time. I live in Dordrecht so I’m at the courts in Rotterdam, Dordrecht and Breda in no time. The rest takes a bit longer; I can easily spend two or three hours on travel time in a day. Sometimes I finish the drawing on the train, traveling home.

Courtroom sketch.
Courtroom sketch of Gökmen T. who shot several people in a Dutch tram in Utrecht.

4. Do you work for the court? Or how do you get a job?

A lot of people think that I am an employee of the court, but that is not the case. Most artists are self-employed. You are hired per drawing job. A newspaper or tv programme pays you for the use/license of your drawing. My customer is the media company behind that paper or programme. The court only facilitates the location, where you can draw. And I work at different courts.

I can also upload my (non-exclusive or archive) drawings to the image library of ANP (biggest Dutch press bureau) and media can purchase a license there if they want to use the image. So I don’t work for the court unless the court specifically hires me for something (which is an exception).

As a court artist you mainly work on behalf of the media. The newspaper or television program will ask in advance if you are available. You will then receive a briefing with the information of the case such as the subject, what time it starts. Sometimes that briefing is not until just before the hearing. But in order to be able to give you a job, your client must know that you are a courtroom artist, that you can make whatever they need. Many media work with one specific artist; that determines their style.

In the beginning I did send portfolios to editors, but when I got an answer, it was often a rejection. Most of the time I just didn’t hear anythin back. It turned out to be much more useful for me to get to know more journalists during court days. People see what kind of work I can do, right there on the spot. With a case you only have a limited time, so the newspaper does not have the choice or liberty to ask someone else to join, if they don’t like your work, because then the case is already over. Hiring a courtroom sketch artist is different from just buying a pan. I mainly ensure that people can find my work and that I show how I work.

5. What about (Dutch) colleagues?

I am one of about ten people in the Netherlands who fulltime/parttime make courtroom sketch; Petra Urban and Aloys Oosterwijk are the people who make most of them. Felix Guérain has also been working in the field for a long time. Adrien Stanziani, for example, is a colleague who started at about the same time as I did, and Annet Zuurveen recently took a step back due to her health. Should fellow Dordrecht resident Jan Hensema read this; Hi! I have never spoken to you, out of all colleagues, haha.

The nestor of the craft, Chris Roodbeen, passed away in 2017, and last year Hans Veen passed away. I do respect seniority myself. Seniority means that you respect each other in the field, and if Aloys and Petra are there, I also grant them a good place in the room.

During bigger cases, you see each other. Aloys has also sometimes given me feedback, that I should look at the person longer and less at my drawing, for example. And that I drew the heads quite elongated — apparently that was how I saw them, and I needed eye surgery (hello astigmatism). Petra has also given me some feedback and technical tips. I spent a lot of time with Adrien, as we form the “youngsters” together (at the moment I’m writing this, we’re both 29 years old).

Courtroom sketch. Left are his attorneys, in the middle you see the moping defendant, and in the back there is the public prosecutor.
Good example of my current paint-like style.

6. Do you also hear everything?

Yes. The people who read this and also draw themselves may recognise this: I was sometimes told in high school that I had to pay attention. I was drawing, so my teachers assumed I asn’t listening. No. Because I draw, keep my hands busy, I can narrow my hearing. It actually helps for focus.

Since visualising is my work, and as an illustrator I often depict things that don’t exist yet, one of my strengths is to be able to envision things in my mind. So when a victim statement or a survivor statement is read, yes, that movie starts playing in my head, including all the details. That’s usually not very pleasant to endure. Hearings are sometimes quite exciting but also stressing. Not always fun, but always interesting, this line of work. But if I would ever sit there completely numb, I don’t below there anymore.

I don’t want to let my own judgment influence what I draw. It’s not my place to draw somebody more guilty then they are. Of course I cannot guarantee 100% that something may not play a part unconsciously, and I do not assume that I am drawing neutrally. After all, everything is a choice; composition, what to draw and what not to draw, what attitude, what moment. But I try to evaluate my choices honestly to give an impression of the hearing that, in my opinion, is as sincere as possible. I am also very happy that I am not a judge.

7. Do you draw by hand or digitally? How would you describe your style?

Yes, I draw by hand on an iPad. First, I drew on paper for a long time. Petra was the first courtroom artist in the Netherlands to switch to digital work. Because I didn’t want to give the impression that I was going to copy her, I was a bit reluctant to switch at first. But a lot of different things are actually also possible within the digital world. So now I am mainly developing my own way.

A misunderstanding is that digital drawing is much easier, or that the tablet does the work for you. When working digitally, you still put all the stripes down yourself, you colour blobs and bits yourself. It’s only much more efficient if you can CNTRL-Z, work in layers, and email your drawing directly to the editors and don’t have to go home first to scan it. In terms of tactile experience, of course, it does not match the texture of the paper and the smell of the paint or smelling eraser.

Currently I describe my courtroom drawing style as a realistic impression, and I set up my works in a painterly way. So I use a digital brush that looks like paint, I work with light and shadows, not so much with contours and lines, which I did before.

In principle, I mainly focus on the atmosphere of the session, what is happening. Body postures and expressions. Sometimes something substantive also comes into the picture. For example, I had made a drawing of the Anne Faber case (defendant’s name; Michael P.) and during the hearing a map was put on an easel, to show the area where it all happened. Something like that will appear in my drawing. I was at a case that was about a group that occupied a pigsty in Boxtel. The screens showed videos of pigs, and those were made during the occupation. I have drawn a reference to these tapes in the screens, because it is characteristic of the case.

Two digital experiments that I would like to mention briefly: I did a few exercises in 360-degree court drawing and taking notes during cases, which turned the time-lapse into a kind of short report. Both experiments provide a broader picture of a hearing than a “normal” court drawing.

Notes during the Jos B. case. You can also see the screens and other measurements that are in effect since the COVID 19-outbreak.

8. How has the corona crisis affected your work?

When everything started in March 2020, I made the choice to hit the road a little less. That seemed sensible to me. There was still a lot of uncertainty about what could and could happen and as a solopreneur I had to make sure that I would still have enough income. I took on a number of other types of jobs that I could do from my workplace or from home. And yes, then I also had to reject enquiries. Since this year (2021) I have been on the road to court cases more often.

In court, there are a number of measures that apply, which I understand, but which result in less space in the room. So the tables are further apart, there are screens between them, that sort of thing. Then the parties that the case is about (victims, next of kin, defence, etc.) naturally have priority seating. In the end you will have less space for the press and often no or hardly any audience. Or you have to follow it from another room and a video connection that does not always work well. Sometimes there is only room for 1 or 2 artists if you are too late with registering, there is simply no place left.

The court wants to have as few people as possible in one place at the same time, which is logical given the risk of contamination. I also had to attend an hearing via Skype once, but that was not really doable. The connection showed like 800 pixels and had no sound — but hey that drawing has been published nevertheless. It’s not ideal, because I prefer to be able to determine my own perspective. I looked on the back of the suspect so I didn’t really see the expressions and you don’t really get to know what is happening in the room, you don’t feel the atmosphere.

In my drawings you do see screens, occasionally extra wipes, cleaning supplies, people wearing face masks, etc. — I draw all of them in, because it does paint a picture of the judiciary in Corona time.

Renée van den Kerkhof in a pink dress holding a big framed drawing with a defendant in a red suit and his attorney, in the court of The Hague.
Me holding a framed print of a courtroom sketch.

9. How much does it earn?

Working as a courtroom sketch artist does not mean permanent employment, you don’t earn salary. I am a self-employed person and I charge my clients per drawing. I don’t do it full time myself, I also work as an editorial and commercial illustrator. As a solopreneur you have to deal with the media, determine your own prices, and do your own acquisition. Being able to negotiate is therefore important. Often it is not a price per hour but a price per drawing and the license associated with it.

The more often a drawing is used, the more you earn. Some drawings can be sold multiple times, so that’s nice too. Some clients demand exclusivity. For example, one drawing yields 200 euros and the other 500. And sometimes you agree on travel allowance with clients. I am also allowed to upload work that is not (anymore) exclusively for a specific client to the ANP image library, and in this way various media can purchase a license for the reuse of those drawings.

For example, I sometimes hit the road, attend hearings on my own initiative, then I register myself as press, without working directly on an assignment. Then it can of course turn out that I am gone all day and that no one buys that drawing. That is the entrepreneurial risk that you run if you do not have an assignment for that specific case. The more I go out, the more drawings I have made, the greater the chance that there is interest in drawings from my archive.

If a drawing is published a lot, I receive additional income from Pictoright. Pictoright collects all kinds of collective funds that go to makers via that system. Suppose you illustrate a book and that is often borrowed from the library, then you get something extra for it. As a maker, my copyright is what I earn money with. The more access I give people to my drawings, the more I earn from them. So if a particular television program uses my drawing in multiple broadcasts, that adds up nicely. One of my drawings from a large case has been published more than 20 times.

What I hadn’t thought of beforehand (I was only thinking about media); sometimes I also sell a drawing to a lawyer, prosecutor or judge. Which is additional income. Then I will provide a nice print, possibly framed. It will hang in their office as a reminder of the case.

I’ve also been asked to make ‘fake’ courtroom sketches for the Netflix series Undercover, which has been a blast!

10. What do you take with you to court?

I always bring my drawing equipment; the tablet and the stylus pen. I also always bring a charger, a power bank and my phone. Sometimes the wifi in court is so bad that I have to be able to send a file via my own hotspot. If case the technology fails me, I always have paper and pens with me, because you never know. I could spill water over the tablet at some point and I would still want to be able to make that drawing.

Those go into a bag and in that bag I always have some type of snack or lunch (a sandwich, snack tomatoes or some fruit), because hearings can take quite some time. Sometimes those are long days. In the court itself, you’ll have to be satisfied with a hot drink machine and some candy bars or cookies. You usually can’t get a really decent meal there. So it’s always handy to have something to eat with you. And a tip: the hot beverages (coffee, tea, chocolate milk) are usually free at the courts; important advantage.

I often use public transport, so I also bring my public transport card. Courts are often easily accessible by public transport. You can’t demand that someone should appear before the courtt and that the person should then go to the middle of nowhere, that’s different to reach. Furthermore, I prefer not to take a lot with me, because it all has to go through the scanner at the security.

Usually I dress nicely; you don’t want to sit there looking like a happy clown. You can just dress the way you are, but you won’t be taken very seriously if you arrive there in something very casual. I am there to embody my profession, so I want to appear neat. Imagine there is a crying mother behind me and I am sitting there in my very cheerful colourful childish clothes; not a good or respectful match. It would feel like I don’t belong there.

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